The Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status by presidential decree on August 5th. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was abolished, signalling the end to India-administered Kashmir’s autonomy. Article 370 conferred special rights on Kashmir, including the right to its own constitution and decision-making process with the exception of defence, foreign affairs and communications. Jammu & Kashmir will now become a union territory, governed directly from New Delhi. The ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu-nationalist party, included the abolition of Article 370 in their election manifesto, arguing that it held back Kashmir’s development and integration with the rest of India.
This radical change for the state came hours after a media and telecommunications blackout began, aimed at preventing any violence that the abrogation of Kashmiri autonomy might cause. Many English and Urdu language newspapers based in Kashmir have been unable to publish since Monday, leaving Kashmiris unable to tell their own stories or contact their loved ones outside the state.
India and Kashmir are divided by this controversial decision. Communist Party of India politician, Kavita Krishnan described it as a ‘constitutional coup’ whereas her colleagues at the other end of the political spectrum celebrated BJP’s move. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a far-right party which mentors BJP, hailed the ‘full integration of India’ and called Article 370 a ‘‘historic blunder.’’
Syed Muntzair, a student from Kashmir studying in New Delhi, expressed his doubt over the reasons for revoking Article 370. Muntzair stated that although the ‘‘government claims that such a move was necessary for the full integration of the state and for its prosperity and development… they [Indians] are more interested in land than in the people of Kashmir.’’ Kashmiri businessman, Waseem Wani, gave a more heartfelt response, comparing Kashmir to Palestine, telling Al Jazeera that ‘‘India has cheated on [Kashmir] after 70 years.’’ However, Sanjay Bhan, a Kashmiri Hindu who now lives in New Delhi, extolled the end of Kashmir’s special status, professing ‘‘a kind of happiness [he] cannot explain.’’
Neighbouring Pakistan reacted very strongly to Monday’s news. Pakistan also administers a part of Kashmir. Mohammad Faisal, a spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs, has labelled India’s actions as ‘‘unilateral and illegal.’’ On August 7th, Pakistan downgraded its diplomatic ties with India, expelling India’s top diplomat and suspending bilateral trade. Demonstrations against India’s decision have taken place in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and in Pakistan’s major cities, such as Lahore and Islamabad.
Pakistan seems set to challenge Kashmir’s new status with Prime Minister Imran Khan announcing intentions to ‘‘raise this at every level,’’ including the UN Security Council. Others in Pakistan’s government, such as Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, warned of ‘‘serious consequences for regional peace and stability’’ and condemned the Indian government’s decision. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, went further vowing that the ‘‘Pakistan Army firmly stands by the Kashmiris in their just struggle to the very end. We are prepared and shall go to any extent to fulfill our obligations in this regard.’’
The Indian government has rejected its neighbour’s warnings and asserted that Pakistan had no business interfering in India-administered Kashmir, that removing Article 370 was ‘‘entirely the internal affair of India.’’ The Ministry of External Affairs accused Pakistan of being ‘alarmist’ and urged it to reconsider its actions ‘‘so that normal channels for diplomatic communications are preserved.’’
Branding Pakistan’s reaction as ‘alarmist’ is an interesting choice of words. It suggests that the Indian government is trying to downplay the significance of revoking Kashmir’s special status and counter justifications for actions against the government, either by Pakistan or Kashmir. Nevertheless, downgrading diplomatic ties will not do anything to de-escalate tensions between the two countries. Both sides need to be willing to sit down and have a discussion if they want a peaceful resolution.
Considering the actions taken by the Indian government before announcing the abrogation of Article 370, it was well aware that there exists a huge potential for conflict. Deploying an extra 10 000 troops, imposing curfews, and the media and communications blackout—India took all the precautions possible to deter civil unrest. Pakistan has supported insurgents in India-administered Kashmir before so there is also the danger of conflict in Kashmir escalating into war once again between India and Pakistan.
China could play a significant role in keeping the peace. Although China has voiced its support for their close ally, Pakistan, and condemned India’s action—it has not gone as far as Pakistan. Keeping the peace is in China’s interests, particularly as any conflict could interfere with the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to modernize Pakistan’s infrastructure and strengthen ties between the two. The developing crisis could represent an opportunity for China to increase its influence in South Asia if it can successfully diffuse the situation.
Kashmiris, however, are more concerned with possible demographic changes than geopolitical repercussions. Revoking Kashmir’s special status also means that non-residents can now buy land so many Kashmiris fear that Hindu Indians will move into the Muslim-majority state, the only one in India and that Muslims will become a disempowered minority as Mehbooba Mufti, a former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, put it. Reducing the Muslim majority would be good news for the Indian government as Hindus moving from other parts of India could aid the integration of Kashmir. As long as Kashmir is Muslim-majority, then there will always be a push for either independence or union with Pakistan.
When India and Pakistan gained independence from the UK in 1947, princely states, such as Jammu and Kashmir, were free to choose between the two or to remain independent. Because the state had a mostly Muslim population (77% according to the 1941 census), many thought it would cede to Pakistan although the predominant political movement had been closely allied to the Indian National Congress since the 1930s. After Pakistani tribesmen invaded, India agreed to help Kashmir on the condition that it ceded to India, starting the First Kashmir War. The war ended with India claiming roughly ⅔ of the state and Pakistan ⅓, as well as the promise of a plebiscite that never happened.
Tensions remained high throughout the 20th Century, with the second war in 1965 and an anti-India insurgency beginning in 1989 which continues to this day. More recently, 2016 saw a wave of protests against India in Kashmir following the death of popular rebel leader Burhan Wani. Over 90 people died and curfews were imposed. In February 2019, a Kashmiri rebel blew up an Indian Army convoy, killing 40 soldiers. This led to an exchange of airstrikes between India and Pakistan.
On top of holding historic and cultural importance for both India and Pakistan, Kashmir is also strategically important. The glacial waters of the Himalayan region provide water and electricity to India’s 1.35 billion population. As the population continues to grow at a rate of 1.1% each year so will the country’s demand for electricity, meaning that more hydro-electric dams are needed. Pakistan relies on the waters for its agricultural sector and with a rapidly growing population (2%); a strong agricultural output is crucial to avoiding food shortages and maintaining Pakistan’s development.
Protests broke out on August 9th, after Friday afternoon prayers, the largest since the curfew began. An estimated 10 000 people took to the streets and were met by tear gas and pellets. News agencies such as Al Jazeera and the BBC have footage yet the Indian government denies that this took place. The Indian government clearly has no intention of listening to the grievances of Kashmiris, something which could prove to be a grave mistake. Tensions surrounding Kashmir were already high and they seem set to escalate.