In less than one hour, without any real debate inside India’s Parliament, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi upended 72 years of policy and changed the course of Kashmir’s history.
The sudden decision on Monday to withdraw the historic special status to Jammu and Kashmir, constitutionally mandated under what is called Article 370, was taken while several elected representatives in the state were placed under house arrest and mobile and Internet services were cut off. The disruptive move was not preceded by any consultations with any political or civil society members. Nor was there any warning to the public about the most momentous paradigm shift India has ever seen in domestic policy on Kashmir.
Yet this serious gamble for the future of Kashmir — which could either be a game-changer or set back peace-building efforts by several years — plays politically well for Modi and his home minister and second-in-command, Amit Shah. For one, it pleases Modi’s core base and delivers on an old promise (the ruling BJP’s manifesto had always promised to implement this). Also, with the exception of only a handful, most political parties have backed the government for what it has called the “integration of Kashmir into the mainstream.“
Social media feeds are flooded with Indians welcoming the move, among them many who did not even vote for Modi, and who have in fact been fiercely critical of him. If you speak to people across party lines in India today, many agreed with the BJP argument: Too many privileges were enjoyed by a state where many constantly questioned their affiliation to India. The idea of “one nation, one law” is appealing.
It is this nationalist sentiment that the BJP has been able to tap into, throwing the opposition into disarray yet again. The Congress, which started the day opposing the decision, was split by the evening, with several leaders breaking from the party line to support the government. The party’s most prominent faces, Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka (their great-grandfather negotiated Article 370) were conspicuously silent. Whatever little criticism there was related more to the stealth of decision-making and the crackdown on ordinary Kashmiris. It also appeared to come solely from the English-language media. In fact, the BJP is perhaps hoping for a polarized debate on this between liberals and conservatives — it would suit them perfectly.
As such, the political logic of Modi’s decision is self-evident. But what is less obvious is the timing.
One reason to push through the change now is that there is no elected government in Jammu and Kashmir. By law, abrogating the special status needs the consent of the assembly. Right now, that consent has been given by the governor, who was to administer the state until elections were held. Modi would also like to make the decision the showpiece of his Independence Day address on Aug. 15. And, of course, it also gets the headlines off the creeping negativity about the economy.
But geopolitics appears to have played a part, too. President Trump’s cozying up to Pakistan’s Imran Khan— just as the United States enters its end game in Afghanistan — and his foolish offer to mediate on Kashmir have been met with this answer. Modi has cocked a snook at Trump and also changed the contours of the India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir. With a massive military deployment in the buildup to the announcement, India is clearly readying for another phase of tensions while signaling to the West that their comments on Kashmir will be met with a cool shrug.
Article 370 allowed Jammu and Kashmir’s legislature autonomy over drafting their own laws, except in the key areas of defense, foreign affairs, communication and finance. Coupled with another article, it also ensured that non-permanent residents of Kashmir could not buy land or have voting rights, even if they had lived in the state for decades. This unusual status also permitted the state to have its own constitution and flag — one that flew alongside the Indian tricolor on all government buildings. This was the way to fold Kashmir’s historic uniqueness into India’s democratic traditions, while rejecting the secessionist insurgency and terrorism funneled through it by Pakistan.
Modi just ended all of that. Jammu and Kashmir is now reduced to a union territory, a category that allows the federal government in Delhi to exercise direct control. Shah, the home minister, said full statehood will be restored once “normalcy" returns and called Article 370 a “source of terrorism.”
The Modi government has scored a political victory. But will it alter the course of the 29-year-old insurgency in the Kashmir valley? One of the most worrisome aspects of the last few hours has been how the government has treated mainstream Kashmiri politicians as if they were anti-national separatists. Many of them braved great dangers and faced great pressure to contest elections and maintain allegiance to the Indian state. Weakening them further — one leader told me the latest move “reduces them to zero” — raises questions about who the government opens a dialogue process with should the time come.
The other big question thrown by the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status is whether it will indeed lead to Indians from across the country settling down in the newly minted union territory, purchasing land and building hospitals, factories and hotels. For this to happen, the security situation must improve.
Modi has displayed the sort of gumption that explains why he keeps winning elections. He has once again flexed his strongman authority. But, in this instance, an increment in peace will be the final measure of whether it was a hit or a miss.