Even by his own shameless standards it is an act of outstanding arrogance.
Virtually overnight, Narendra Modi has turned the autonomous region of Indian Kashmir into a colony of India. As the only Muslim-majority state in India, with its constitutional rights guaranteed by Article 370 of the Indian constitution and the Instrument of Accession agreed when the disputed territory joined India in 1947, it was something of a symbol for the kind of country India should wish itself to be – tolerant, diverse, supportive and protective of its remaining Muslim communities.
Now, though, Indian Kashmir – a good third of the whole Jammu and Kashmir state is controlled by Pakistan, with another fifth occupied by China after the war of 1961 – is to be ruled by Delhi as a mere “Union Territory”.
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This is a peculiar neo-colonial status usually deployed in various anomalous minor territories, such as the Andaman Islands, a separate former British penal colony in the Bay of Bengal, Daman and Diu, tiny ex-Portuguese enclaves, and Pondicherry, the last fragment of a once-extensive French Indian empire, acquired by the Republic of India in 1954.
Kashmir’s status, therefore, has been reduced to that of a constitutional curiosity, something like that enjoyed by the Falklands in relation to the UK, ruled by a governor appointed centrally with only limited local self-rule.
With that, the status of the country’s Muslim community has also been devalued and diminished. Thus, Kashmiris, predominantly Muslim but of all backgrounds, have summarily lost their right to self-government with no consultation, let alone consent, undermining their human rights. On a more practical level, other Indian (ie Hindu) citizens can now acquire property in Kashmir.
Never stable, always threatened by Pakistani claims to sovereignty, by separatist movements for independence, and by a waves of terrorism, it was in a state of permanent instability and tension, and, occasionally, a ready casus belli between two bitter rivals who hardly need one.
The first war, a few weeks after independence, left the region divided more or less as it stands today, and the skirmishes have dragged on ever since. Only in February Pakistan shot down two Indian jets, not for the first time, and launched its own “Pakistan strikes back” air raid. Once again talk of armed conflict and escalation polluted the air and relations between Islamabad and Delhi hit another low.
Mr Modi’s act of naked Hindu nationalism has only made this ever-delicate situation worse, and he knows it. Free nations do not ship in 10,000 troops, impose curfews and house arrests and cut off phone and internet access to somewhere unless they expect trouble. And trouble Mr Modi will get.
No doubt he thinks it is a price worth paying to exact this great prize for India and his BJP. The thinking in Delhi seems to be that the great degree of autonomy enjoyed by the former princely state (ruled by a maharajah who signed over his domain to India just after the end of the Raj and partition) should now be brought to an end.
They argue the autonomous status was only ever “temporary”, and that it gave rise to a separatist dynamic. That may be true, though exaggerated. What is even more evident and obvious is that militant Kashmiris and the Pakistanis will not accept their humiliation. Pakistan’s claim to sovereignty lies in the fact that there was no popular approval via a referendum or election among the people of Jammu and Kashmir when they were transferred to Indian rule in 1947. Pakistan insists on a plebiscite to resolve the problem.
A free and fair vote would appear to offer at least the beginnings of a solution to this long-running dispute. It will not happen though, at least not under the BJP. Yet another war between India and Pakistan over the territory also seems unlikely, given that both states possess nuclear weapons and that therefore, the doctrine of deterrent through mutually assured destruction should restrain them from all-out conflict.
However, the cold war between them looks set to intensify, with the usual clashes between border guards along the line of control, downed drones and jets, allegations about sponsoring terrorists, espionage and spying. Mr Modi has made India, the world’s most populous democracy, less democratic, less free and less secure. It will do him, and the whole subcontinent, no good at all.