On Monday, the Kashmir valley went silent. In Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian administered half of the world’s most fiercely militarised zone, the internet and phone lines went down, a curfew was imposed and 40,000 more troops moved in. Local political leaders were arrested, and the Amarnath Yatra, a popular Hindu pilgrimage in the region, was abruptly cancelled. Then, with Kashmiris left in the dark, the Indian government announced it was amending Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, a move which revoked the region’s special status.
Throughout decades of border tensions, insurgent violence, and over-militarisation, the special status has given Jammu and Kashmir some constitutionally-entrenched political autonomy. With that autonomy now gone, the valley’s future remains uncertain.
What is Article 370?
When India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947 following the bloodshed of partition, princely states like Kashmir were given freedom to choose which country to join. One of the conditions of Kashmir joining India was preservation of autonomy in the region, which was enshrined in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Jammu and Kashmir retained its own Constitution, flag, and criminal code. Meanwhile, Article 35A gave the state power to define permanent residents, providing basis for laws restricting non-residents from buying property in Jammu and Kashmir.
Why did India revoke Kashmir’s special status?
In May, India’s hard-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Narendra Modi, was re-elected in a landslide, with removing Kashmir’s special status part of its election manifesto. For as long as it has been in place, Hindu nationalists have wanted Article 370 gone, claiming it provides special treatment to Muslims and ammunition for violent separatism in the region.
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“Article 370 was a product of India’s secular nationalism — it embodies broader principles that you should accommodate minorities and differences”, Priya Chacko, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Adelaide tells Crikey.
“Making this article irrelevant has been a priority for the BJP because they have a fundamentally different view of nationalism, as a single identity, which is a Hindu cultural identity”.
On Monday, Home Minister Amit Shah said the changes would improve security and help the government fight terrorism. Since the BJP took power in 2014, terror incidents have steadily risen, with 2018 seeing 586 deaths in the state, the most in a decade. Shah and Modi also justified the changes on development lines, arguing Jammu and Kashmir’s special status as holding the state back economically.
What has changed?
On Monday, a Presidential Order was made amending Article 370, extending India’s Constitution to apply to Jammu and Kashmir. Shah then introduced a reorganisation bill in India’s Upper House which effectively stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood. The region is now divided into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and the largely Buddhist-Hindu Ladakh.
Despite the incredible scale of the changes, they were pushed through quickly, with just 90 minutes of debate, and no consultation with people living in the state. The move also rests on legally unsteady ground, and involves a degree of Constitutional gymnastics Chacko tells Crikey is “crooked”. Article 370 allows for amendment with the approval of Jammu and Kashmir’s constituent assembly, a body which was dissolved in 1956.
Constitutional experts have cast doubt on the validity of the move, and a legal challenge is certain, although India’s Supreme Court is notoriously slow, and has a recent track record of siding with the government.
What do the changes mean?
Because Jammu and Kashmir is now a union territory rather than a state, it has fewer rights, meaning New Delhi has greater control over a heavily militarised region, and one where its security forces already stand accused of widespread human rights abuses.
But New Delhi’s power grab has the potential to further inflame one of the world’s most volatile regions, wedged between two nuclear powers. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan called the move a “clear violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions”, and called for international intervention. The country has been racked by protests since Monday.
According to Chacko, the move is more evidence of the parlous deterioration of Indian democracy under the BJP, with the government radically expanding its power, all with the outcome of marginalising India’s sizeable Muslim minority. Such a blunt, aggressive approach might only fortify anti-Indian sentiment in Kashmir.
“What we’ve seen over the past few years is an increasing number of young Kashmiris joining militant groups because of disaffection. Disaffection breeds resistance, and that same disaffection turned into an insurgency in the 1990s”, Chacko tells Crikey.
So while the changes might complete another piece of Modi’s Hindutva project, it could lead to more years of hardship for the people of Kashmir. On Monday, as India’s parliament pushed through the changes, one minister claimed Kashmiris were rejoicing. But in Srinagar, the state’s capital, the only people out on the streets were Indian soldiers.