Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard during a one-day strike called by Kashmiri seperatists in Srinagar on October 22, 2018, a day after violence across Kashmir left at least 14 people dead. - Police and military officials said 14 people were killed on October 21 including six civilians who died when an explosion detonated among a crowd protesting against Indian rule. (Photo by Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)
Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard during a one-day strike called by Kashmiri separatists in Srinagar on October 22, 2018. Photo: AFP / Tauseef Mustafa

In a move that threatens renewed violence in South Asia, India revoked Article 370, a constitutional provision that had given “special status” for the conflict-ridden, majority-Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir, which gave it the right to have separate laws.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah made the announcement. which came in the wake of an unprecedented lockdown of the state with thousands of federal policemen being rushed to the state for over a week. On Sunday night the government shut down all communications in the state and placed elected leaders under house arrest.

The government also bifurcated the state into two union territories to be ruled by the federal government henceforth. While the Ladakh region will no longer have a legislature, the remaining part of Jammu and Kashmir will have one but with severely diminished legislative powers.

The move has the potential to destabilize peace across the region and plunge it into chaos. India and Pakistan have fought four wars, three of which were over Kashmir. The move by India will heighten tensions in Pakistan, which has hoped for US mediation in the Kashmir dispute.

Pakistan had committed to reining in the Taliban as part of a US plan to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan. This commitment may now be in jeopardy as Pakistan considers retaliation against the Indian move.

As expected, Pakistan reacted furiously. “Kashmir is an internationally recognized disputed territory. No unilateral step by the government of India can change this disputed status,” a foreign office communique said. “As party to this international dispute, Pakistan will exercise all possible options to counter the illegal steps,” it said.

If those options include renewed Pakistani aggression, that could mean a rise in terror attacks across India and fresh violence in Kashmir. As the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors renew hostilities, any hope for Pakistani support for US plans in Afghanistan also diminishes significantly.

The move was met with jubilation across India as a majority of Indians feel that this was long overdue. It ensures Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party government a place in the history books for revoking Kashmir’s special status.

However, declaring a state as a union territory, even if it is temporary, is seen as a disenfranchisement of Kashmiris. This will mean that the state will be ruled by the federal government and significantly diminish Kashmiris’ ability to self-govern. This could also lead to a fresh boost to the decades-old insurgency in the state, which, ironically, started with the rigging of elections in 1987.

Modi’s political opponents are also worried that the way the revocation was carried out, undermines India’s democratic structures. Lawmakers were upset that they were blindsided by the revocation resolution in Parliament. Most non-BJP law makers did not have any inkling that the government was planning such a move and dubbed it a “dark day for democracy.”

For years, elected local governments in Kashmir had helped India build a sense of normalcy in the state after decades of violence. That strategy has now been overturned by the Indian government’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status as well as its existence as a full-fledged state.

Worse to come?

Top government sources told Asia Times that making Jammu and Kashmir into a union territory will help it combat any spurt of violence. The state has faced a 28-year-old armed insurgency from local and Pakistan-based militant groups. At least two of them have been designated as “international terrorist groups” by the United Nations.

“We believe that the international community is likely to protest the change of status for Kashmir. But we are confident that they will turn around once they see that this will ensure peace and also help the state integrate with India,” a senior government official said.

There were indications that Shah was preparing for such a move when he introduced a bill related to the state in July, when Parliament convened to meet after the general elections brought back Modi in a landslide victory.

According to leaked documents, India began to build up federal forces from July 29.  The Indian Air Force flew them in C17 Globemasters in a number of sorties to ensure rapid deployment across the state. By August 1 a little over 25,000 additional federal policemen had been sent to the state. The Indian military has also been placed on high alert along the international border with Pakistan.

The state is recognized as the most militarized region in the world since 1990 when the insurgency first broke out. At that time the Hindu minority in the state was targeted and forced to leave after several families were killed by militant groups.

Prime minster Modi, along with his cabinet colleague Shah, their party’s general secretary, Ram Madhav, national security adviser Ajit Doval and the two intelligence chiefs, Arvind Kumar of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Samant Goel of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) were the key players behind the move to revoke Article 370.

Government sources also said that the offer by US president Donald Trump to “mediate” in the historical dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir also led to a fresh urgency,” the senior government official said. “We were not sure how the US could react under the Trump administration. Their urgency to exit from Afghanistan could have led to conceding to Pakistani demands for pressure on India. So time was limited and the government decided to implement this right away.”

“If the federal government can ensure there is no major outbreak of violence in Jammu and Kashmir,” Rana Banerji, a former career intelligence officer who dealt extensively with Pakistan, told Asia Times, “then this is a historic change. Pakistan will try its best to raise it on international forums and disrupt this process. But in my view they may not succeed.”

Plans for the revocation of Article 370 began even before the general elections were held in May, at least two key sources in the government said. The Modi government wanted to revoke the special status, a demand first raised by the BJP’s ideological founder Shyama Prasad Mookherjee soon after it was promulgated.

However, the government also wanted to prepare for a major international outcry against the move and brought in former foreign secretary S Jaishankar as the new foreign minister with cabinet rank soon after the general elections.

The Indian government also pointed out that the Pakistan had also changed the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan last year, which is a part of a part of Kashmir under its control. Earlier, the Pakistani government had also “illegally” ceded a part of Kashmir to China in the Shaksgam Valley.

While Jaishankar prepared for the diplomatic outreach, the union ministry for law and justice worked with home minister Shah to find ways to get around provisions in Article 370 that lays down strict conditions for revoking it. A key clause in the article mandated that the permission of the elected state legislature must be taken before enforcing any change in status quo. But government lawyers argued that since the state was under federal rule, the governor’s assent was adequate to represent the legislative assembly.

Once they got around the legal wrangles, the government moved to “contain” the state and manage any violent protests that could come up. While additional federal police forces were rushed in, the local state police began to be disarmed. Many police stations were asked to withdraw personal weapons to prevent any revolt by the armed police. Orders were issued to stock up dry rations once the lock down was in place. The government also imposed section 144, which prohibits people from gathering in groups in public areas. “It was decided that no curfew will be imposed to minimize any hardships to the locals,” according to a federal government security official. Former chief ministers of the state, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti were put under house arrest as a precautionary measure. Both Abdullah and Mufti have labeled this as “betrayal” by India and vowed to challenge it.

Shah plans to send his top bureaucrat to the state day after tomorrow. Prime Minister Modi will make an official statement to the nation on August 7. The government has also drawn up plans to deal with an outbreak of violence in states that has a major Muslim population. However, intelligence reports indicate that any communal violence over Kashmir is highly unlikely across the country.

A historic step

For 65 years, Article 370 0f the Indian Constitution has shaped the state’s contentious relationship with India. The state was recognized as an  “independent princely state” by colonial British government. As per the Government of India Act, it allowed all such states to either remain free or choose between India and the newly created state of Pakistan once they were granted independence.

While most regions chose one or the other states, Kashmir remained undecided since it was a Muslim-majority state with a Hindu ruler. However, as Pakistan launched a covert attack on the state, its then-king, Hari Singh, signed the instrument of accession, allowing Indian troops to land in the state capital of Srinagar to push back the Pakistani invaders. As both countries plunged into war, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised a “special status” to the state, and in 1954,  Article 370 was introduced as part of the Indian Constitution.

India and Pakistan have fought four wars, three of which were over Kashmir. In February this year, the killing of 40 Indian policemen in Pulwama, Kashmir by a terrorist bomb attack led to renewed hostilities. Indian fighter jets crossed into Pakistan for the first time since the war in 1971 and bombed a suspected terrorist base in Balakot, a town in the Khyber-Paktunkhwa province.

“The federal government will eventually have to restore the status of Kashmir as a full state,” Banerji said.

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