The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

India’s clampdown on Kashmir continues. Here’s what you need to know.

Placeholder while article actions load

The Indian government moved last week to revoke special status for Indian-controlled Kashmir, a long-contested region abutting Pakistan and China that constituted India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The move will rein in some of the autonomy Kashmir previously enjoyed, and it has raised worries of fresh armed conflict in an area that has already suffered decades of violence. Those fears were heightened by India moving troops into the region ahead of the decision and shutting down Internet access after the announcement was made.

Since then, Kashmir residents have remained largely cut off from the rest of the world as an unprecedented clampdown stretched into its second week. Indian authorities have detained prominent local politicians and party workers, and an Indian Supreme Court justice said Tuesday that the crackdown should continue to give authorities more time to restore order, Reuters reported.

India’s decision has provoked outrage in Pakistan and global worries over a fresh armed conflict. Pakistan responded by downgrading diplomatic relations with its neighbor and calling on international allies to take its side.

Here’s what you need to know about the region and what losing its special status could lead to:

Where is Kashmir and why is it contested?

The Himalayan region of Kashmir lies at the northernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. As India and Pakistan won independence from Britain in 1947 and underwent a bloody partition into two states, Kashmir originally opted to remain independent from both nations. Facing threats from Pakistani militants, Kashmir’s Hindu ruler soon acceded the territory to India. The first of many armed conflicts between India and Pakistan over the region followed, and the sovereignty of Kashmir has remained disputed ever since.

Kashmir is currently divided between three countries: India, Pakistan and China. India controls the largest portion — which until now has been known as Jammu and Kashmir state — while Pakistan has jurisdiction over two areas called Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. China controls a territory called Aksai Chin to the east, although India has long claimed this area as well.

Several wars have broken out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Since 1972, a 460-mile-long Line of Control has functioned as an unofficial border between the countries in the area. A cease-fire agreement has remained in place since 2003. Still, clashes along this border have persisted; 86 civilians were killed by cross-border firing in 2018 alone.

Tensions spiked in February, when a deadly terrorist attack killed 38 police officers in Indian-controlled Kashmir and the two nuclear-armed powers exchanged airstrikes for the first time since 1971. Human rights organizations have called Kashmir one of the world’s most militarized zones, and Amnesty International has condemned the Indian government’s practice of using a sweeping public safety law to detain people there without trial.

The night the soldiers came: Allegations of abuse surface in Kashmir

Why did Kashmir have special status, and what does its removal mean?

When Kashmir agreed to join India in 1947, it did so with conditions that it would retain a degree of autonomy. This autonomy was protected by Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which gave Kashmir the right to make its own laws.

The changes the Indian government announced last week would overturn Article 370, as well as another provision that prevents nonresidents from buying property in Jammu and Kashmir. The government also said it would reconstitute the state administratively and reorganize it into two federal territories. One of these — still called Jammu and Kashmir — would have a state legislature, while the other, a remote mountainous area called Ladakh, would be under direct central governance.

Taken together, these steps will significantly reduce the autonomy of Kashmir and limit the authority of its local government. They also effectively eliminate the ability of Kashmir’s legislature to make residency rules, meaning outsiders who previously could not buy land in Kashmir can now do so. Some analysts say this opens the door to Hindu settlers who could dramatically alter the demographics of the region and worsen sectarian tensions.

India pulled the special status of Kashmir, long a flash point with Pakistan, as it moved to fully integrate the region with the rest of the country. (Video: Reuters)

Why did the Indian government decide to revoke this status?

India’s interior minister, Amit Shah, cited security concerns when he announced the revocation. The central government is removing Kashmir’s special status “keeping in view the prevailing internal security fueled by cross-border terrorism,” Shah said in a statement.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, pointed to economic reasons as the rationale, arguing that changes to Kashmir’s status would bring economic development and infrastructure improvements to the region.

Other government officials who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity said the move was aimed at improving the “legislative efficiency” of a state whose development has lagged behind the rest of the country. They also pointed to separatist groups in the area that have fought Indian authorities for years.

But government preparations ahead of the announcement fueled speculation that New Delhi has been planning the revocation for some time. Local media reported that the Indian government had deployed 35,000 additional troops to Kashmir the week before, and the government abruptly put a stop to an annual Hindu pilgrimage and evacuated tourists there. Army officials said they had intelligence that Pakistan-based militants were planning an attack on Hindus traveling to the region.

The removal of Kashmir’s special status comes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, performed well in recent elections in May. The action fulfills one of Modi’s campaign promises — but it raised fears that tensions between Muslims and Hindus would spike throughout the country.

What has the reaction been?

Opposition politicians in India have decried the move as an attack on Indian democracy, and analysts have described it as unprecedented.

Political leaders in Kashmir called the special status revocation “illegal and unconstitutional.” Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, warned that it would render India an “occupational force” in the area and called this the “darkest day in Indian democracy.”

For days after the announcement, it remained difficult to determine how, exactly, Kashmir residents were reacting to the news amid an ongoing communications blackout.

Post reporters who traveled to the region over the weekend reported that hundreds of local politicians and party workers are still being held in detention centers — sometimes without contact with their families — or under house arrest. Government officials declined to comment on the detentions.

Protests around the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha did not turn violent as some had feared. But police did fire tear gas and pellets at thousands of demonstrators on Friday, eyewitnesses and injured protesters told The Post. (The government has denied these allegations).

Pakistani leaders, meanwhile, reacted with anger last week, accusing Modi’s government of prejudice against Muslims and vowed to stand up for Kashmiris.

“The Pakistan army stands firmly by the Kashmiris in their just struggle … We are prepared and shall go to any extent to fulfill our obligations,” Pakistan’s senior military commanders said in a statement.

Addressing a special session of Pakistan’s parliament, Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the Indian government of elevating a “racist ideology."

“I fear they may initiate ethnic cleansing in Kashmir to wipe out the local population,” he said, pledging to alert world leaders to the situation.

Khan had already discussed the possibility of President Trump mediating between India and Pakistan in talks over Kashmir when Khan visited the White House last month. India rejected this offer again last week.

On Wednesday, Pakistan announced it would downgrade diplomatic relations and suspend bilateral trade with India. The prime minister’s office also said the government would file a formal protest with the U.N. Security Council. Khan dialed up his rhetoric this week, comparing India’s revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy to “Nazi ideology.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement last week that the United States is “closely following” the situation in Kashmir, though she noted that the Indian government described these measures as “strictly an internal matter.”

“We are concerned about reports of detentions and urge respect for individual rights and discussion with those in affected communities,” she said. “We call on all parties to maintain peace and stability along the Line of Control.”

The crackdown is Kashmir is currently being challenged in India’s Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on the case in the coming days, according to Reuters. In the meantime, restrictions on communication and movement have largely continued, though the government has relaxed them in certain areas.