What the hell is going on in Kashmir at the moment?

The short answer is, we don’t really know an awful lot about what’s going on in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. There’s the media, internet and telephone network blackout, which is frightening in itself especially if you have family or friends in the region. But if your question is, what is it that’s led up to the recent events over there that you’ve heard about on the news, here’s a simple and (relatively) brief introduction.

It goes further back than this, but let’s start with 1947.  That year saw the end of British rule and the partition of India (majority Hindu) and Pakistan (majority Muslim). Under the partition plan of the Indian Independence Act, the maharaja (local leader) at the time, Hari Singh, was able to choose whether to accede to India or Pakistan. He chose India and the two countries went to war with each other, resulting in (for practical purposes) the partition of Jammu and Kashmir, although both countries claim it to be fully theirs.

In 1951, China slowly occupied eastern Kashmir and, in 1962, China and India went to war, in which China was the victor. India and Pakistan went to war again over the region in 1965, ending in a ceasefire; and again briefly in 1999 in the Kargil district of Kashmir, ending with India taking back Kargil. The 1980s and 1990s saw escalations of pro-independence insurgency, with widespread violence against civilians by both sides. Over the last twenty years there have been attempts at peace talks punctuated by protests and further violent incidents.

Since the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which is Hindu nationalist in nature, led by Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014, there have been more protests (for example, over the often violently-enforced ban on eating beef, a divisive and discriminatory law dating back to colonial times); violent flare-ups including the burning of schools; many deaths and thousands injured (both soldiers and civilians) on the contested border; the imposition of a curfew in most parts of Indian-administered Kashmir after security forces killed Burhan Wani, a popular militant and commander of Kashmiri separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen, which led to violent protests; the evacuation of thousands from villages in Pakistani-administered Kashmir after seven Pakistani soldiers were killed in violence on the Line of Control (ceasefire line); and more attacks, including the killing of seven Hindu pilgrims in 2017.

The most recent development that you may have heard about is that the Indian government has stripped the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its “special status”, meaning that its autonomy is being taken away.

So why’s this happening now and why does it matter?

The BJP claims that stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy is the correction of a “historical error”. The BJP’s general secretary, Chikkamagaravalli Thimme Gowda Ravi, has condemned Section 370 for creating a “perception” that India and Kashmir are separate entities thereby leading to “terrorist activities” and insisting that “Kashmir is an integral part of India”. Pakistan, of course, disagrees with this assertion.

In early August 2019, vast numbers of Indian troops were deployed, tourists were ordered to leave and pilgrimages were cancelled, schools were closed and communication lines shut down, so it’s been clear something was going on. There was speculation and concern in the press that Article 35A of the Indian constitution, which is part of Section 370 and deals with the privileges given to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, was to be scrapped. The BJP then made the shock announcement on Monday of this week that it was in fact repealing most of Section 370, which has been the main thing holding Kashmir’s fragile and complex relationship with India together.

Modi and the BJP have been against Section 370 for a long time, claiming that provisions made under it were only ever meant to be temporary; it was in the party’s 2019 election manifesto to revoke it, claiming that this would be a necessary step in order to bring progress and development to Kashmir, to integrate the region into the rest of India and bring it into line with the rest of the country. The general elections in April/May of this year saw the BJP decisively re-elected with a large mandate so it has quickly set about delivering on its promise. But the announcement itself came as a shock to many because although the process must have been underway for a long time, it was ultimately done in secrecy and under a media blackout.

It matters because this surely isn’t the way to do things in a democracy. It matters because Section 370 allowed the state of Jammu and Kashmir to do things like have its own constitution, make its own laws and rules about who can settle and live there permanently, who can own property and so forth. Many people believe that the Home Minister’s announcement in parliament on Monday is intended as a distraction from other problems, such as the slowing economy; and furthermore, that the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, is pushing to change the demographic character of the currently majority-Muslim region by forcing a change in who can settle and buy property there (i.e. to include non-Kashmiris) and to prove that it takes a tough position on Kashmir – and on Pakistan.

The removal of J&K’s special status means that the state will no longer be able to have its own constitution and will have to fall in line with the Indian constitution like all other states. This mightn’t sound like a big deal on the face of it, to many of us in the diaspora, or to people who have no connection to or little knowledge of the long-running dispute, and of course those of us who are anarchists would like to see the abolition of property and borders; but bear in mind that most of us are in the very privileged position of not living in a warzone, where simply having an Indian or Pakistani name, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just having an opinion on the matter, can put our lives and our families’ lives in danger. It’s important to note here that Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim state and the BJP is a Hindu nationalist party which takes a discriminatory and often violently oppositional stance towards India’s Muslim population and towards Pakistan.

A bill has been passed by parliament so that it looks likely that, assuming all goes to the government’s plan, the state will soon be partitioned into two parts, to be federally administered: one region would combine predominantly-Hindu Jammu and the predominantly-Muslim Kashmir valley, which would have its own legislature, while the other region would be predominantly-Buddhist Ladakh, to be ruled by central government directly with no legislature of its own. Fears have been expressed that Kashmir could become a lot like Palestine.

Others in parliament are divided over the issue. Some, such as Delhi’s AAP (Aam Admni Party), support the repeal of Section 370, while others have voiced their vehement disagreement; Palaniappan Chidambaram of the opposition Indian National Congress Party, for example, has described the move as “a fatal legal error” and “the beginning of the disintegration of India”, while Mehbooba Mufti (until June last year the chief minister in the Jammu and Kashmir region) has described this as “the darkest day in Indian democracy”. China too has condemned the move, calling it “unacceptable”.

The legality of the move is questionable too. Any amendment to Section 370 must, according to the Indian constitution, be agreed by the “state government” – but there hasn’t been much of one in Jammu and Kashmir for well over a year, since the government was reduced to a minority and federal rule was imposed by India. The BJP – of course – claims all this is within its rights and that such decisions (without consulting the state’s lawmakers) in such situations are not unprecedented. Constitutional experts, however, are not in agreement over the issue and have directly contradicted each other.

Of course, as you can probably tell by now, Kashmir is a political hot potato, so although opposition parties could launch a legal challenge, many are afraid of being accused of being “anti-India” and of political suicide. The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has declared that he will fight what he has described as a breach of international law, expressing concern that this will lead to ethnic cleansing of Kashmir by India and suggesting that he could take it to the UN security council and Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, has mentioned seeking assistance from the U.S. None of this, of course, precludes a legal challenge coming from independent groups or individual activists.

So what about this media and communications blackout?

Mobile and landline telephone networks, social media and the internet were locked down a couple of days ago (Sunday 4th August 2019) and at time of writing communications are still down; local leaders, including Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah (former Jammu and Kashmir chief ministers) and Sajad Lone (chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Conference party) have been arrested. Tens of thousands of troops are now patrolling the streets and a curfew has been imposed. The justification given for these draconian measures is that there are concerns that the revocation of Section 370 may lead to large protests and violent unrest by those already unhappy with Indian rule.

Some news is being communicated from Jammu and Kashmir via the few working landlines in the region. However, people are mostly unable to communicate and of course, given the long, turbulent history of insurgency/counter-insurgency, suppression of populations and violence against citizens (tens of thousands, mostly civilians, have been killed since 1989), people are now fearing for the safety of friends and family in the area. People have been queuing up at cash machines and petrol stations in panic and Eid celebrations planned for next week look likely to be cancelled given the tense situation.

What about the Kashmiris? It’s hard to tell what they think because of the communications lock-down, although there are certain things it’s fairly safe to guess at – the alarm and fear, the sense of injustice, anger and betrayal, for example – but politically, it’s currently difficult to know what the general mood is without making assumptions. Furthermore, with the media blackout, it’s uncertain how aware people there can actually be of the discussions going on in parliament hundreds of miles away about their future, which hardly bodes well for democratic process; and neither does the fact that government can so summarily disregard the will of the approximately 13 million people of Jammu and Kashmir and lock up their representatives in what is supposed to be a democracy bode well for the safety of the common citizen. If the government can do this to Jammu and Kashmir, what – and who – will be next?

Mina

Correction 14/08: Jammu and Kashmir are set to become a union territory rather than a state. This means less authonomy and fewer rights.