Out of all this mess, one thing is for certain: Whatever comes of these moves by India, the Kashmirs themselves will be the first to face the consequences of those actions and the last to reap any dividends.
Just one short week ago, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the False Flags Over Kashmir that I wrote about in this very column in March had blown over, and that everything in the highly contentious Kashmir region connecting India, Pakistan and China was back to normal. Maybe it had all been political posturing in preparation for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reelection bid in this year's national elections, you may have thought.
But if that's what you were thinking last week, I bet you're not thinking that anymore. For you see, this past Monday all hell broke loose.
Specifically, the residents of the formerly semi-autonomous state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the northern tip of India now find themselves living in a state that has no special status. No constitutional provision for the region to pass its own laws. No more laws preventing Indians from outside the region to buy real estate or invest in J&K. In fact, Kashmiris no longer even reside in the state of Jammu and Kashmir; they now reside in one of two newly-created Union Territories, one called Jammu and Kashmir, and the other called Ladakh.
So what exactly happened this week? And what does it mean for the future of one of the most heavily-militarized and volatile geopolitical fault lines in the world?
Well, as I outlined in this week's edition of New World Next Week, there are three ways to examine what just took place in India this week.
1) The Legal Perspective
Fundamentally, this week's events center around a pair of major changes in the way the formerly semi-autonomous state of Jammu and Kashmir is governed, and the way it slots into the greater Indian state. The long story short is that Amit Shah, India's Home Minister and the right-hand man of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, presented a presidential special order to India's parliament on Monday that amends a section of the Indian constitution granting J&K its special status. This was immediately followed by the introduction (and subsequent passing) of The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019 splitting the State of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, i.e., federally-administered territories under the ultimate control of the Indian government itself.
The short story long is a complex tale that requires knowledge of Indian history, politics and law. Essentially, up until 1947, Jammu and Kashmir was a princely state of the British Empire in India. When Britain withdrew from India, the ruler of J&K planned to remain independent from both India and Pakistan, but unrest within the state and attacks from outside the state pushed him to sign an Instrument of Accession to the Dominion of India. That Instrument of Accession has been shrouded in such mystery and so heavily guarded that some scholars even doubted its existence; it wasn't even seen by the general public until 2016 when The Wire published scans of the actual document online for the first time. That instrument vouchsafed a wide range of autonomy for J&K within the state of India, including an assurance that the Maharaja Hari Singh retained sovereignty over the territory and that the accession did not commit J&K "in any way to acceptance of any future constitution of India or to fetter my discretion to enter into arrangements with the Government of India under any such future constitution."
Article 370 of the Indian Constitution afforded J&K a special status within the Dominion of India, allowing the region its own constitution and allowing its constituent assembly to decide which sections of the Indian constitution it would adopt. A subsequent provision—Article 35A of the Indian constitution, adopted in 1954—further protected the state's special status, limiting who could become permanent residents of J&K and thus who could purchase land in the region. Further, Article 370 expressly stated that no changes to this special status of J&K could be made without the consent of the state's constituent assembly.
There was just one problem: J&K's constituent assembly was dissolved in 1956. Although hotly debated in various fora over the decades, it was widely presumed that the assembly's dissolution meant that J&K's special status was a permanent fixture of the Indian constitution. Until this past Monday, that is.
To get around the impasse, Modi's government simply issued an order replacing the words "Constituent Assembly" in Article 370 with the words "Legislative Assembly." And, since the Legislative Assembly of J&K was dissolved last year, its power has devolved to the Indian government, which is now abrogating Article 370.
Don't worry, it's clear as mud to everyone, and like all such massive politico-legal moves, it's open to debate, interpretation, and court challenge. The Associated Press for its part, is quoting Indian legal "experts" who assure us that "The process by which New Delhi has scrapped the preferential status accorded to (Jammu and Kashmir) by the constitution and split J&K into two union territories is constitutionally vulnerable."
In other words, don't expect this to be a done deal quite yet. We're going to see plenty of political and legal fireworks within the Indian legal system and the Indian parliament itself before the dust settles on this bold move.
But perhaps you're wondering why this matters at all. Surely this is just some internal Indian political squabble, isn't it?
Which brings us to . . .
2) The Geopolitical Perspective
As I was at pains to stress in my article on False Flags Over Kashmir earlier this year, Kashmir "contains territories administered by three nuclear powers, all of whom have been to war in the region within living memory and all of whom have their own tangle of political, economic and military interests in the area." For those just getting up to speed with the northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent, the Kashmir region is home to disputed territory between nuclear-armed India, their arch-nemesis Pakistan (also nuclear armed), and their sometime-frenemy, sometime-rival China (also nuclear armed). As you can imagine, massive changes to the status quo on any side of the contested borders in the region is seen as an international incident, and it is not taken lightly.
Leading the charge is, of course, Pakistan, which is a supporter of local independence movements (more on which later) in the Muslim-majority region. Pakistan's Prime Minister, Imran Khan, warned on Tuesday that “The Pakistan army firmly stands by the Kashmiris in their just struggle to the very end. We are prepared and shall go to any extent to fulfill our obligations in this regard." These are not idle words. On Wednesday, the Pakistani government began to take diplomatic action, first suspending all bilateral trade and downgrading diplomatic relations with India, and then expelling Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria from Islamabad. Khan has also vowed to take the issue to the United Nations Security Council.
China, meanwhile, has issued a statement through Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying calling India's actions "unacceptable" and claiming that they "would not have any legal effect." Don't forget that India and China were involved in their own military standoff in Doklam in 2017, so the two nations are no stranger to military tension.
And just to make things even more tense, let us not forget (as if we ever could) that Uncle Sam—as self-appointed policeman of the world—is always keen to stick his nose into any corner of the world in the name of protecting his "security interests." In this case, the US State Department has said ("without any shred of bloody irony" as James Evan Pilato sarcastically notes in this week's New World Next Week) that it is "concerned about reports of detentions and urge respect for individual rights and discussion with those in affected communities." For what it's worth, Washington is denying reports that the Indian government had conferred with Mike Pompeo prior to making its surprise announcement, but we do know that the US has intense interest in India and its future role as head of the Indo-Pacific, so it's inconceivable that the two governments aren't conferring about how to deal with the fallout of this event.
However this very tense scenario plays out geopolitically (and it is not inconceivable that there may be military posturing if not outright conflict here), the real deciding factor may be the one that many are neglecting, namely:
3) The Domestic Perspective
There's a reason that J&K has been afforded special status within the Dominion of India: It is its own area with its own people and its own history. Just the fact that it is a Muslim-majority state should be a rather obvious clue that the people of J&K do not fit in easily with the Hindu-dominated Indian nation. As a result, ever since the accession of Jammu and Kashmir as an Indian state, there have been various separatist movements, insurgencies and rebel groups advocating for the region to become part of Pakistan or to achieve full independence.
India has always seen J&K as an essential part of India. What's more, Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP) is "driven by a far-right Hindu chauvinist ideology," making Kashmir a "dress rehearsal for Hindu nationalist fantasies." In short: Modi's government is turning India from a nominally secular and pluralist democracy into a hardline Hindu-only state. The opening up of previously protected J&K to influence from elsewhere in India is, in the government's eyes, the first step toward ensuring the dilution of the Muslim-majority territory until it is effectively Hindu controlled.
Pakistan, meanwhile, believes that the Kashmiri people should be "free" to make their own choices (i.e., support Pakistan and act as a buffer against India). That Pakistan has a security interest in the region is obvious enough; as PM Khan correctly points out, any protests and clashes with Indian military forces in Kashmir as a result of this decision will likely be blamed on Pakistan and used as an excuse for further military incursions into their country. But more than that, J&K is a Muslim toehold within India itself that has a population sympathetic to Pakistan, and as such serves a useful purpose for Islamabad in keeping New Delhi occupied and distracted from Pakistan itself.
But what of the Kashmiris themselves? Apart from being a plaything in a proxy war between India and Pakistan, or a bargaining tool in both nations' dealing with China and the One Belt One Road project, what do the actual residents of the region think about these developments?
Sadly, we don't know. As I write this column, the entire J&K region has been under total security lockdown for five days. This includes "Tens of thousands of government forces in riot gear," a "near-total communications blackout [. . .] forcing some news organizations to hand-carry dispatches out of the region," and "Shopping malls, grocery stores and even clinics" being closed. Without the ability to phone, text or email each other, and with limited access to cable TV and local radio, Kashmiris have been left almost completely in the dark about what is actually happening there.
The reports out of the region are eerie, and read more like dispatches from a post-nuclear war zone than a developed 21st-century society. The scattered reports that have made it out of the area so far have indicated that travel around J&K has been severely restricted and in some areas is limited to those with a government-issued curfew pass. As Shah Faesal puts it in his own harrowing report: "You can say that the entire eight million population has been incarcerated like never before."
At press time, reports indicate that the Indian government is easing up on the lockdown, with some videos appearing to show people lining up outside of banks and shops selling vegetables and medicine. A massive military presence is still patrolling the region, however, with thousands of Indian security personnel stationed across the Valley to guard against any hint of protest or riot.
Out of all this mess, one thing is for certain: Whatever comes of these moves by India, the Kashmirs themselves will be the first to face the consequences of those actions and the last to reap any dividends. As ever, it is the people themselves that suffer from the power plays of the politicians.
This is obviously a developing story, and I will be keeping tabs on those developments in the coming days and weeks. Stay tuned . . .