But now, as the Modi government places political leaders under house arrest, risks violence along the Pakistan border and reneges on a constitution promise without debate or deliberation, Indians can no longer afford to stay silent. The administration is making India less democratic and stable, one authoritarian step at a time.
On Monday, Home Minister Amit Shah announced that it was revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted Kashmir special status. The article — which allowed the state to set its own laws except for those related to defense, communications and foreign policy — was the bedrock of Kashmir’s accession to India in 1947. Shah also announced support for a bill that would split the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, one of which will not have a state legislature.
It’s hard to overstate what this means for Kashmir, India and South Asia as a whole. The announcement could have disastrous consequences for Kashmir’s tenuous equilibrium. The region, India’s only Muslim-majority state, has been a point of contention between India and Pakistan since the partition. With many Kashmiris preferring either independence or accession to Pakistan, Article 370 was a compromise that allowed the state a measure of autonomy and acknowledged its historical and cultural differences from the rest of India. Abrogating it risks destabilizing the region, engendering violence and further alienating Kashmiris, who have long been opposed to what they see as Indian militarism and oppression.
Of particular concern is the government’s decision to eliminate a constitutional article that prohibited nonresidents from purchasing property in the region. Without Article 35A, as it is known, Kashmiris fear the government will push Hindus from other states to move to the region and “Indianize” Kashmir at the expense of its unique identity. Given Modi’s and Shah’s records of anti-Muslim comments and visions of India as a Hindu “rashtra,” or state, these concerns are warranted.
The move comes in the middle of a broader crackdown in the region. After the attacks in February on Pulwama in Kashmir, the government arrested activists and dramatically increased its armed presence in what is already considered one of the world’s most militarized zones. Over the past few weeks, the Indian government deployed an estimated 35,000 additional troops to the state and suspended Internet and mobile services, leaving Kashmiris in the dark about their own future. The eventual announcement, after days of uncertainty and misinformation, cost India what little credibility it had left in Kashmir and showed that the government has no qualms flexing its authoritarian muscles at the cost of peace.
This flagrant disregard for democracy and secularism is not new. Since it came to power in 2014, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has viewed violence and instability as collateral damage in its quest to achieve its nationalistic goals. After this week’s heavy-handedness on Kashmir, the ruling party will only grow more emboldened. India’s opposition acceded to the change with barely a whimper — and, in fact, with some enthusiastic support. The Indian public was largely jubilant, viewing Kashmir’s special status as an unfair privilege rather than a historical necessity. And while some hope that India’s Supreme Court has grounds to reverse the move, it is unclear whether the court will intervene.
That leaves the BJP with the knowledge that it can act with impunity to overturn decades of policy and norms — and won’t even face a political price as a result. This bodes ill for democratic accountability in India.
In the years to come under the Modi administration, Kashmiris will enjoy even fewer freedoms as the central government cracks down on dissenters. India will move even closer to becoming a Hindu rashtra. And the cracks in the world’s largest democracy will grow even deeper.
For many, Modi’s rise was seen as the beginning of the end of peace in India. After this week’s Kashmir decision, it may be harder to undo the damage.