Can Modi’s unilateral move lead to a settlement of the Kashmir dispute?
It has been an article of faith and a matter of dispute since before 1954 when it was officially promulgated, but it took the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, a few hours to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
Under the provisions of the article, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had its own constitution, and the Indian parliament could only make laws for the state on defense, finance, foreign policy, and communications. Though the article was in a part of the constitution titled “temporary, transitional, and special provisions,” it had settled into a state of permanence. This seeming permanence was shattered on Monday.
There are different ramifications of this move, in Jammu and Kashmir, in India, and in South Asia.
The move to abrogate Article 370 has been accompanied by a further move to split the state into two union territories to be directly administered from Delhi. One will be the union territory of Ladakh, which is an area with a mixed Tibetan Buddhist and Shia Muslim population, and a landscape and character akin to the adjacent areas of Tibet which border it. The second will be the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, with a stridently Hindu majority in Jammu and an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population in the Kashmir valley.
Historically, the Kashmir valley with Srinagar at its centre has been the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. The state is known internationally for being at the centre of the dispute between India and Pakistan, for which its complicated history may be to blame. The state was one of disparate regions and diverse peoples put together through imperial conquests in the 1800s by the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Dogras under Maharaja Gulab Singh, and the British under Company Raj and Queen Victoria.
Empire-builders did not bother themselves with the homogeneity of their empires; they concerned themselves with extent. The Dogras even had a go at conquering Tibet, then in some sort of tributary relationship to the Chinese empire. That did not end well.
The Kashmir dispute has festered since 1947 because Pakistan could not countenance the Muslim-majority state ending up in India. The Kashmiris themselves were not greatly agitated about being part of India until about 1990. Since then, the Kashmir valley has been the epicentre of an independence movement aimed at creating a free Kashmir.
Jammu’s Hindus and Ladakh’s Buddhists have been in favour of remaining in India. The current move to abrogate Article 370 shifts power away from Srinagar, to Delhi, and in the case of Ladakh, devolves some power down to the new union territory. Therefore, the move is being celebrated in Jammu and Ladakh, and being greeted with bitterness in Kashmir.
The rest of India, barring the increasingly marginalized liberals and leftists, has welcomed the move. The expected political costs of going against what is being called by the government “a historic move” towards national integration have persuaded even some opposition parties, such as the Aam Aadmi Party led by Arvind Kejriwal and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Dalit leader Mayawati, to support the move.
To do otherwise would invite attacks from the BJP and the “nationalist” media of being “anti-national.” This is a charge that has cost the opposition dearly, and paid major electoral dividends for the BJP. Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal in particular has lost a lot of ground to BJP in the recent Lok Sabha polls because of her perceived “anti-national” and “anti-Hindu” stances.
This may have been behind the absence of her party MPs from the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament, when the bill abrogating Article 370 was being passed. Further erosion of her Hindu base will lead to a BJP victory in West Bengal in the next assembly elections in 2021.
For the BJP and Modi, this is again a major win. The government was facing increasingly strident criticism for its poor handling of the economy. Unemployment is at its highest in 45 years, a big business tycoon from Bengaluru recently committed suicide for business reasons, and even some of the biggest companies in the country, such as car maker Maruti Suzuki, are laying off people.
By delivering on a core promise of the BJP and RSS, which has been the dream of the party ideologues starting with its founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee -- who died in Srinagar in 1953 after being arrested while protesting Jammu and Kashmir’s special status -- Modi has cemented his support from the RSS, BJP, and the wider Sangh Parivar, and from a large section of Hindus around India. The legal arguments surrounding the abrogation of Article 370 are complex and abstruse. The story of a grand dream of national integration achieved is simple and plays well to the gallery.
The big question is how Pakistan will react. Kashmir’s ability to fight against the Indian Army without Pakistani support is negligible. The Pakistani foreign ministry has issued a statement condemning the Indian moves and said these would not alter the disputed status of Jammu and Kashmir. The moves would never be acceptable to the people of Jammu and Kashmir or Pakistan, the statement said.
However, the rhetoric is comparatively mild by sub-continental standards. There are suspicions, in both parts of Kashmir, that Pakistan and India are now getting to the point where they would be happy to keep their halves of Kashmir and allow the Line of Control that divides the two parts, and the two countries, to become the international border.
Appearances must be kept up and therefore India will continue to ask Pakistan to return the portion under its administration, and Pakistan will continue to seek a referendum that is unlikely to ever happen, but the seriousness of those pronouncements may have diminished.
If this is true, the unilateral and probably unconstitutional move by Modi and Shah may eventually lead to a settlement of the Kashmir dispute. If not, the sub-continent should prepare for a significant uptick in violent conflict.
Samrat Choudhury is an author and journalist, and a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. He tweets as @mrsamratx.