By Ahsan I. Butt
The Modi government’s move could mean increased regional instability.
After a week of rumors and misinformation, on Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced changes to the constitutional and legal status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). There are two principal components: (1) scrapping Article 370 and the associated Article 35-A of the Indian constitution, which govern Kashmir’s relationship with the Indian Union, and (2) geographically splitting J&K and administrating it as a “Union Territory.”
These changes could have important political consequences, including increased instability and unrest in the region.
1. Jammu and Kashmir is losing its autonomy.
The Indian government’s constitutional and legal relationship with J&K is complicated by history. The state, technically independent when British colonization ended, became part of India only in wartime, when Pakistan sought to seize control of the territory in 1947.
The terms of J&K’s union with India entail a special degree of autonomy. Under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, India’s federal government controls foreign affairs, defense, finance and communications in J&K — but leaves other governance matters to provincial representatives. Article 35-A prevented non-locals from buying property or permanently settling in J&K.
The proposed change — which may still face a legal challenge in the Supreme Court — strips J&K of all this autonomy.
Furthermore, the Indian government wants to split the Buddhist-dominant Ladakh from the rest of J&K. Both will be governed as a “Union Territory,” a designation that means they would be subject to more central government control than if they were “states.” These changes would therefore strip J&K of not just what made it different from India’s 28 other states — the autonomy enshrined in Articles 370 and 35-A — but also the very status of “state” itself.
2. These moves have created controversy in J&K.
In practice, Kashmiris had far less autonomy than the constitution would suggest. New Delhi generally kept elected state governments on a tight leash. In repeated episodes of “Governor’s Rule,” some governments were outright dismissed. Nonetheless, mainstream moderates in J&K as well as separatist groups prized the constitutional provisions because they recognized J&K’s different status. The scrapping of Article 35-A allows for non-Kashmiri settlement of the area, opening up concerns that the Hindu right might attempt to engineer a West Bank-style resettlement of the territory.
The constitutional changes are a big deal in themselves. The decision to make J&K a Union Territory makes it an even bigger one, subjecting J&K government decisions to central government veto, a relatively unusual arrangement. Excluding Delhi, only about 0.2 percent of the country’s citizens live in a Union Territory. As one analyst explained, “Kashmir can now not even be trusted to be a state.”
Critics, both in and outside Kashmir, are not only upset by the changes, but how the government made these decisions. There was little parliamentary debate in New Delhi and, more importantly, no participation from Kashmiri politicians. Some analysts view the changes as a kind of authoritarian centralization in a country famous for its federalism.
In Kashmir, the already-restive population is likely to be further angered by the government’s decision. Resentment was already simmering in the state, leading to major uprisings from 2008 to 2010 and 2016 to 2017, less than a generation after the brutal crackdown against the Kashmiri separatist movement in the early 1990s. Some local officials privately estimate that 90 percent of the population of the Kashmir Valley is already opposed to the Indian state.
The federal government anticipated an angry response to its announcement and flooded J&K — already one of the world’s most militarized regions — with tens of thousands of troops and instituted a curfew. Over the weekend, the Indian government placed mainstream politicians under house arrest and shut off Internet and phone connectivity.
3. These changes have been ideological goals for Hindu nationalists.
The changes reflect the demands of Hindu nationalist right-wing groups, including the governing BJP party and its ideological ally, the RSS sociopolitical movement. These organizations chafe at the “special” treatment the constitution gives India’s only Muslim-majority state — and argue that Kashmiri autonomy has only fueled separatism and violence. As one defense expert put it, “the government is force feeding what it believes is bitter medicine to the Kashmiris.”
Given that the BJP was reasonably transparent about its intentions on 370 and 35-A in its recent election campaign, the mandate it received afforded it the political capital to act on its majoritarian impulses and shore up its Hindu nationalist base. In so doing, it has encountered little apparent opposition from other parties.
4. Pakistan has criticized the move; the United States sidesteps it.
The Kashmir dispute is both an internal one (between the Indian government and J&K) and an international one between India and Pakistan. “Nested” conflicts, in which international and domestic interests intersect, are notoriously difficult to deal with. Pakistan, which continues to support Kashmiri separatism, predictably issued a swift and critical official reaction to the news.
But this specific decision had little to do with Pakistan or any other country. Instead, domestic politics and the BJP’s nationalist vision for India seem to be the catalysts for the Modi government’s decisions on J&K.
Reportedly, the Modi government informed the United States in advance of its plans. President Trump recently offered to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, an offer India summarily rejected because of its long-standing objection to third-party involvement in the conflict. Indeed, some reports suggest Trump’s offer may have hastened Modi’s plans on Kashmir.
The U.S. government has adopted a hands-off policy to the crisis, part of a trend of staying out of the Kashmir dispute since the Clinton administration. A State Department spokesperson said that the United States is “closely following” the situation but reaffirmed India’s description of it as an “internal matter.”
This stance stems from an American wish to focus on more-pressing regional concerns, such as a military withdrawal from Afghanistan. More generally, the United States considers India a long-term partner in the region that can balance China. Consequently, the Americans will probably seek to avoid antagonizing Modi by interfering with or condemning his decision.
Ahsan I. Butt is an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center. He is the author of “Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy Against Separatists” (Cornell University Press, 2017).