A day after dramatically changing Kashmir’s special status within the national constitution, India is now gearing up for blowback that could undermine decades of a carefully structured strategy.
For decades Kashmir has remained a flashpoint between India, Pakistan and China, carved up between three nuclear-armed neighbors since 1962. The move by India to change the state’s status constitutionally and administratively has implications that will slowly unfold as Pakistan and China retaliate
International observers say that this is likely since all three major powers are intractably linked to the state by a series of historical coincidences and regional strategic maneuvers. Any change in status complicates an incredibly complex situation.
As the Indian subcontinent was partitioned by a departing colonial Britain, the princely states were asked to choose either side. Unlike other princely states that chose India or Pakistan, Kashmir was keen to remain independent. But an invasion from Pakistan by Pathan tribesmen, aided by the Pakistani army, persuaded the then king, Hari Singh, to sign the Instrument of Accession, a legal document that formally bound his state to the Indian union.
As the two newly independent countries fought their first war, Kashmir’s most prominent political leader, Sheikh Abdullah, negotiated a special status for Kashmir. The negotiations between Abdullah, the king’s secretary, and the representatives of the first independent Indian government-produced Article 370 and shaped India’s relationship with its sole Muslim-majority state.
The first war between India and Pakistan ended in a stalemate, and a ceasefire line divided the state between the two countries.
In October 1962 China launched an attack across India’s northern borders. As a poorly equipped Indian Army retreated, large parts of eastern Jammu and Kashmir, a region known as Aksai Chin, fell under China’s occupation. The Chinese used this area to build links with its eastern parts and negotiated with Pakistan to take over another tract in the state in March 1963. India accused Pakistan of “illegally ceding” part of the “disputed territory.”
In 2018, Pakistan changed the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan adding another layer of complexity to the divided state.
State under siege
So far the world outside Jammu and Kashmir has not heard how the people in the state feel about this dramatic change in their status. It continues to be under heavy guard and all communications remain suspended. Two former chief ministers, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, and all leaders who support Kashmir’s secession from India were placed under “preventive detention” on Tuesday morning.
The fact that they had no say in the dramatic set of events, even though approval by the state’s elected Constituent Assembly was a key clause in Article 370, has already raised fears that India is becoming an authoritarian state. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University and one of India’s most prominent public intellectuals, compared the move to China’s handling of Uighurs and Tibetans.
“There are times in the history of a republic when it reduces itself to jackboot. Nothing more and nothing less. We are witnessing that moment in Kashmir. But this moment is also a dry run for the political desecration that may follow in the rest of India,” Mehta wrote in a scathing column on Tuesday morning.
While the state is under heavy guard, no one is sure how the Kashmiris will react once the guard is lifted. “It is impossible to keep them locked in for too long,” a senior intelligence official said. “While there are reports of sporadic stone pelting, we have no idea what will happen once the troops are withdrawn. While a lot depends on how Pakistan will do with the terrorists on its soil waiting to cross over, local groups will also react furiously,” the intelligence official said.
There are also worries about the political fallout. “For the first time pro-India politicians and the separatist leaders are on the same side. We have never seen that and we don’t know how this will pan out,” the intelligence official said.
The move overturns India’s decades-old counter-insurgency strategy that has been successfully deployed to combat other rebellions in post-independent India. Electoral politics was seen as the most successful counter to armed insurgencies. In states like Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Punjab, Indian agents would work with insurgent groups and try their best to bring them into the fold of India’s electoral politics. Many armed insurgencies were successfully ended and underground leaders ended up leading their states as chief ministers.
“The plan to make the state into two union territories undermines that strategy and brings it directly under federal rule. Not only does this undermine self-government, which was the strategy in Kashmir so far, it now places us in uncharted territory,” another senior federal official working on Kashmir told Asia Times.
The military, which has a large presence in the state and leads the counter-insurgency operations, is also worried. “We are trained to go after terrorists. But we have no idea how to deal with cases of civil disobedience. If thousands of people suddenly come together and start marching in peaceful protests, we have no idea how to tackle that,” a senior serving Indian Army general told Asia Times.
The first international reactions were predictable and on expected lines. Pakistan reacted furiously and rejected India’s revocation of Article 370. So far this constitutional provision allowed the elected state government to pass laws on any issue other than defense, international relations and communications. However, many of these provisions had been diluted since the late 1950s through a series of Presidential orders.
“Pakistan will explore every opportunity to embarrass India for the changes that have been made to the status of Jammu and Kashmir,” ambassador Vivek Katju, a former Indian diplomat who dealt with Pakistan for years told Asia Times. “The first forum they will reach out to is the Organization of Islamic Countries. But in my view, the international community will be wary of seeking to meddle in an India-Pakistan issue. It will wait and watch to see how things unfold on the ground in Jammu and Kashmir.”
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has already spoken to Turkey’s Reccip Erdogan and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohammad, both members of the Organization of Islamic Countries.
However, China is yet to react. While it had offered to mediate between India and Pakistan last year, the offer was immediately rejected by the Indians.
Gautam Bambawale, a retired Indian diplomat who served as India’ ambassador to Pakistan and China, believes that the Chinese will react soon. “China has maintained that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. I don’t think that the position of China will change. However, India’s position is clear that that this current move on Article 370 is an internal, domestic matter.”
He added: “I will not be surprised if in the future China were to offer to assist in the India-Pakistan dialogue process.”
The US has been quiet, adding to India’s ease. In a statement released by the US State Department, spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said: “We are closely following the events in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. We take note of India’s announcement revising the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and India’s plan to split the state into two union territories.”
She added: “We note that Indian government described these actions as strictly an internal matter. We are concerned about reports of detentions and urge respect for individual rights and discussion with those in affected communities.”
For now, there does not seem to be any immediate crisis at hand. But things could change rapidly as the curbs on Kashmiris are lifted and communications are restored. As for India’s democratic underpinnings and constitutional processes, a new normal has just begun.