India entered uncharted waters 5 August with the Indian government’s decision to dissolve the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and to strip the territory from its special status within the federation. Such an extremely sensitive movement in a territory that, since 1947, has witnessed one of the longest-running armed conflicts in the world, is likely to reignite tensions in the wider region.
Indian Home Minister Amit Shah explained that the government has decided to revoke the special status that Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. The government and the regional assembly exercised so far their own powers, that they are now set to lose. The same applies to the J&K flag, Constitution and penal code.
Article 370 directly originates from the treaty by which Jammu and Kashmir became part of India, not Pakistan, in 1947. Pakistan’s disagreement with the 1947 decision has led to more than seven decades of clashes, wars and permanent tension between nuclear powers Pakistan and India, as well as fuelling a growing independence movement in Kashmir.
The Indian government’s decision goes further. Not only has it revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, but it has also decided to divide the territory into two halves. One, the western zone, will become the new union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which will bring together Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley with Hindu-majority Jammu. The other, the eastern zone, will become the union territory of Ladakh, an area inhabited by populations that speak a language close to Tibetan.
Pakistan reacted to the move by saying that it is “illegal” and further said that “no unilateral step by the Government of India can change this disputed status... As the party to this international dispute, Pakistan will exercise all possible options to counter the illegal steps.” Islamabad added that the change will not “ever be acceptable to the people of Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan.”
The Indian government is led by prime minister Narendra Modi, of Hindu nationalist, right-wing BJP, which for years had advocated the suppression of J&K’s special status as a way of strengthening Indian national unity. The BJP comfortably won the Indian election that took place in April and May 2019.
Supporters of the current change argue that it will bring several benefits. Among these, they mention the fact that the measure will serve to carry out a more effective policy against terrorism, that it will put an end to a discrimination against Kashmiri women, who will now be able to maintain their property rights if they marry someone from outside the territory —until now they lost them—, and will comply with some historic demands from Ladakh to be separated from Jammu and Kashmir.
One effect that may also be very important is that citizens of the rest of India will now be able to buy property in Jammu and Kashmir and settle there permanently, which they were prohibited from doing until now. But in the Kashmir Valley — where the independence movement is mainly concentrated— some voices fear that the decision will open the door to a demographic change in which Hindus will eventually become the new majority.
Ghulam Nabi Azad, leader of the main Indian opposition party, the Congress (centre liberal), said the government decision implies “the murder of the Constitution and of democracy” in the country.
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehboob Mufti has claimed that this is “the darkest day in Indian democracy.” The leader said the decision is “unconstitutional,” that it will have “catastrophic consequences,” and that now the people of Kashmir “are now thinking if they made a mistake by not joining Pakistan.”
Mufti held office between 2016 and 2018. Since her resignation, Jammu and Kashmir government has been under the direct rule of the Indian government, thus Mufti can go down in history as the last head of government the state will have had.
Tourists evacuated, troops deployed
In anticipation of the announcement triggering protests in the Kashmir Valley, Indian police have deployed some additional 40,000 troops over the past few weeks, which sparked rumour that the BJP was terminating J&K’s special status. The evacuation of all tourists visiting the area had also been ordered.
The increase in police presence takes place in a the territory that already had a very prominent presence of Indian security forces —including the military— which has been understood by many there as a de facto occupation, as we explained in this 2018 report on repression in Kashmir.
Mufti and two other Kashmiri leaders —Omar Abdullah, also former chief minister of J&K, and Sajad Lone— have been placed under house arrest. Communications have been suspended and schools have been shut down.
A disputed territory
The former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided between Pakistan and India after the 1947 partition, when British colonization ended. The west and the north fell under Pakistani control —now organized into the territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan—, while the central, southern and eastern parts were controlled by India. It is those latter parts that, thus far, constituted the now officially dissolved state of Jammu and Kashmir. Two mostly unpopulated areas are occupied by China.
Pakistan claims that all of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir should have become part of its territory in 1947 as the area has a majority Muslim population —which is true for the Kashmir Valley but not for Hindu-majority Jammu— while India, on the other hand, argues the other way round, holding that Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan should be part of the Indian territory.
Alternatively, a local movement —with majority support in the Kashmir Valley— has been calling for the holding of a referendum on self-determination in Kashmir since the 1980s.