Indian security personnel stand guard on a street in Srinagar on Aug. 6, 2019. Photo: AFP/Vikar Syed

Once famous for its breathtaking scenery and peace-loving people, the beautiful valley of Kashmir has become a proxy battleground for India and Pakistan. The valley is split between Pakistan and India, dividing blood relations and people who have had ties with each other since long before independent Pakistan and India came to being. This week, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted the Muslim-dominated Indian side of Kashmir significant autonomy.

The Indian government also presented a bill in Parliament to change Jammu and Kashmir’s status from a state to a union territory. In India, state governments enjoy autonomy over local issues, but in the case of a union territory, New Delhi maintains authority in all matters. As the BJP enjoys a parliamentary majority, the bill is likely to be passed. In addition to this, Article 35-A has also been repealed; the article gave local Kashmiris the right to employment and dictated that only Kashmiris were allowed to buy property and businesses in their homeland. From now on, anyone in India will be able to buy property and operate businesses in J&K.

The Kashmiris see this as a move to disturb the demographics of the state and fear that, if non-Kashmiris are allowed to come and do business in Kashmir, it will soon turn into a Muslim minority area. The BJP also plans to separate Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir. Ladakh is a region where Buddhists and Hindus make up slightly more than half the population.

The BJP won a general election earlier this year on narratives of hyper-nationalism and by loudly touting the religious slogans of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism). As the party’s leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, promised that a re-elected BJP government would repeal Article 370, the latest developments come as no surprise. However, the manner in which the BJP did this is questionable on moral as well as legal grounds.

In order to amend the constitution, the BJP needed its bill to revoke Article 370 to be approved by the J&K local assembly. However, last year the BJP pulled out of an alliance with its partners in J&K, causing rule in the region to be taken over by the state governor. Knowing that there was no assembly functioning, the BJP used its capacity to gain support from the state governor to push Article 370 through by presidential order.

If the move is challenged in the Supreme Court, it could be declared null and void. However, shrewd BJP leaders know that Supreme Court proceedings take time, giving the government opportunities to take further steps that the court will be unable to remedy. For example, non-Kashmiri Indians who buy properties in or relocate to Kashmir could not be removed by the court as they too could file appeals against such decisions.

Modi and the BJP may have executed their plan cleverly, but at the same time, they have underestimated the power of the reactions of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. At present, there is an almost curfew-like situation ongoing in the Kashmir Valley, with Indian paramilitary forces patrolling around the clock. Internet and mobile phone services have been suspended. This is a scenario in which the BJP may be able to suppress a backlash from the Muslim majority of Kashmir, but not for long.

As soon as controls over movement are dropped, the people of Kashmir will take to the streets, making it almost impossible for the Modi government to maintain law and order. Another consideration is that, at the time of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the rulers of Kashmir wanted to remain independent. But when war broke out between India and Pakistan over the occupation of Kashmir, the local rulers chose to align themselves with India on the condition that Kashmir would remain a state-granted maximum autonomy by New Delhi. Modi’s recent moves may have made his supporters happy, but they also reneged on the long-standing agreement on autonomy in the region.

Kashmir has always been a flashpoint between Pakistan and India and it is one of the world’s most heavily militarized zones. While they occupy separate parts, both Pakistan and India claim ownership of the entire Kashmir Valley. For a long time, the youth of Kashmir have been victims of brutal treatment by Indian military forces while at the same time they have have been fed propaganda from Pakistan encouraging them to wage jihad (holy war) against India.

Another important element to be considered is the exodus of Hindus from Kashmir in 1989 and 1990 when hundreds of thousands of Hindus fled oppression by Islamist insurgents. Since Kashmir continues to be the main battleground of a proxy war between India and Pakistan, there has been a continuous use of religious and nationalist slogans to exploit the population of the region.

Under these circumstances, Modi is playing with fire as this most recent move has met with considerable anger on the Pakistan side of Kashmir, as well as elsewhere in Pakistan, whose population is taught from childhood that Kashmir is an integral part of Pakistan that one day Pakistan will rule in its entirety.

On the other hand, Indians have long been fed propaganda about Pakistan and Kashmir, blaming Pakistan for anti-India sentiment in the region. However, the use of paramilitary force in recent days has resulted in even more hatred aimed toward India by the youth of Kashmir. The United Nations appears as helpless as it has been in Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan, only issuing a statement asking both Pakistan and India to show restraint.

If the United Nations had had any real power or global players like the US or the United Kingdom had mediated between the South Asian rivals, thousands of innocent lives might have been saved and millions of citizens protected from religious and nationalist extremism.

While the secular forces are losing ground in India as hyper-nationalism and religious narcissism prevail, perhaps it would be difficult for more sane voices in India to convince the larger chunk of the population that this move by Modi will only bring more violence, inspire greater resistance in the Kashmir Valley and, as a result, cause more death and destruction.

Indian and Pakistani troops are already engaged in fighting on the Line of Control in Kashmir with heavy artillery being used sporadically by both sides. The real tragedy is that no matter which side is the aggressor, only innocent Kashmiris pay the cost of this adventure with their lives.

In the past, Pakistan has been criticized for harboring terrorists like Maulana Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed, who were waging proxy war in Kashmir by exploiting Kashmiri youth in the name of religion. Now Modi is committing similar acts. No constitutional amendment or demographic changes can possibly instill a love for India in the minds of hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris since no government can ever hope to win respect from the very people who bear the brunt of its tactics.

Perhaps it is time for the superpowers to intervene and save Kashmir from this long-running battle. The UN should condemn the repeal of Article 370 as inhumane and should prevent Modi from further oppressing Kashmiris in the names of religion and nationalistic patriotism.

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