A move to extinguish the territory’s autonomy may play well with voters in India but is unlikely to improve regional security.
On 5 August, the government of India drastically altered the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, abrogating Article 370 of the Indian constitution – which provided autonomy and special privileges for Jammu and Kashmir – and bifurcating the state into the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir as well as Ladakh. Although Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy had been steadily diluted over the years, the move annulled its separate constitution and brought it entirely under the ambit of the Indian government. In addition, by converting the state into a union territory with a legislature, Delhi has ensured that even though Jammu and Kashmir will continue to have elected representatives and a chief minister, considerable power will be vested in a centrally appointed governor.
Given the disputed status of the territory and the fragile relations between the Kashmir Valley and Delhi, the impact of this decision is likely to reverberate both within India and across the region for some time.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long advocated the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, including this step in its 2019 election manifesto, and has argued that certain provisions under Article 370 hindered Jammu and Kashmir’s development and were discriminatory towards women as well as non-Muslim minorities (Muslims comprise over a third of the overall population, making Jammu and Kashmir the only Muslim-majority state in India). These arguments found some favour across the political spectrum in India, gaining support from leaders who otherwise strongly oppose the BJP, as well as from large sections of the general population, which recently re-elected the BJP government with a larger mandate than in 2014.
While the move has been embraced in Jammu and one of Ladakh’s two districts, it has steadfastly been opposed within the Kashmir Valley, which has an overwhelmingly Muslim population and makes up over half the population of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Kashmiris fear that scrapping Jammu and Kashmir’s ability to make its own laws would fundamentally alter the relationship between Srinagar and Delhi and that enabling non-Kashmiris to purchase land in the Valley opens up the possibility of demographic change. It should be noted that other states in India too have restrictions on land rights, though none as far-reaching as those that were applicable in Jammu and Kashmir. Moreover, despite the government’s claims around development, indicators suggest that Jammu and Kashmir performed better than many other Indian states, although there might be disparities between the Kashmir and Jammu regions.
A key point of contention within India and internationally is the way this step was undertaken. In the preceding week, 35,000 new paramilitary forces were introduced to an already heavily militarised area on the pretext of security concerns, while a Hindu pilgrimage was abruptly suspended and tourists were asked to leave the region. Finally, on the day before the government’s announcement, the internet and communications within the Kashmir Valley were blocked, key political leaders were detained and freedom of assembly was curbed, creating an information blackout and panic among residents as well as those with families in the area.
Further, though the government has portrayed this move as being beneficial to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, Kashmiris were not consulted and continue to be kept under curfew, highlighting the lack of trust between Srinagar and Delhi. This raises the prospect of increased alienation not only among the general population of the Valley, but also among political parties who have in the past worked with the central government to govern the state. Moreover, the secrecy and speed with which this decision was taken is likely to fuel the sense of injustice that many in the Valley already feel towards the Indian government. It remains to be seen whether this will lend itself to greater mobilisation and violence once the curfews and communication blackout are lifted, particularly at a time when militancy in the region is becoming increasingly indigenous, as opposed to primarily comprising recruits from across the Line of Control.
The only way in which the abrogation of Article 370 is likely to be challenged is via India’s Supreme Court, which had previously concluded that the article was permanent. Ordinarily, the presidential order necessary for such a move would require the concurrence of the state assembly. However, this was dissolved in June 2018 and the state has since transitioned to president’s rule. Under these circumstances, the government has interpreted that the governor is qualified to provide concurrence. However, this is unclear, as the governor is centrally appointed and is not an elected representative.
Pakistan, a party to the dispute over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, has reacted sharply to the move, alleging the danger of a so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Kashmir Valley under the cloak of the information blackout. However, the levers available to Pakistan to influence India are limited, as reflected in the actions it has proposed to take, which include downgrading of diplomatic ties and cutting off bilateral trade, both of which are unlikely to have a significant impact and do little to assist Kashmiris.
The most likely recourse for Pakistan is diplomatic, and it has renewed its push to highlight the issue in international forums and bilateral discussions. However, international reaction has been relatively neutral, with statements generally calling for restraint from both sides and for dialogue towards peaceful resolution. There was, however, criticism from China, though this seemed more in relation to its own disputed border with India. Surprisingly, despite being members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, whose contact group on Jammu and Kashmir criticised the move by the Indian government, the UAE and Maldives have stated that this was an ‘internal matter’ for India. None of this changes the fact that the territory will continue to be viewed as disputed internationally and as Indian territory within India.
Thus, while there seems to be little the international community is willing to do at the moment, this might change if the information blackout is prolonged or if conditions in the Kashmir Valley deteriorate once restrictions are lifted. The challenge for the government now is the delivery of its promises in an environment of precarious security and widespread mistrust. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a special address to the nation, reiterated these promises and attempted to reassure the population, even suggesting a possible path to restoration of Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood (excluding Ladakh, which has long sought union territory status). However, his speech is unlikely to have been accessible to people in Kashmir, who remained in the dark, and it did little to address the issue of how the opinion of Kashmiri stakeholders was circumvented in the implementation of a monumental decision having a direct impact on them.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
International Security Studies