NEW DELHI — In a single day this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi undid nearly seven decades of history.
He altered India’s relationship with its only majority-Muslim region, revoking a measure of autonomy that had been in place since the 1950s and stripping Kashmir of its status as a state. His government instituted an unheard-of communications blackout in Kashmir, affecting millions of people.
Modi, who recently won reelection in a landslide, has always cast himself as a bold leader willing to break with the past. But his latest moves in Indian-controlled Kashmir mark one of the biggest gambles of his tenure and cast the future of India’s most restive region into doubt.
For Modi, revoking the special status of Kashmir is the fulfillment of a long-held demand of Hindu nationalists, who view India as a fundamentally Hindu nation rather than the secular republic envisioned by its founders.
In a 40-minute televised speech to the nation on Thursday, Modi congratulated the country on a “historic decision” and called it an occasion for “new hopes” for the people living in the Indian-held portion of disputed Kashmir. India and Pakistan assert rival claims in the region.
Modi characterized Kashmir’s special status as an obsolete idea that had brought “nothing other than separatism, terrorism, dynastic politics and corruption.” He did not say when the communications shutdown in Kashmir would be lifted but offered an assurance that “slowly the situation will normalize.”
Modi and members of the governing party say that nullifying the special status of Kashmir will promote economic development and undermine a 30-year insurgency against Indian rule. Some opposition parties have also supported the step.
Critics say that Modi’s move to end a degree of autonomy for Kashmir could be unconstitutional and was autocratic, with no warning and no input from Kashmiris or local political leadership. The critics warn that the unprecedented changes will deepen the sense among Kashmiris that India acts as an occupying power and also are likely to incite violent protests and radicalization.
Finding out what Kashmiris feel has been complicated by a near-complete communication shutdown. For four days, Kashmiris have not been able to access the Internet or make telephone calls. Movement is severely restricted, public meetings are banned, and mainstream political leaders have been taken from their homes and detained incommunicado.
Still, reports have emerged of protesters throwing stones at security forces, as well as of several gunshot injuries and at least one death. Because of the communication shutdown, The Washington Post was unable to confirm such reports.
Manzoor Ahmed Butt, a prominent businessman, said the smell of tear gas was heavy in the air in central Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital, on Wednesday night. On Thursday morning, before he left on a trip to New Delhi, he saw a major city road littered with stones from protests, he said.
“It’s like being in a prison,” Butt said. “People will not forget this easily.”
Kashmiris “are totally in shock,” added Shah Faesal, a former bureaucrat who formed his own political party and was recently in Srinagar. “There is a sense of hopelessness and defeat written on all faces.”
For the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, however, the move is viewed as a historic victory. For decades, members of the BJP and its predecessors have pushed against the unique status accorded to the state of Jammu and Kashmir by a clause in India’s constitution known as Article 370.
Abolishing the powers of the clause is “one of the cornerstones of their ideology,” said Saba Naqvi, author of a book on the recent history of the BJP. The party has long opposed the notion of a “Muslim-majority state with special privileges.”
Ram Madhav, general secretary of the BJP, wrote recently that Article 370 was a “discriminatory” anachronism used to “perpetuate sentiments of separatism.” Abrogating it was necessary for “the complete emotional integration” of Kashmiris with India.
Analysts say that with the end of Article 370 — which allowed Kashmir rights including restricting nonresidents from buying land — the BJP could turn to two other fundamental ideological priorities: constructing a Hindu temple on a disputed site in the town of Ayodhya and eliminating the ability of religious communities to institute their own laws in matters such as marriage and divorce.
While the BJP has long opposed Article 370, this week’s moves went still further. The government lopped off Ladakh, a mountainous and predominantly Buddhist area of Jammu and Kashmir, into a separate territory. Then it stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood, turning it instead into a “union territory” — a second-class status in which Kashmir has less power to run its own affairs. Experts said they could not recall any precedent for demoting an Indian state to a union territory.
“In some ways, this is shock and awe,” said Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a longtime observer of the Kashmir conflict. Few thought the BJP would follow through on its promise to remove Kashmir’s autonomy, let alone end its status as a state, he said. “This is totally out of the box.” Modi has made dramatic moves shrouded in secrecy before: In 2016, he abruptly announced a decision to invalidate most of India’s currency.
What happens next in Kashmir is a major question. “I don’t even think the authors of the move know where it will end up,” said Manoj Joshi, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and the author of a recent book on the insurgency in Kashmir.
Once the restrictions on movement and communication have been lifted, significant protests are likely in Kashmir, Joshi said. Pakistan, which has long seen itself as the defender of Kashmiri Muslims, could also extend covert support to militants, he said, leading to further violence. On Thursday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi ruled out a military response to India’s moves in Kashmir.
Mainstream politicians in Indian-controlled Kashmir, meanwhile, will face an existential crisis. Several such leaders have been detained with no ability to communicate. In the past, they have advocated dialogue with New Delhi to resolve the region’s future, on the basis of the protections enshrined in India’s constitution.
“Once that arrangement is gone, the argument is gone,” Faesal said. “Effectively, the entire political mainstream is dead.”
Niha Masih contributed to this report.