Curfews, internet shutdowns, house arrest for opposition leaders. It’s the kind of list one normally hears in the world’s great authoritarian dictatorships. But today it is in fact the state of affairs in a part of India, the world’s largest democracy. Today the government of India announced that it was implementing direct rule and integrating the northwestern state of Jammu and Kashmir, one of the world’s hottest flash-points.
The state sits on the border with Pakistan and has been a place of tension since the partition and independence of India in 1947. Ruled nominally by a Hindu Maharaja, the Muslim-majority state tried to avoid partition and declared its independence. The move angered the Muslim tribes in the region who, with Pakistani support, tried to depose the Maharaja. India offered to help the ruler, but only after he agreed to accede J&K into the new Indian Republic. Ever since, the state has been disputed territory between the two countries and has become a regular target for Islamist terrorists.
Until now, Indian-administered Kashmir has existed as an autonomous state within India. It had certain benefits from Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that no other states had, protecting its Muslim customs and other traditional systems. The Article in practice prevented laws applying to Kashmir that did not have presidential approval.
In today’s sudden change, Article 370 has been revoked, Kashmir has lost its autonomous status and it must now follow all Indian law. In place of local leaders and an assembly, Kashmir will become a Union Territory – administered by a governor appointed by the authorities in Delhi. This is similar to how Britain administers places such as Gibraltar. The state’s former Chief Minister Mehboob Mufti said that the move was ‘the darkest day for Indian democracy.’ The only problem is, almost no one in Kashmir has been told about it.
Yesterday, just before the announcement, the Indian government put the entire state under curfew and house arrest. When I asked an official about this, he insisted: ‘It isn’t house arrest. We have simply told people they have to stay in their homes.’ Social media and internet use has been blocked, phone lines have been cut, and the right to assembly has been suspended. Meanwhile, thousands of troops and paramilitary forces were flown in to the region to put down any possible discontent.
Despite all of this, the Indian government has insisted that its actions will be welcomed by Kashmir and is the only way the state can develop. It is an attempt, sources told me, to bring the state up to date with the rest of the country. Human development, however, is unlikely to be the real reason behind the move, the decision instead has all the hallmarks of one of Narendra Modi’s ideological passion projects.
The Prime Minister is well known for his dramatic and sudden decisions. In 2016, with just four hours notice, Modi demonetised several currency notes in a bid to combat the scourge of ‘dark money’, throwing the country into chaos. The initiative is now thought to have wiped 1 per cent off the country’s GDP.
Modi’s dislike of Muslim influence in India is well known. His party, the BJP, has its origins in thinkers who thought Muslims ‘were not children of [India’s] soil.’ While governor of Gujarat in 2002, Modi was accused of supporting communal riots in the state that saw almost 1,000 Muslims killed.
His landslide re-election as Prime Minister earlier this year was seen by the country’s Muslims as a signal that Hindu nationalism was here to stay. The demotion of Kashmir, India’s only majority Muslim state into what will effectively be a colony ruled from Delhi, will only reinforce the growing view that in Modi’s India, Muslims are second class citizens.