Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan warned Tuesday that Indian forces would face fresh violence in Kashmir after India’s incendiary decision to strip the disputed region of its autonomy.
“With an approach of this nature, incidents like Pulwama are bound to happen again,” Khan told Parliament, referring to a major militant attack in Kashmir in February that killed 40 Indian paramilitary police and brought the two nuclear-armed neighbors closer to war.
Both countries may soon again be bracing for violence. On Monday, India’s Hindu nationalist government said that it was revoking the special constitutional status, which granted the country’s only Muslim-majority region a significant degree of political autonomy.
The announcement instantly sent shockwaves through Kashmir and Pakistan, and sparked fears that one of the world’s most volatile flashpoints could soon spiral into worsening violence.
What is Article 370 and why has it sparked fear of violence?
Kashmir has been a source of dispute between India and Pakistan ever since the countries became independent from Britain in 1947.
Both countries claim the Himalayan region as their own and administer their own sections of the territory, demarcated by what’s called the Line of Control. They’ve fought wars and, even in times of relative peace, clashed repeatedly over the heavily militarized territory. More than 40,000 people have been killed during the 30-year separatist insurgency against New Delhi’s rule.
But India’s sudden decision to scrap Article 370 of the country’s constitution unilaterally strips the state of Jammu and Kashmir of the political autonomy it had been guaranteed since it became part of India.
The provision gave Jammu and Kashmir a special constitutional status, with the power to make its own laws — except in matters of foreign affairs, defense, and communications — and even have its own flag. The state was able to make its own rules on permanent residency and property ownership, and it barred Indian citizens from outside the state from settling there.
Now, India plans to turn Jammu and Kashmir into a union territory, giving the central government far greater control of its affairs. “Under this plan, effectively Kashmir will be administered from Delhi,” said Vasuki Shastry, associate fellow at Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific program.
Shastry said that in revoking Article 370, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was delivering on longstanding pledges made to his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“India’s ruling BJP has nursed this grievance for the past seven decades,” said Shastry. “If you’re a Hindu nationalist, this is a generational struggle.”
India’s Interior Minister Amit Shah cited security concerns to justify the move, saying it was made in response to “the prevailing internal security fuelled by cross-border terrorism.” He also argued the move would bring benefits to Kashmir, claiming that it was because of the region’s autonomy “that democracy was never fully implemented, corruption increased in the state, that no development could take place.”
The announcement was foreshadowed by a series of extraordinary moves by the Indian government in Kashmir in the days beforehand, which saw 35,000 extra troops deployed to the region, Hindu pilgrimage sites closed, and non-residents ordered to leave the state. On Sunday night, it cut off phone and internet communications and placed two former chief ministers under house arrest.
The lockdown is likely to continue for sometime, according to country risk assessment group IHS Markit Country Risk. The group said that taking control of the state directly would allow the government to ramp up its hardline approach to security, leading to increased curfews, detentions, and search operations against suspected militants.
Anxiety and Outrage
While the move has been celebrated by Hindu nationalists, it’s provoked outrage among Kashmiris, Pakistanis, and the Indian opposition alike.
Mehbooba Mufti, who was Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister until last year, called the decision the “darkest day in Indian democracy” and said it “reduces India to an occupation force” in the state. Tweeting from under house arrest, she called the move an “illegal and unconstitutional” betrayal of the government’s contract with Kashmir, and claimed it was part of a bid to change the demography of India’s only Muslim-majority state through migration.
Syed Ali Geelani, a senior Kashmiri Muslim leader in Srinagar, tweeted an urgent callout to “all Muslims living on this planet,” warning that India was “about to launch the biggest genocide in the history of mankind.”
Militant leaders also issued calls to action. “Now it’s time that Kashmiris need to come out with unity and then the enemy will be begging for peace and negotiations,” said Massod Azhar, chief of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad militant group blamed for February’s Pulwama attack.
“The public opinion could shift if the body count increases”
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s army chief said Tuesday that his forces would “go to any extent” to protect Kashmir. “The Pakistan Army firmly stands by the Kashmiris in their just struggle to the very end,” said General Qamar Javed Bajwa.
But Shastry said that for all the saber-rattling, the violence unleashed by the BJP’s move was unlikely to escalate into an actual war. “I think you’re going to see the acceleration of this proxy battle we’ve had for the past two decades, but I don’t think there’s an appetite on either side for a full-blown war,” he said. Amid soaring tensions following the Pulwama attack in February, which India blamed on Pakistan, the two powers attacked each other with airstrikes for the first time since 1971, but ultimately pulled back from the brink.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Washington was concerned about reports of detentions, and urged both sides to show restraint. “We call on all parties to maintain peace and stability along the Line of Control,” she said.
Is the move even legal?
In India, the leader of the opposition Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, railed against the revocation of Article 370, which he said was a violation of the constitution. “This abuse of executive power has grave implications for our national security,” he tweeted, adding that the detention of the former chief ministers was “short sighted and foolish” because it would only result in “terrorists” filling the leadership vacuum.
His criticism echoed the concerns of many liberal Indian critics, who worried about the legality of the move, said Shastry. According to India’s constitution, Article 370 can only be changed with the agreement of the state government — but Jammu and Kashmir has not had a government since June last year.
That’s when the state government led by then-chief minister Mufti lost its majority and Jammu and Kashmir was put under the rule of its governor, effectively placing the state under New Delhi’s direct rule.
Shastry said the move has sparked wider concerns that the Hindu nationalist BJP government could replicate its treatment of Kashmir with states governed by parties other than the BJP. “A lot of liberal commentators have concerns that this could be the model for the Modi government to strip away powers from states that are ruled by opposition governments,” he said. “You can claim a national security threat and effectively take over.”
These circumstances mean the revocation of Article 370 is almost certain to face a legal challenge in India’s Supreme Court, said Shastry, which could drag on for years.
But with politicians wary of challenging the move for fear of being branded unpatriotic, it may fall on activists to bring the case to court. Shastry said the reaction to the move from Modi’s powerful Hindu nationalist base had been “euphoric.”
He warned that enthusiasm would wane if violence rose considerably beyond current low level incidents. “If there’s a return to the level of killing we saw in the 1980s, that’s very worrying,” he said. “The public opinion could shift if the body count increases.”
Cover: Supporters of the Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami demonstrate to protest India's policy on Kashmir, in Lahore, Pakistan, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. Pakistan President Arif Alvi convened his country's parliament to discuss India's surprise actions on Kashmir. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudhry)