New Delhi: India’s Hindu nationalist government on Monday unilaterally wiped out the autonomy of the restive Kashmir region, sending in thousands of army troops to quell any possible unrest the move would bring in a disputed territory fought over by India and Pakistan.
Government authorities severed internet connections, mobile phone lines and even land lines, casting Kashmir into an information black hole that made it very difficult to discern what was unfolding.
For years, Bhartiya Janta Party have wanted to curtail the special freedoms enjoyed by Kashmir, a mountainous, predominantly Muslim territory that has turned into a tinderbox between India and Pakistan, both of which wield nuclear arms.
On Monday, Amit Shah, India’s home Minister, announced in a quick speech, which belied years of steady plotting, that the central government was removing the special, somewhat autonomous status that served as the foundation for Kashmir joining India more than 70 years ago.
While international human rights groups swiftly condemned the action, Hindu nationalists celebrated, saying this could bring peace and investment to the war-torn region.
But the voice of the Kashmiris was silenced, as government authorities cut off practically all communication from the area.
Several top Kashmiri politicians Like Former Chief Ministers Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti were taken into custody While Sajad Gani Lone and others were under house arrest.
Mehbooba Mufti, PDP President and a former chief minister of Kashmir, managed to get out a message shortly before she was arrested on Monday night.
“The Fifth of August is the blackest day of Indian democracy when its Parliament, like thieves, snatched away everything from the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” she said.
Her daughter, Iltija Javed, who succeeded in transmitting a message to The New York Times on Monday night, summed up the desperation of many Kashmiris.
“We feel there is an atmosphere of death looming over us,” she said. “We don’t know what to expect. We are not allowed to get out of our houses. Telecommunications are all down. For the first time in 30 years they snapped landline connections as well. So there is no way even ordinary Kashmiris here can like communicate with each other, and know what exactly is going on. Everybody is in a state of absolute shock and panic.”
The Indian consul general in New York said in a statement that the action to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy, which was granted under Article 370 of India’s Constitution, was “purely administrative” and was intended to “improve good governance and deliver socio-economic justice to the disadvantaged sections of the people in the State.”
The consul general added that restrictions related to Article 370 “seriously discouraged” investment in the region, limited economic opportunities and hurt younger generations.
India’s government had been carefully preparing for this action, which instantly raised tensions across the border in Pakistan. For the past two weeks, tens of thousands of extra troops had been deployed across Kashmir, and many Kashmiris had been expecting something big.
Still, many people were stunned that the government actually made the decision. It was widely seen as another bold, muscular move by the administration of Narendra Modi, India’s forceful prime minister, to consolidate power.
Many Indians believe Kashmir is a legitimate part of India, and several other political parties, including progressive ones, lined up behind the government.
With an overwhelming majority, the upper house of Parliament passed a related bill Monday evening that split the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the Jammu Kashmir and the Ladakh area, into two federal territories: Jammu and Kashmir, which will have a state legislature, and Ladakh, a remote, high-altitude area, which will be ruled directly from New Delhi.
If this clears the lower House, which is expected in the coming days, Kashmir loses the special status it has enjoyed since 1947 when it chose to join India.
Officials in Pakistan were contacting allies around the world to try and oppose the action, Protest rallies were carried in many parts of Pakistan which condemned the move of Indian govt and atrocities over people of Kashmir.
Human rights activists said that the moves to change Kashmir’s status were only the first steps in a broader plan to erode Kashmir’s core rights and seed the area with non-Kashmiris, altering the demographics and eventually destroying its character. Previous laws barred outsiders from owning property.
Several legal scholars said they believed the government did not have the legal authority to change Article 370. The issue, they said, was headed for a showdown in India’s Supreme Court.
“The whole bill is not only unconstitutional, it’s a fraud,” said A. G. Noorani, a constitutional lawyer.
But India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, commonly referred to as the B.J.P., may be difficult to stop. Mr. Modi, the most domineering leader India has produced in decades, just won a resounding election victory in May, in part on the promise of revoking Article 370.
Wiping away Kashmir’s special status has been a dream of many B.J.P. supporters who have spoken of a Greater Hindustan, a Hindu-dominated land that scoops up Pakistan, Bangladesh and other parts of South Asia. India is about 80 percent Hindu.
The B.J.P.’s leaders have cast the Kashmir issue as a nationalist cause and have raised fears of Pakistani infiltrations and attacks in the region.
“The application of Article 370 to foster vested interests have created a climate of separatism,” the consul general said in the statement, adding that the “defense of the security and stability” of the region “has cost more than 40,000 lives and been a major drain on resources.”
Kashmir has been racked by bloodshed for years. Many Kashmiris don’t want to be part of India and a small but stubborn insurgency has been fighting Indian forces.
Officials in Mr. Modi’s party believe it is time to try something different. They say that if non-Kashmiris are allowed to own land in Kashmir, more investment and development will follow, increasing the chances for peace and national unity.
“Imposed divisions between Indians and Kashmiris have been done away with,” said Rakesh Sinha, a B.J.P. lawmaker. “The slogan of ‘One Nation, One People’ is now a reality for Indians.”
Some analysts say the timing is suspicious. In recent weeks, Mr. Modi’s government has come under increasing criticism over a weakening economy, with joblessness rising. A sense of malaise is beginning to seep through just about all sectors of the economy.
Analysts say that Mr. Modi and Mr. Shah, widely considered the Indian leader’s right-hand man, were desperate to shore up their base and shift the conversation.
“This is exactly what national populists do all over the world,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, a research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS in Paris. “Clearly, India is entering a zone of economic turbulence. So this is the right time to return to the nationalistic agenda.”
In Kashmir, a sense of doom had been settling in. As federal forces poured into the valley in recent weeks, many Kashmiris grew to believe that Mr. Modi’s government was preparing to take significant action. Jammu and Kashmir, with a population of about 13 million, is India’s only Muslim majority state.
Economic and political frustration permeates the Kashmir Valley. The young have struggled to find work as political turmoil has hampered development, and many people feel they don’t have a voice. Last year, amid political turmoil, the regional Parliament was dissolved and the state fell under federal rule.
Kashmir never fit neatly into the bigger India picture. When India and Pakistan won independence from Britain in 1947, Kashmir originally opted to remain a small independent state.
Soon after independence, though, militants from Pakistan invaded the territory, leading it to seek protection from India. Kashmir agreed to become part of India, but only under the autonomy enshrined in Article 370. That article was like a contract, guaranteeing that Kashmir would be different from other Indian states and have a say on what kind of federal laws could be imposed on it.
These protections lead to special property rights for Kashmiris that blocked non-Kashmiris from owning land.
India and Pakistan then fought several wars over the area. And today most of Kashmir is administered by India, with a smaller slice controlled by Pakistan.
Many of the original provisions of the Kashmir-India partnership, like Kashmir having its own prime minister, have already been done away with.
US President Trump recently met Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan in Washington and offered to mediate on Kashmir, but India rejected that, saying Kashmir was a domestic, not an international, issue.
In a written statement on Monday, the State Department said it was following developments closely and that it was concerned about reports of detention in Kashmir. It urged all parties to maintain peace along the dividing line between India- and Pakistan-controlled territory.
On Monday night, Kashmir seemed quiet. According to a few people who spoke to their relatives in the state government (some officials were given satellite phones), most streets were deserted. Soldiers were everywhere. Many people were scared to leave their homes.(NYT)