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Modi Took Complete Control of Kashmir 2 Years Ago—and Got Away With It

When India revoked the disputed valley’s autonomous status, it sparked fears of diplomatic—even nuclear—war. It didn’t need to worry.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
An Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldier carries a rocket launcher as he takes up position with colleagues at an outpost along a fence at the India-Pakistan border in R.S Pora southwest of Jammu on Oct. 2, 2016.
An Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldier carries a rocket launcher as he takes up position with colleagues at an outpost along a fence at the India-Pakistan border in R.S Pora southwest of Jammu on Oct. 2, 2016. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

Two years after the Indian parliament revoked the autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government seems to have succeeded at bringing the region under its direct authority. When India first made its move, it startled the world and led to fears of a rise in violence in the valley and a potential open conflict with Pakistan, the nuclear-armed state that claims sovereignty over Kashmir in its entirety. New Delhi also worried about the diplomatic fallout with the West as Pakistan joined China in pressuring India through the United Nations Security Council.

But there has neither been a war with Pakistan nor eruption of large-scale violence in the valley. Even condemnation from the international community has been cautiously worded and limited. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited India last week, Kashmir was not a major issue even if spoken about behind closed doors. For the first time in a long time there is peace on the de facto border between India and Pakistan, cross-border infiltration has paused, and militancy has dipped. According to the latest data from the Indian government, the number of terrorist incidents in Jammu and Kashmir fell by 59 percent last year, compared to the year before, and by 32 percent up to June this year compared to the same period last year.

Indian tourists, meanwhile, flocked to the lakes and breezy mountains as the country grappled with one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus. They were blocked from traveling abroad and spurred to look to Kashmir. While tourism witnessed intermittent spikes even before the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, the crowds this year illustrated a return to a sort of business—although not political—normalcy. It reflected growing faith among Indian tourists that Kashmir was calm and they needn’t fear for their safety while vacationing.

Two years after the Indian parliament revoked the autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government seems to have succeeded at bringing the region under its direct authority. When India first made its move, it startled the world and led to fears of a rise in violence in the valley and a potential open conflict with Pakistan, the nuclear-armed state that claims sovereignty over Kashmir in its entirety. New Delhi also worried about the diplomatic fallout with the West as Pakistan joined China in pressuring India through the United Nations Security Council.

But there has neither been a war with Pakistan nor eruption of large-scale violence in the valley. Even condemnation from the international community has been cautiously worded and limited. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited India last week, Kashmir was not a major issue even if spoken about behind closed doors. For the first time in a long time there is peace on the de facto border between India and Pakistan, cross-border infiltration has paused, and militancy has dipped. According to the latest data from the Indian government, the number of terrorist incidents in Jammu and Kashmir fell by 59 percent last year, compared to the year before, and by 32 percent up to June this year compared to the same period last year.

Indian tourists, meanwhile, flocked to the lakes and breezy mountains as the country grappled with one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus. They were blocked from traveling abroad and spurred to look to Kashmir. While tourism witnessed intermittent spikes even before the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, the crowds this year illustrated a return to a sort of business—although not political—normalcy. It reflected growing faith among Indian tourists that Kashmir was calm and they needn’t fear for their safety while vacationing.

The above successes have not been good news for average Kashmiris, who feel politically disenfranchised and silenced into acquiescence. Most Kashmiris welcomed dividends of peace but not being forced to capitulate to New Delhi’s wishes.

On Aug. 5, 2019, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not only abrogated Article 370, under which the local legislature could make its own laws except in finance, defense, foreign affairs, and communications, but it also revoked Article 35A, which empowered the legislative assembly to define permanent residents and offer them special privileges such as exclusive land rights. Modi also split the three different divisions of the erstwhile state—Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh—into two union territories. While a state has its own government and powers to pass laws, union territories are much smaller administrative units ruled by an appointee of the central government.

The changes were welcomed by Indians who saw Kashmir as an integral part of India and felt it must be given equal, not special, treatment. The Kashmiris, however, saw it as a threat to change the demographics of the valley from Muslim-majority to non-Kashmiri and non-Muslim. They saw it as an infringement on their rights that granted them a degree of political autonomy pending final resolution to the dispute over whether they remain with India, join Pakistan, or stay independent of both.

The Indian government deployed a slew of suppressive measures to deter Kashmiris from expressing their will publicly. It deployed masses of troops, intimidated tens of journalists, and carried out large-scale arrests of Kashmiri politicians, secessionists, and anyone with enough clout to mobilize popular discontent into a sustained agitation. While mainstream politicians were subsequently released, thousands of Kashmiris are still believed to be languishing in prisons inside Kashmir and across the country.

India has reportedly even refused to hand over bodies of dead militants, ostensibly to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. But such funerals in the past have turned into major processions that coalesced support for militancy and strengthened anti-India sentiment. To maintain calm in Kashmir was the Indian government’s priority.

“Our biggest challenge was to make sure violence didn’t erupt in the valley. If there were casualties we would have lost international support,” said a former Indian diplomat who engaged with the United States directly to secure support for India’s point of view. “Thankfully our containment efforts were successful.” India quietened the international community by refusing to allow protests that could have turned violent and made it harder for India to retain Western support. India also threw around its economic weight as a counterbalance to China, dangled investment opportunities in front of some countries, and threatened withdrawal of lucrative business contracts from the last two remonstrators, Turkey and Malaysia, which openly criticized India on Kashmir. “In the end, the U.S.’s support was most necessary, and they backed India because of larger geopolitical concerns re: China,” the former Indian diplomat added.

India succeeded in discouraging the disaffected, scared, and leaderless Kashmiris from holding mass protests, but in doing so it failed to live by its own democratic ideals. Kashmir’s mainstream pro-India politicians have since met with Modi. But they have been weakened and terrified to such an extent that they no longer expect a return of the region’s special status. They have challenged the constitutionality of abrogating Article 370 and 35A in India’s highest court, and yet few believe the verdict would be favorable. These political parties are so desperate that they are struggling to get statehood for Jammu and Kashmir, with the same and not more powers as granted to other Indian states or federal units.

“The government came down on us so hard that now we are pleading for statehood, neither special status nor political resolution or referendum,” said one of the leading politicians who was detained for seven months at Centaur Hotel in Srinagar—a luxury property turned into a makeshift prison for Kashmir’s political elite. He did not want to reveal his name, fearing he might be incarcerated again.

Under previous Indian governments, even the secessionists had relative freedom, but they have been made obsolete by the BJP. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Yasin Malik, and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq—the troika who ran the restive parts of the valley where even Kashmiri politicians dreaded to venture—are now defunct for all practical purposes. While Geelani is 91 years old and reportedly has dementia, Malik has been behind bars. Farooq is out there in Srinagar, but he is seen as a lightweight and under constant vigil of the Indian security forces.

While Kashmir’s politicians avoid taking on the central government directly, they have vociferously challenged the government’s development narrative. Tanvir Sadiq, a member of the National Conference political party whose founder backed the idea of a secular India as opposed to joining a theocratic Pakistan, was among those arrested by India’s security services in 2019. He said that the Modi government cannot show off tourism figures as a mark of the success of its policy. “We had tourists in 2015, too,” Sadiq said. “The Indian government told the Kashmiris that after the special status is abrogated they will have development, funds, jobs, everything. Two years down the line, has the life of an average Kashmiri improved? I don’t think so.”

Junaid Mattu, the mayor of Srinagar—the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir—hails from a Kashmiri political party seen to be close to the BJP. He said the era of violence was over. “The era of redrawing boundaries is long over, too,” Mattu said. “A Kashmiri does not get up in the morning and think of political aspirations alone but how to put bread on the table. I do think that the promise of development still needs to be fulfilled, but it is too soon to tell. We should give it more time.”

Big development projects have not yet arrived to make a comparatively huge commercial difference to the economic well-being of Kashmiris, and their political aspirations have been crushed as New Delhi dilly-dallies even on reinstating Kashmir’s statehood. Indian ministers have said that the government is waiting for normalcy to return, for an “appropriate time.”

But Kashmiri experts say the government cannot claim credit for reduced militancy and yet say it awaits normalcy. They say the delay is deliberate, to ensure that before next elections the legislature has been equally split into representatives of Muslim-dominated Kashmir and Hindu-dominated Jammu through delimiting constituencies, even though the number of seats is based on demographics and non-Muslims are in a minority.

India has undoubtedly defeated Pakistan in this bout of their prolonged and intractable conflict. Islamabad fumbled while New Delhi rallied quiet support from the Western world and even brought the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to temper Pakistan’s expectations. The UAE has acknowledged it played a role in getting the two rivals to agree to a cease-fire. Over the last two years it has also become clear that Indian diplomats have crushed Pakistan’s hopes of a U.N.-led plebiscite to settle the Kashmir dispute. But that does not mean India has eliminated all challenges.

Syed Akbaruddin, currently the dean of Kautilya School of Public Policy, was India’s ambassador at the U.N. in 2019 and recalled how most Western capitals supported India when China called for the abrogation of Article 370 to be raised at the Security Council. “Most of them said the matter does not belong here. For a long time, none of the world powers are keen to meddle in Kashmir, and no one backs Pakistan’s calls for the dispute to be resolved by the U.N.,” Akbaruddin said. “But what they did not know was that China was not a nonpartisan party. It was in fact leading the proceedings at the [council] because it laid claims over Ladakh.” China lost diplomatically at the Security Council but upped the ante militarily a year later by killing over a dozen Indian soldiers in Ladakh. The main threat to India emanated neither from Pakistan nor the militants, but from China. Galwan in Ladakh remains an active flashpoint.

Meanwhile, India is building the world’s largest rail bridge to connect Kashmir in the Himalayas to Kanyakumari on its southernmost tip. But Modi and his government are a long way off from reducing the distance between New Delhi and the Kashmiris. India’s promise of economic development is insufficient to win them over unless it comes with the freedoms offered in a democracy. The Modi government displayed masterly statecraft in its clampdown on the valley, but it also revealed its authoritarian streak.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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