Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, a sovereign state high in the Himalayas along the border of Pakistan, has enjoyed special semi-autonomous status under India’s constitution. But both nations have long claimed it as their own, which has led to three outright wars in the last seventy years and made it a persistent flashpoint between the nuclear-armed neighbors. In August, India took the provocative step of revoking the constitutional articles protecting the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, splitting the state into two “union territories.” It’s probably the most aggressive assertion of territorial rights the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi could have made, and it’s heightened fears that India and Pakistan could once more engage directly in armed conflict.
Yet it wasn’t hard to see this coming. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigned extensively on revoking Kashmir’s special status in this year’s national elections, couching it as “concern” for the interests of the Kashmiri people. Autonomy, they claimed, discourages investment and stymies economic growth; it prevents citizens from participating fully in Indian democracy; it fosters “corruption and nepotism,” as Modi put it, while limiting the ability of women and tribal communities to enjoy full rights under Indian law. Almost anything, in other words, to avoid the real reason, obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention: taking control of Kashmir—the only Muslim-majority state in India—is essential to the nationalist Hindu agenda Modi has championed since coming to office five years ago.
Since the August revocation, India has imposed a military clampdown and strict communications blackout in Kashmir, cutting off phone and Internet services and curtailing access to information. The news that has managed to make its way out suggests that protests are widespread. Though there has been only one officially confirmed death related to the protests, grassroots reporting suggests that many others have gone ignored. Political leaders and human-rights activists, along with thousands of ordinary Kashmiris, have been imprisoned. The inability of hospitals and medical specialists to communicate has fostered a health crisis, with more Kashmiris dying from a lack of medical care just in August than in the first seven months of 2019 combined. India, meanwhile, continues to insist that the situation in Kashmir is calm.
Tensions over Kashmir began well before the English partitioned the subcontinent into Pakistan, India, and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). It was one of the more than five hundred “princely states” separate from British India proper but subject to indirect colonial rule. Though governed by a Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, Jammu and Kashmir had a Muslim majority, and Muslim tribesmen (known as Pathans) had begun to settle there in increasing numbers.
In 1947, the heads of most of the princely states ceded their power to the new central Indian government. Hari Singh, however, initially sought independence. But he also feared that Pakistan would send more Pathans to bolster the region’s Muslim majority, which could pose a threat to him and to the Kashmiri Pandits, brahmin Hindu elites who had long lived in the region. So he instead agreed to sign an “Instrument of Accession” to India, granting it governmental authority over Jammu and Kashmir in exchange for military protection and limited autonomy. Conflict shortly ensued, with Pakistani and Indian troops squaring off in the first war over the region. India sought United Nations intervention, and Kashmir was divided along an uneasy border called the “Line of Control.” The line split villages and families and led to a refugee crisis that persists to this day.