In a dramatic move that has significant political, legal and security implications for India and South Asia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government on Monday revoked the special status the state of Jammu and Kashmir had enjoyed for decades under Article 370 of the Indian constitution.The state is the only Muslim-majority one in a predominantly Hindu India, comprising three distinct geographical areas with diverse religious communities: the Hindu-majority Jammu, the Muslim-dominant Kashmir Valley, and the large, sparsely populated Ladakh region which is home to Buddhists. The former princely state of Kashmir had reluctantly agreed to join India after the partition of the subcontinent in August 1947.
Pakistan, which prioritised religion and saw itself as the natural claimant of all Muslim-dominated areas, sought to wrest control of Kashmir away from India by using military force but failed.
In 1948, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru took the Kashmir issue to the United Nations, which listed the region as a disputed area and would eventually monitor the Line of Control splitting the territory into two. This has been aggravated by the more recent recourse to jihadi terrorism supported by Pakistan.
In the political narrative of India, Kashmir has been interpreted by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other parties as a monumental blunder made by Nehru and the Congress party. To the detractors, this mistake was compounded by Article 370, which was inserted in 1952 as a temporary provision and which accorded special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Because Delhi promised the state considerable autonomy, it saw itself as different from the rest of India.
The alienation of the Kashmiri populace was not suitably redressed, a major failure of the Congress party. Through the decades, Article 370 was perceived as a semi-permanent arrangement pending the resolution of the Kashmir dispute that now involves India, Pakistan and China – for Islamabad ceded part of this disputed territory to Beijing in 1963.
BJP, which won a historic election victory in May under Modi, promised to change the status quo in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In recent days, there was mounting speculation that something was afoot in the state. The annual Amarnath Yatra pilgrimage in the area was suspended; telecommunications services were cut; large numbers of security personnel were deployed. Terrorist threats were hinted at and the tension across the Line of Control was palpable. United States President Donald Trump’s comments on mediating the Kashmir issue provided more context, and a major policy decision was expected on Kashmir.
Modi met his cabinet early on Monday and soon parliament was informed that the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was now dissolved. This was a legal sleight of hand: invoking the provisions of Article 370 that gave the state special rights to dilute the rights and neuter the article itself.
Furthermore, contrary to the speculation that the state would be trifurcated, Home Minister Amit Shah announced that the state would be divided into two union territories – one comprising Jammu and Kashmir, the other Ladakh.
This is an unprecedented development in the political history of India, where union territories aspire to achieve full statehood with an elected legislature and an empowered chief minister. This is the first time a full-fledged state such as Jammu and Kashmir has been reduced to a union territory, with the central government in Delhi calling the shots in key areas of governance.
Shah stated in parliament the reason for the bifurcation was national security, “keeping in view the prevailing internal security situation, fuelled by cross-border terrorism in the existing State of Jammu and Kashmir, a separate Union Territory for Jammu and Kashmir is being created. The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir will be with legislature.”
While this decision by the Modi government has been hailed as bold and the innovative manner of its implementation has been applauded in many quarters, some serious questions arise. Although protecting national security is an imperative, the means to this end remains questionable. Bulldozing a major political decision, while bypassing debate and due consultation as required by the constitution, has tectonic implications for the federal structure of India.
A sullen and humiliated populace will not burnish the image of Indian democracy
The neutering of Article 370 goes against the spirit of Article 3 of the constitution, and is certain to be referred to the courts. The majoritarian process through which Kashmir has become part of a union territory casts aspersions on India’s commitment to the democratic impulse and the liberal ethos.
Currently there is a clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir and local political leaders are under house arrest. This is to ensure that there is no disruption or violence by those opposed to Delhi’s decision on August 5, and to blunt any adventurism by Islamabad.
Modi will unfurl the national flag on August 15 to celebrate the idea of a free India but it remains to be seen how the fate of a diverse yet united India will unfold in the streets of Srinagar over the next few months. A sullen and humiliated populace will not burnish the image of Indian democracy. Modi promised to win “sabka vishwas”, the trust of everyone, in his second term. Whether he can do this in Kashmir will be the acid test.