It has always been relatively easy for Indian governments from both the political left and right to keep Kashmir from the eyes of the world. At no time has this been more obvious than now. Landlocked, under the guns of half a million Indian troops and paramilitaries, cut off sporadically from all modern communications and portrayed as a nest of Pakistani-backed Islamic terrorists, Kashmiris have suffered in isolation.
Then it got worse. On Aug. 5-6 the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) administration in Delhi, still fresh from an astounding election victory in May, rammed through two houses of Parliament, without consultation or serious debate, a remaking of the map of Himalayan border areas. The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir — never recognized in international eyes as legally Indian — was effectively erased from the map of the subcontinent to be divided into two territories under direct control of the central government of India. They became “union territories,” at a loss of political power, state-level government and legislatures.
Ladakh, with its largely Buddhist population, was hived off to become a separate, central government-controlled territory, and its people are reported to be happy about that, since they chafed at living under the larger Jammu and Kashmir state. (No mention seems to have been made of a small border area along the Himalayas claimed by China.) The rest of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, will become the second new union territory.
The Indian government imposed an additional pre-emptive order on the Kashmiri Muslim part of the territory, with Srinagar as its central town and cultural capital. Hindus (or any other non-Kashmiris) would now have the right to own property in territory that had been reserved for the Kashmiri people — not all of them Muslim — since the Indian constitution was promulgated in 1950. Jammu and Kashmir’s population is about 14 million, with about half concentrated in and around the Kashmir Valley.
Underlying and motivating the BJP’s actions was the longstanding goal of Hindu nationalists to change the ethnic-religious composition of Kashmir by fostering the growth of what would eventually be a Hindu majority, as there is in the Jammu sector. Kashmiris see themselves as unique, Sufi-inspired Muslims, different from other Muslim communities in India. They lived in what the more romantic of the British who summered there on elegant houseboats called the Vale of Kashmir.
Pakistan, which has disputed India’s claims on Kashmir for decades and is still a party to 1948 Security Council resolutions that have never been rescinded, is working on a response to the Indian moves and strategizing over how to bring the United Nations back into dealing with the crisis.
A letter from the Pakistan foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, to Secretary-General António Guterres on Aug. 6, which is now online, asked that India’s actions be brought to the Security Council’s attention. (UN document A/73/974-S/2019/635)
[Update, Aug. 12: Pakistan said on Saturday that it had gained China’s support to take a motion to the UN Security Council on the Indian decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir, according to Reuters news agency.]
Stripping the Jammu and Kashmir region of rights that had been enshrined in Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution has brought a round of criticism from prominent Indian commentators and some media organizations. They question how the Modi government can square this policy with its claims to being the world’s most populous democracy. Blame for the draconian decision is placed on Amit Shah, the new home minister under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Shah, a tough enforcer, is an outspoken Hindu nationalist opposed to immigration, who has been quoted calling migrants from Bangladesh “termites.”
Siddharth Varadarajan, a former editor of The Hindu and a founding editor of The Wire, wrote on Aug. 6:
“That Shah’s bombshells were accompanied by the kind of measures one normally associates with a police state — the stealthy introduction of major constitutional changes, the lack of adequate time for debate, the late night arrest of mainstream political leaders in Kashmir, the prohibition of public gatherings, the shutdown of internet services and even landlines — adds the sort of odour one normally associates with coups. The message is clear: there will be no room in Kashmir for free politics of the kind every integral part of India takes for granted.”
By Aug. 8, reports in the Indian media emerged of hundreds of detentions and Kashmiri families running out of food. Most journalists have been barred from entering or working in Kashmir.
Varadarajan, commenting on the trajectory of the second term of the Modi government, which first came to power in 2014, defeating a weakened Congress party, wrote: “Make no mistake about this — what Amit Shah and Narendra Modi have unveiled on Monday is not just an assault on the unique place that Jammu and Kashmir enjoys in India but on the very federal structure of the Indian constitution. If they spent their first term in office undermining a whole host of institutions, Modi 2.0 will target the one institution that was still somewhat intact — federalism.”
Hafsa Kanjwal is an assistant professor of South Asian history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and an expert on Kashmiri history and politics. She said in an interview with PassBlue that it is important to keep the focus on the constitutional issue and not leave the impression that the current Kashmir crisis is reflective solely of a Hindu-Muslim divide.
“The constitutional issue is important for international observers, human rights organizations, international jurists, other countries or the UN to highlight the unconstitutionality [of India’s action] on an international level,” she said. “It also is important to those Indians who care about the law and the constitution. It gives them a talking point to take this issue forward without necessarily having to show [support] for the Kashmiris or their aspirations.”
Kanjwal added that some Indian lawyers are already issuing statements arguing that India’s actions are illegal and violate international norms. Lining up international legal experts with Indian lawyers to speak with a single voice can provide cover when “an individual voice can be completely trolled,” she said. International voices are just beginning to be heard.
Pakistan — nuclear armed, as is India — reacted first, as would be expected. Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former world-famous cricketer who led a new party of his own creation, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) to victory in a national election a year ago, has made several overtures to India since taking office, but there has been no reciprocation. In February this year, relations were set back further when a Kashmiri suicide bomber killed about 40 Indian troops in a military convoy on the Srinagar-Jammu highway in Pulwama district.
India retaliated 12 days later with an airstrike that went wrong when an Indian plane was shot down and the pilot captured. Khan returned the pilot to India unharmed. In July, the Pakistanis arrested Hafiz Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group that carried out the deadly attacks in Mumbai in 2008. He had been living more or less openly in Pakistan. More recently, Pakistan began restoring an ancient Hindu temple that had fallen into ruins over more than 70 years.
Such gestures are now on hold, however, after India’s unilateral action on Kashmir. Pakistan has cut trade ties with India and sent the Indian high commissioner (ambassador) home.
The Pakistani government is now considering how to get the Indian moves on Kashmir onto the UN Security Council agenda, a difficulty because of the veto power of Russia, which often supports India; and China, which has not showed its hand, and the apparent indifference of the United States. The two top Democratic members of the US Congress on foreign affairs, Eliot Engel in the House of Representatives and Senator Bob Menendez in the Senate, issued a bland statement that said, in its totality:
“As the world’s largest democracy, India has an opportunity to demonstrate for all its citizens the importance of protecting and promoting equal rights including freedom of assembly, access to information and equal protections under the law. Transparency and political participation are the cornerstones of representative democracies, and we hope the Indian government will abide by these principles in Jammu and Kashmir. And at the same time Pakistan must refrain from any retaliatory aggression — including support for infiltrations across the Line of Control — and take demonstrable action against the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil.”
Pakistan has some points on its side at the UN. When British Colonial India was divided into the modern nations of India and Pakistan, Kashmir’s future was left to be resolved later. On the Indian side, a Hindu Maharaja was the titular ruler of a largely Muslim population and the final status of his “princely state,” as it was known, was to be decided by the people who lived there. No border was fixed in that region between India and Pakistan.
Kashmir escaped the horrific violence that claimed at least a million lives in other areas of India proper as Muslims fled to the newly created Pakistan and mostly Hindus returned through chaos and violence to India. The Line of Control became a de facto border that has remained so since.
Security Council Resolution 38 in January 1948 asked the Council president to open direct talks between India and Pakistan. In the interim, it requested “each of those Governments to inform the Council immediately of any material change in the situation which occurs or appears to either of them to be about to occur while the matter is under consideration by the Council, and consult with the Council thereon.”
That resolution has never been revoked and remains on the books, as Secretary-General Guterres reiterated in a statement on Aug. 8, saying:
“The Secretary-General has been following the situation in Jammu and Kashmir with concern and makes an appeal for maximum restraint. The position of the United Nations on this region is governed by the Charter of the United Nations and applicable Security Council resolutions.
“The Secretary-General also recalls the 1972 Agreement on bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, also known as the Simla Agreement, which states that the final status of Jammu and Kashmir is to be settled by peaceful means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
“The Secretary-General is also concerned over reports of restrictions on the Indian-side of Kashmir, which could exacerbate the human rights situation in the region. The Secretary-General calls on all parties to refrain from taking steps that could affect the status of Jammu and Kashmir.”
In an interview with PassBlue, Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, indicated that her government’s position has consistently been and will remain that India’s changes in the status of Kashmir violate that fundamental Security Council resolution.
“The resolution talks about that no country can bring about a material change in the situation, and there are no statute of limitations on Security Council resolutions,” she said.
There is also the presence of a UN monitoring mission, however small, on the Pakistani-India line that attests to the continuing role of the UN there. Replying to a question from PassBlue about the future of that mission, the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan, known as Unmogip, a UN peacekeeping spokesman said in an email, “The mandate of UNMOGIP as established by the Security Council remains unchanged and UNMOGIP continues to implement its mandate.”
Ambassador Lodhi said that amid all the discussions of legal and constitutional issues, however, what is often lost is the plight of the people of Kashmir.
Shiraz Sidhva, an Indian journalist who reported extensively on Kashmir for the Indian press and the Financial Times in the 1990s, remembers those days.
“As a young girl holidaying in Kashmir in the 1970s,” she wrote to PassBlue in an email, “I remember my surprise that staff at the houseboats and hotels, or the men who took us on pony rides in Gulmarg and Pahalgam had one stock question: ‘Are you visiting from India?’ ‘But we are in India, aren’t we?’ would be my constant and indignant retort. The people of Kashmir were always warm and welcoming to the hordes of Indian tourists who would invade the valley every year, but they never thought of themselves as Indian.
“Years later, when I returned to the valley in 1989, to cover the political turmoil, it struck me how politicians had tried to drive a wedge between the Kashmiri Muslims and Hindu Pandits — and succeeded,” she wrote. “The two communities, who had more in common with each other than with Muslims and Hindus in other parts of India, had lived together in harmony for centuries. The Kashmiri Muslims followed Sufism, a gentle, broader style of worship, and most did not align themselves with the Islam in Pakistan, across the border.
“The ending of this religious harmony was one of the biggest tragedies of the crisis that gripped the valley starting in the late 1980s.”
This article has been updated.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.