[The following article is from the Riding the Elephant website and appears with the kind permission of the author. Opinion articles do not reflect the position of the Round Table Editorial Board.]
Changes have some support across India but methods are suspect. Lack of consultation and heavy security invite unrest in the future.
Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government yesterday overturned 70 years of history and controversially changed the constitutional standing of India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, cancelling its status as a full state and ending special rights and privileges.
An initiative to map out a new future for the Himalayan state is long overdue, and the recent general election manifesto of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party said the government would take action by cancelling the effects of the constitution’s Article 370.
This move has considerable support in India, but yesterday’s unexpectedly rapid-fire events evaded constitutional requirements and were carried out in a manner that invites a hostile and violent reaction in Kashmir.
The Muslim-dominated state is on a security lockdown with top political leaders, including two former chief ministers with strong democratic records, under house arrest.
More than 35,000 extra troops have been rushed to the area in recent days and movement of people is restricted. In Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, schools are closed, some 20,000 Indian and foreign tourists have been evacuated, and internet and telecommunications are shut down.
Whether the move to cancel Kashmir’s special status will lead long term to improved economic development and job opportunities is arguable, but it is clear that the government has gambled with the region’s future stability. The prime minister’s last sudden gamble was his bank note demonetisation in November 2016 that turned into an economic disaster.
This is one of several measures rushed with minimum debate through an extended Budget session of the parliament following the sweeping general election victory won in May by Modi’s BJP. Others included controversially ending the triple talaq Muslim divorce procedure, which shows the government is tackling key items on its Hindu nationalist agenda. Pending items on that agenda include introducing an Indian Civil Code to remove individual religions’ statutory rights and rebuilding a Hindu temple at Ayodhya in northern India, all of which come under Amit Shah, the hardline Home Minister and BJP president who drove yesterday’s moves.
Once security is relaxed, there are likely to be widespread and probably violent demonstrations and clashes with army, paramilitary forces and the police in Kashmir, exacerbating a situation that has worsened since Modi came to power in 2014. There will also be the risk of increased cross-border terrorist attacks from neighbouring Pakistan, as happened earlier this year when an attack triggered cross-border air combat.
Jammu and Kashmir is especially sensitive because part of the state is claimed by Pakistan, and there have been reports in the past few days of increased military activity across the disputed border or line of control.
There were street protests in Pakistan yesterday against India’s move. The foreign ministry said it would “exercise all possible options to counter the [India’s] illegal steps”, indicating that it would try to whip up international opposition.
Adding to the sense of crisis, US president Donald Trump has twice offered in the past two weeks to mediate over the two nuclear powers’ border dispute, which Modi rejected in line with India’s traditional insistence that the differences can only be tackled bilaterally.
Trump is being urged to intervene by Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, who recently had constructive talks with the president in Washington. Khan wants the US to become involved in Kashmir as part of a pay off for Pakistan co-operating with America in achieving a peace settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The BJP’s recent general election manifesto said it would end Kashmir’s semi-autonomous special privileges contained in the constitution’s Article 370, along with Article 35A’s ban on non-Kashmiris buying property. Its 2014 manifesto said this would be done “after full consultation with all the stakeholders”, but that phrase was dropped for this year’s election. Nevertheless, it had been assumed that the government would not act quickly, and would make the change a gradual process.
There was therefore widespread surprise yesterday when both the 370 and 35A rights were cancelled in a series of moves that began with a cabinet meeting, followed by Amit Shah making a statement in parliament. President Ramnath Kovind then signed an order cancelling the Article 370 provisions, and Shah began to steer legislation through parliament that divides the state into two Union Territories.
It had been expected that the government would propose a constitutional amendment revoking 370, which would have needed a two-thirds parliamentary majority that could have been difficult to achieve. The government instead chose a simpler route, with the president issuing an order that cancelled the state’s special status, while leaving Article 370 in place.
This is allowed under the constitution providing the state government agrees. Modi avoided having to seek that (almost certainly unattainable) agreement by pulling the BJP out of the state’s coalition administration in June 2018 and putting the state under what is called governor’s (ie Delhi’s) rule. Since then there has been no government to give its agreement, so Modi and Shah arranged for the president to act unilaterally, leading to accusations that they have evaded constitutional requirements.
Shah’s legislation was passed by the Rajya Sabha (upper house) and will go before the Lok Sabha (lower house) today, where there will be political uproar. It ends Jammu and Kashmir’s status as a state with a fully democratic assembly, and divides it into two Union Territories (UT). The Jammu and Kashmir UT will have an elected assembly, but the national government will play a permanent and direct role, as it does in other Union Territories such as the capital of Delhi and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The BJP’s National Democratic Alliance coalition has a substantial majority in the Lok Sabha (lower house) and is only a few seats short of a simple majority in the Rajya Sabha (house of elders).
Some other parties supported it in the Raja Sabha yesterday, which partly reflects a view across the country that ending the Article 370 measures and integrating Kashmir fully into the country is a good and long overdue move.
The 370 measure was intended to be temporary when it was introduced in 1950, and since then the state has been demanding increased autonomy. No government has tackled this issue, partly because of political inertia, but mainly because it would have been virtually impossible to do so without Pakistan wanting to be involved in the negotiations because of the disputed border.
The BJP has wanted to end the special treatment for years. Shah argued in parliament yesterday that benefits would include increased investment from elsewhere in India that has largely stayed away till now. Job opportunities would increase, education establishments would be developed, and doctors, other professionals and executives would be prepared to live in the state because they would be able to buy homes. He rejected fears that Kashmir’s culture and character would change, and added that Kashmiris would gain rights to information and education that have not existed in the state.
That may all be true, and there is no doubt that decisive government action has been needed for many years to break the policy logjam.
In their haste and determination to curb opposition however, Modi and Shah have unilaterally downgraded and fettered democratic institutions. They have done so by evading constitutional requirements and by putting the people and their leaders under crushing security restrictions.
That looks like a recipe for riots, violence and unrest, which Modi and Shah will seek to crush.
The criticism about yesterday’s events is therefore not so much about what the two politicians have done, but the way they have gone about it. The worry is about what other sudden unilateral power plays they are planning for the future.
John Elliott is a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.