India locks down millions in push for forceful integration of Kashmir

Kashmir’s longstanding autonomy has been revoked in a move by the Hindu nationalist government feared to be a ploy to force a change in the Muslim-majority demographics of the area.

India has incarcerated millions of inhabitants in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) region after the Hindu nationalist government, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unilaterally revoked the special constitutional status of the state on 5 August 2019. 

The forceful “integration” of the restive Himalayan region has revived fears among locals that Delhi is planning demographic changes in the style of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine. Authorities have stopped all means of communications including cellphone, internet and telecommunication services, throwing the state into an information black hole.

“J&K will truly become an integral part of India,” India’s Union Home Minister Amit Shah told Rajya Sabha, the Upper House of Indian Parliament, after it passed the bill on the abrogation of Article 370, a constitutional provision that gave autonomy to Kashmir and stopped Indians from buying land or property there. “Kashmir is an integral part of India. I want to make it absolutely clear that every single time we say Jammu and Kashmir, it includes Pak-Occupied Kashmir, including Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as Aksai Chin. Let there be no doubt over it,” Shah added.

Amid the communication embargo, an eerie calm prevails across the Kashmir region with the majority of the population still unaware of the constitutional changes imposed by Delhi. The state government has officially imposed section 144, which prohibits the assembly of people. Restrictions on the ground remain stringent and curfew-like. 

There have been reports of sporadic incidents of protest demonstrations from several areas of the capital city, Srinagar. Hundred of thousands of Indian workers and labourers are rushing to leave the state in buses fearing unrest. 

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“As per the order, there shall be no movement of public and all educational institutions shall also remain closed. There will be a complete bar on holding any kind of public meetings or rallies during the period of operation of this order,” state authorities announced late on 4 August.

As the rest of J&K state remains under a massive security cover, access to all other districts remains limited. Barring a few newspapers, most daily newsprints were unable to publish issues with local journalists denied access and mobility to different parts of the state.

Many educational institutions in the city of Srinagar have been taken over by paramilitary forces after students were asked to vacate the premises. Access and work at main hospitals remains crippled with ambulances unable to reach patients. Paramilitary forces guard every entry and exit point in and out of the city with police setting up concertina wires and barricades to block off key neighbourhoods of the city.

5 August 2019: Anti-India graffiti on the walls of Srinagar praises Kashmiri militant Burhan Muzaffar Wani. (Photographs by Haris Zargar)

Run up to shut down

Weeks before the announcement was made, the Indian government flooded the region with an additional 100 000 paramilitary troops, creating apprehension among locals that Delhi was planning to scrap the state’s autonomy. Citing security concerns, the authorities also issued directives to all tourists, students and Hindu pilgrims to vacate the region.

State governor Satya Pal Malik, India’s representative in the state, also insisted that the federal government had no plans to struck down Article 370 or Article 35A, which gives special privileges to “permanent residents” of the state. The central government, however, remained tight-lipped on why it had called in additional military forces and asked tourists and pilgrims to leave.

On the eve of the government’s announcement in the Indian Parliament, state authorities  even arrested most of the top pro-India leaders, including former heads of J&K state Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti. Almost all regional parties termed the abrogation of the special status “aggression against the people”. 

Hundreds of political activists were imprisoned and moved to makeshift detention centres in the city. Before her arrest, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said the unilateral decision of the Indian government was “illegal and unconstitutional”, which would make “India an occupational force” in the region. “Today marks the darkest day in Indian democracy.”

Abolishing Article 370 has featured in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto and remained on the agenda since its inception. “We are committed to overcome all obstacles that come in the way of development and provide adequate financial resources to all the regions of the state. We reiterate our position since the time of the Jana Sangh to the abrogation of Article 370,” the 2019 election manifesto of the BJP underlined.

5 August 2019: Pro-Pakistan graffiti in Srinagar. People fear India’s forced integration of Kashmir is a bid to change the majority-Muslim demographics of the area.

The special provision

Fearing the inflow of Muslims from the neighbouring Punjab province of undivided British India, the Hindu king of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, enacted the Hereditary State Subject Order in 1927. The law granted exclusive rights to the local population to buy property, hold land ownership and the right to work. When the first war over Kashmir broke out between India and Pakistan following the partition of the Indian subcontinent, Maharaja Hari Singh signed an “instrument of accession” with Delhi, ceding temporary control of Kashmir’s defence, communication and foreign affairs. Although the Kashmir dispute went to the United Nations, India formalised this relationship by inserting Article 370 into the Indian constitution.

In 1952, the J&K government and the Indian state agreed to extend Indian citizenship to all residents of the state, but the state would be empowered to legislate over the rights and privileges of state subjects. Article 35A was also added to Article 370 that granted J&K legislative powers to decide on “permanent residents”.

The autonomous status of the J&K was revoked after the Indian Parliament passed “the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganization Bill, 2019”, which also split the state into two union territories under the direct control of the federal government. With the abrogation of Article 370, the J&K will now have no separate flag or constitution and the tenure of the assembly will be for five years, unlike the six it was previously. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) will replace the Ranbir Penal Code (RPC) to deal with criminal matters.

The ultra-Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) underlined that the “courageous step” by the government was “very essential for interest of J&K”, while the BJP’s General Secretary Ram Madhav said the government’s decision honoured the “martyrdom” of its ideologue Shyama Prasad Mukherjee for complete integration of the state into India.

“Article 370 is the root cause of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir,” Shah asserted in his speech to Parliament. Most in Kashmir fear the subtext of the remark by the Indian home minister is the Hindutva assertion that Kashmir’s problem comes from the Muslim majority demographics of the state, and once demographic changes are enforced, the anti-India, pro-independence sentiment in the region would be “cured”.

Indian authorities have been asserting that the action to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy is “purely administrative” and was intended to “improve good governance and deliver socio-economic justice to the disadvantaged sections of the people in the state”. However, rights activists have dismissed this claim saying that the moves to change Kashmir’s status were only the first steps in a larger scheme to erode Kashmir’s core rights and seed the area with non-Kashmiris to alter the demographics and eventually destroy its Muslim identity. “The whole bill is not only unconstitutional, it’s a fraud,” AG Noorani, India’s constitutional lawyer, told The New York Times

5 August 2019: Tempers flare as all communication in Kashmir is cut after the Indian Parliament voted to do away with Article 370, which protected Kashmir’s autonomy.

Afghanistan and Trump’s call for mediation 

The Modi government’s move should be seen in the context of the US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate between Indian and Pakistan to resolve the impending Kashmir dispute, and the ongoing US-Taliban talks over the fate of Afghanistan’s future, in which Delhi was left completely sidelined.

Last month, Trump told the media he had been asked by the Indian Prime Minister to act as an intermediary between Delhi and Islamabad but the claim was refuted by India, which said that “no such request was made”. Days later, Trump renewed the offer of mediation, sending shockwaves through the corridors of Indian power.

Many observers feel the Kashmir move has been prompted by Pakistan’s growing say in the Afghanistan peace talks, and Islamabad re-emerging as the key negotiator between the Taliban, the US, Russia and China.

This effectively has left Delhi out of any final political settlement in Afghanistan. Indian policymakers have long feared that Pakistan favouring the Kabul regime, especially the Taliban, would embolden Islamabad and shift its forces engaged on the western border with Afghanistan towards the East against India. “India’s move to end the special status for Jammu and Kashmir indicates that the government is bracing for serious geo-strategic shifts that will unfold in South Asia over the next few months,” wrote Kallol Bhattacharjee in his article for the India daily The Hindu.

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By changing the internal status quo, Delhi aims to invoke a military action from Pakistan, thereby scuttling the Afghan talks. Furthermore, the predictable increase in violence within Kashmir following the changes in the administrative setup of the region allows Delhi to accuse Pakistan of pushing non-state actors and terrorism into India.

The expectable reaction of Pakistan following the abrogation of Article 370 somewhat validates that Indian calculation. Soon after the autonomy of J&K was revoked, Islamabad asserted that the move “has the potential to blow up into a regional crisis”. Delhi also seemingly riled Beijing by making a claim on Aksai Chin, a region of erstwhile J&K under Chinese control. China also has a border dispute with India in the Ladakh region. 

“Afghanistan will likely be affected as well,” wrote Jonah blank in his article, India just put democracy at risk across South Asia, adding that “a rise in Kashmir tensions will greatly complicate efforts by the US to arrange a Pakistan-brokered deal with the Taliban to permit a withdrawal of American troops. But the social and political impact may be even greater.”

Despite the UN resolution on Kashmir, which asserts that India and Pakistan will not bring about any material changes in the disputed region until a final resolution is settled, the Modi government’s forceful push for the integration of Kashmir only corroborates fears of Kashmiris that Delhi seeks to bring about demographic changes in the region. Suspending the fundamental human rights of Kashmiris to force constitutional change reaffirms the ultra-right-wing Hindutva idea of India where the larger Kashmir region will be occupied by a Hindu population, and the Muslim population will be relegated to second-class citizens. By sidestepping the Indian constitution and legal framework to abrogate Article 370 and bifurcate J&K, the Modi dispensation has shown it will go to any extreme to suppress the rights of the people in Kashmir. Delhi feels it can punish Pakistan by flogging Kashmiris even at the expense of annoying world powers, including the US and China.

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