Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard at a closed market in Srinagar city, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, September 6, 2019. (Javed Dar/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)

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.

Modi has long aimed to demonstrate the glory of the world’s largest democracy, but in Kashmir as elsewhere, he is confirming its ugliest nationalist urges

The Line of Control was not meant to be permanent. The UN was supposed to call a referendum in which the Kashmiri people could choose their own rule: India, Pakistan, or independence. But the referendum never took place, and so both countries have kept a presence in the region, with both claiming it as their own. Kashmir has become the most militarized part of the world, with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in the area. There are regular bursts of violence on either side of the border—though the border itself is hard to determine, with no two maps showing it the same.

While the world tends to assess the Kashmir situation in terms of the conflict between India and Pakistan, the Kashmiri people themselves have long been in favor of independence. The desire is as strong now as on the day of partition, if not more so. In fact, for the last twenty years, there has been a separatist revolt against Indian rule, though there seems to be just as little taste for Pakistani control. The Instrument of Accession ceded legislative authority on defense, external affairs, and communications to India, but Kashmir was allowed to have its own flag, and to set its own laws pertaining to citizenship, property ownership, and other matters. This had been enshrined in the Indian Constitution under the now-revoked Articles 370 and 35A. The latter allowed Jammu and Kashmir’s legislature to determine who qualified as a “permanent resident,” giving it still greater say over matters of property-ownership rights. For example, the locally elected Kashmiri government has for some time prohibited any Indian citizens from outside of Jammu and Kashmir, regardless of religion or ethnicity, from buying property there as a way of preserving Kashmir’s unique demographic and cultural characteristics.

The Indian government characterizes Kashmir’s separatist movement as a Pakistani-sponsored effort to provoke unrest, if not terrorism. It blamed Pakistan for a February suicide bombing that killed forty Indian troops, but Pakistan denied any responsibility. Meanwhile, last year India and Pakistan were both cited by the UN for human-rights violations in Kashmir, including the use of excessive force, unjust arrests, and extrajudicial murders. India dismissed the findings as propaganda that neglected to take into account the “core problem” of Islamic terrorism.

But the immediate cause of the current crisis is the hard turn to Hindu nationalism that India has taken under Modi. Control over Kashmir would be seen as another step toward fulfillment of the nation’s destiny as “Mother India.” Previous actions, receiving much less attention, were taken earlier this year in the Indian state of Assam. In April, the BJP promised to adopt a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, under which anyone lacking documentary proof that immediate family had been living there before 1971 would be expelled from India, regardless of current citizenship status. (Notably, Myanmar used a similar instrument to persecute the Rohingya.) Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and other religious minorities could be protected through the BJP’s revival of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which would allow religious minorities (except Muslims) fleeing persecution to expedite the Indian citizenship process. The Assam registry was published at the end of August; almost two million people who have long resided there were left off the list, leaving them technically stateless, stripped of their civil rights and vulnerable to deportation or arrest. Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, seen as Modi’s right-hand man, has suggested that a similar registry will be implemented nationwide; in the past, he has said that India must rid itself of “infiltrators who [are] eating the country like termites.” The immediate fear is that Muslims in Kashmir will suffer the persecution that those in Assam are now vulnerable to.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has since August pledged to “fight to the end” over Kashmir, while repeatedly claiming that Modi has refused to negotiate. But the last thing Pakistan wants is war with India, which is wealthier and better-armed, and has emerged with the upper hand before. Up until now, both the BJP and its liberal opponent, the Indian National Congress, have managed to fend off involvement by the international community, with both parties citing terrorism in asserting that Kashmir is an internal Indian issue to be treated as a national-security matter. Still, the rest of the world increasingly sees India’s moves in the region for what they are. Modi has long aimed to demonstrate the glory of the world’s largest democracy, but in Kashmir as elsewhere, he is confirming its ugliest nationalist urges.

Published in the October 2019 issue: View Contents

Nicole-Ann Lobo, a PhD student at Princeton University, was Commonweal''s 2019 John Garvey Writing Fellow. She currently helps organize the Democratic Socialists of America’s Religion and Socialism Working Group and lives in New Jersey.

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