Inside Kashmir’s Crisis—And What Happens Next
A scholar of Indian politics says Modi’s unilateral move to revoke the disputed territory’s status “suggests a willingness to flout basic norms of democracy.”
With his decision on Monday to revoke the historic autonomy of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi thrust the province into a new and uncertain future.
By revoking Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution, Modi’s government stripped the province of its relative legislative independence and placed the province under the direct rule of the central government in New Delhi.
The move—although widely telegraphed in Modi’s recent reelection campaign—is likely to cause unrest and represents a sea change in Indian policy toward a region beset by civil war. It could also further tensions with Pakistan, which has long sought to internationalize its dispute with India over Kashmir. To better understand this volatile situation, Foreign Policy spoke with Irfan Nooruddin, a scholar of Indian politics who is a professor at Georgetown University and directs the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, D.C.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: Why is the Indian government making this move now?
Irfan Nooruddin: The concern about Kashmir and in particular Article 370 and the special status of Kashmir has long been a talking point for the Indian right wing and in particular the Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters, who have often argued that Article 370 is an example of the appeasement of Indian Muslims and of the special considerations provided to them. This has been part of the platform and manifesto of the BJP and the family of Hindu right-wing organizations for decades.
The fact that the Modi government has come to power with a massive mandate was probably interpreted as a vindication of its muscular response to the terror attacks earlier this year and the subsequent airstrikes on the Pakistani town of Balakot and an alleged training camp there. So the government probably thinks that it has the remit to finally deliver on what a large part of its base has wanted for a very long time. And this is the time to do it, and to do it very quickly.
More cynically, one might argue that this is in response to the recent drumbeat of pretty bad economic news coming out of India and a muted, even disappointed response to the government’s first budget.
This is a good move to shift the narrative. It burnishes Mr. Modi’s strongman image and moves the conversation about an economic slowdown and problems with the budget off the front page. For the foreseeable future, the news cycle will be all about Kashmir.
FP: What role does the Kashmir question play in Modi’s political project and Hindu right-wing politics today?
IN: Accommodating and recognizing explicitly the special status of Kashmir was a very tangible symbol of India’s accommodation of religious difference and a real effort to make sure that Kashmiris felt incorporated and integrated within India by a recognition of the special circumstances under which Kashmir came to be part of India.
This flies in the face of the Modi project, which is to really reinvent India as an India that is Hindu. A special status for Kashmir violates that.
FP: Can you explain how the two articles of the Indian Constitution, articles 35A and 370, that are being done away with function?
IN: Article 35A allowed the Jammu and Kashmir legislature to decide who could be a resident of the state and therefore who received a particular set of special rights and privileges, particularly land-owning within the state. In a very broad sense, it controlled more explicitly than in any other state who would be allowed to be a resident in Kashmir.
Article 370 provided special status to the state and restricted the central government’s legislative powers to defense, foreign affairs, and communications.
Article 370 and 35A are two sides of the same coin. By giving Kashmir special status and by allowing the state legislature to delineate who got to be a permanent resident, the state had a lot more power.
Supporters of this would tell you that this might be true in theory but in practice the central government has a tremendous amount of power over the state, including much greater control of the budget and much greater control of revenues. But on paper it allowed the state to have greater autonomy vis-à-vis the center than would be true for any of the other states.
FP: Why has New Delhi blocked internet services in Kashmir?
IN: I would interpret it as a move to stifle, at least in the short term, any sort of expressions of dissent and unhappiness about this decision coming out of Kashmir.
The one group whose voices have not been heard at all in the last 48 hours have been those of the Kashmiri people or their elected representatives. And that’s because this is going to be an extremely unpopular decision in Kashmir, not just among those whose sympathies lie toward a more independent Kashmir but also among those who see themselves as fully part of the Indian union but for whom the special status of Kashmir is an important political principle.
What the communication ban does is nullify those voices. There’s no debate. There’s no legitimate voices representing the Kashmiri perspective being given a platform.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not Article 370 and 35A have been good for the Indian nation. But what shouldn’t be lost is that the ban on communications, cutting off access for the press, and the preemptive house arrest of legitimate political leaders of the major opposition parties flies in the face of standard democratic practice.
It’s very hard to imagine how such actions could be taken in any other democratic country without great consternation on the part of the judiciary. It suggests a willingness to flout basic norms of democracy in ways that are troubling for a government that has the kind of power and the kind of mandate that this government has. And if they’re willing to step over the line so egregiously, what happens next? What happens four years from now?
FP: What do you think are the parliamentary dynamics on this issue going forward?
IN: The opposition is already divided on this. Prominent opposition leaders that have typically been fairly anti-Modi have come out in support of the decision. The media’s going to be very, very pro-government, very gung-ho.
So I think it’s going to take a very brave set of actors to begin to voice their concerns about how this has played out and about the future of Kashmir.
For the opposition, I think the real question is: What role does the Indian National Congress party choose to play? Does it stick to its principles and argue in favor of Article 370 and the special status of Kashmir, knowing that this will likely play very poorly among Indian voters, particularly in a world of soundbites and a hypernationalistic media? Or does it fold and mute its opposition?
FP: Do you see other sources of opposition emerging to this move?
IN: What will be interesting is whether any states try to check what is happening at the center. There will be some states—in the northeast, some in the south—who are not part of the BJP fold who might be looking at this and saying this is a pretty terrifying precedent from a federalist perspective. If the union government can overnight strip a state of its state status and turn it into a union territory without so much as parliamentary debate, what does that mean for us?
FP: Let’s talk about that that longer-term question. There’s some who fear that the Modi government is trying to encourage the settlement of Hindus in Kashmir and change demographic conditions on the ground. What do the events of the past day tell you about those concerns?
IN: Part of the government’s and its supporters’ key talking points is the right of return of a group that is often referred to as “Kashmiri Pandits.” The Kashmiri Pandits are a group of Hindu residents of Kashmir that largely fled in the early 1990s, late 1980s when the violence in the Kashmir Valley reached a new level. The government was unable or unwilling to provide them the protections required so that they could live safely in the places that they had resided for generations. These people lost their land. They lost their homes. And this remains a scar for them.
And that has been very much adopted as a talking point among a lot of those people who would support today’s decision.
No serious political leader has ever suggested that these individuals should not have the full right of return. The question is whether the conditions on the ground would actually support them being able to come back safely.
But scrapping 35A will fuel concerns about whether this is an effort to change the texture of Kashmir, to allow people who weren’t part of the permanent resident class in Kashmir to buy land and come in. It allows an influx of people from other parts of India, presumably non-Muslims, to come and settle and that over time you will have a different complexion to the Kashmir valley.
FP: How do you see the Modi government’s move on Kashmir playing out toward Pakistan?
IN: This is not simply domestic policy. It’s domestic policy with very real foreign-policy implications. In the last 24 hours, the Modi government did not take any local Kashmiri politicians or civil society leaders, the press, into confidence. This may drive Kashmiris to be more sympathetic toward the separatists who have been waging war within their borders for the last 70 years and will embolden Pakistan to continue to provide arms and other support to the extremists that would fuel violence in the regions.
FP: What do you think is the short-term prospect for a flare-up in violence?
IN: Reasonably high. The Indian government has sent an estimated additional 25,000 troops to Kashmir, which is already one of the most militarized areas of the world.
The concern is that some will take this as an opportunity to play spoiler and attack troops, attack pilgrims. Extremist terrorists may attack vulnerable targets or attack troops as a way of ramping up tensions, forcing the Indian government to respond militarily and creating that spiral of violence that they benefit from.
The violence is not carried out by average Kashmiri citizens. The violence is carried out by extremists who are always looking for the right environment in which to cause violence.
The separatists will get a great boost. It gives them a talking point: We’ve been telling you for all this time that the Indian government doesn’t see you as one of them and doesn’t respect Kashmiri identity.
FP: How, if at all, is the Trump administration factoring into this crisis?
IN: The timing comes after President [Donald] Trump talked about the United States mediating in Kashmir and the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. Both of which, to put it mildly, annoyed Delhi significantly.
Early on, when Mr. Trump became president, there was real optimism in Delhi that he would be good for India, because he seemed to be taking a tough position vis-à-vis Pakistan. But he’s not been consistent on that.