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Years in the Making: How Hindu Nationalism Has Shaped Indian Policy Towards Kashmir

A phone blackout. Military troops deployed to enforce a statewide curfew. Foreign journalists banned from entering a region the size of Idaho. Thousands arrested — including protesters, activists and politicians. In the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, this has been the reality since August of 2019. And it could get worse.

Jammu & Kashmir is an Indian state situated at the northernmost tip of the country along the border with Pakistan. As the only Muslim-majority subdivision in India, it has historically been afforded special privileges and a unique level of political autonomy. Ever since these privileges were enacted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, Kashmir has possessed its own flag, constitution and local law; citizens of other Indian states have even been banned from purchasing property or land in the region. Because of these provisions, the Kashmiri Muslims have been able to maintain their culture and identity in the 70 years since the independence of India.

All of this changed on August 5th, 2019. At the direction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indian president Ram Nath Kovind repealed Article 370, placing the state of Jammu & Kashmir under the full and direct control of India’s federal government for the first time in the nation’s history. The move was a blow to the state’s native Muslim population, and it has weakened the already-strained relations between India and Pakistan. Then, on October 31, the region was reorganized as a “union territory” — a status one step down from a state. As the restructuring of Jammu & Kashmir heightens tensions between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, it’s worth remembering how we got here and how differing visions for the future of the Indian state led to this divide.

Conflicts, Standoffs, and Asymmetrical Federalism

The Indian partition of 1947 was a bloody affair. As 14 million Hindus and Muslims flocked to resettle themselves on their respective sides of the border, hundreds of thousands were killed in ethnic violence, leaving a deep rift between the two nations that has yet to heal. The resulting international border was extremely complicated and difficult to defend, running through unmarked deserts, open fields and urban areas. But while many Muslims migrated to Pakistan (and modern-day Bangladesh) in a mass exodus, others stayed behind. 

Among those who remained were the Muslims of the Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir, at the time governed by Maharaja Hari Singh. While most Muslim-majority areas in the west joined the new nation of Pakistan, Jammu & Kashmir has stayed on the Indian side of the border to this day. Why would a predominately Muslim region choose to align itself with the Hindu power in a Hindu-Muslim divide?

Rahul Verma, a graduate student studying Indian politics at Berkeley, provides some insight into Kashmir’s messy history and how the state fits into India today. “During the time of the partition, many places in India were directly administered by the federal government, but others were small feudal territories controlled by local leaders,” Verma says. Although Maharaja Singh was a Hindu leader, the people of the princely state were predominately Muslim, leaving Singh reluctant to join either side during the partition. 

As Singh delayed the accession, a militia backed by Pakistan attacked the princely state, overwhelming his forces. Some of the state’s Muslim subjects rallied to Pakistan’s side in the conflict, leading to a breakdown of control in the western portion of Kashmir. “Once the militia attacked, [Singh] did not have the force to defend, and so he appealed to India,” Verma says. “But India would not agree to send forces unless Singh signed the Instrument of Accession.” Singh ultimately capitulated, agreeing to join India in order to obtain military aid, and the conflict grew into the first Indo-Pakistani War.

Assessments differ as to the victor in the war — while India acquired two-thirds of the region, Pakistan gained the remaining third. By the war’s end, the border established by the Kashmir accession had been solidified. As a result, Muslim-majority Jammu & Kashmir found itself on the Hindu-majority side of the partition. In an effort to quell unrest, the Indian government allowed the new state a certain degree of regional autonomy. Verma calls this system “asymmetric federalism” — a situation where one state has a different relationship with the national government than other states do. 

But even while Jammu & Kashmir has maintained a high level of autonomy within India, the dispute between India and Pakistan has never ended. A United Nations charter at the time planned to de-escalate the conflict by having both sides withdraw from the state and then hold a formal plebiscite to determine control of the region. According to India, however, Pakistan has never met their side of the bargain, as it has never withdrawn its troops from its portion of Kashmir. Thus, the plebiscite has never taken place, and the state of Jammu & Kashmir has been trapped in a perpetual tug-of-war between two nuclear powers ever since.

The BJP and the RSS

As India emerged from the partition, there were two major competing ideas for how the country should move forward. Due to the new nation’s multiethnic and multi-religious nature, steps had to be taken to prevent another divisive incident like the partition. However, Indian statesmen differed as to what those precautions should be. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, one of the founding fathers of modern India, promoted the idea of reservations for oppressed castes, classes and ethnic groups in the Indian government on the basis of greater inclusivity. Others, such as Mahatma Gandhi, warned that this would ultimately divide the country further. But while classical liberals and social conservatives opposed these statist reforms, another group also came out against the new Indian constitution: Hindu identitarians.

The key Hindu identitarian group at the time was the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a volunteer organization dedicated to strengthening the Hindu community in India. The group has a controversial history, protesting against the adoption of the Indian flag and constitution and even being implicated in the assassination of Gandhi. While many of its members have been accused of inciting (and participating in) ethnic violence against Muslims, the RSS has also been credited with extensive volunteer work, including disaster relief. The organization has campaigned to revoke Jammu & Kashmir’s special status in the past, but it was unable to find a viable political outlet for these efforts — until now.

For most of its history, India has been governed by the center-left Congress Party, which left little room in its coalition for Hindu identitarianism. But after a number of scathing exposées on the party’s inner corruption and nepotism in 2014, Congress lost 162 seats in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower parliamentary house) and its governing majority with them. In its place rose the BJP, a right-wing Hindu identitarian party that has its roots deep in the RSS. 

“The BJP is essentially a political extension of the RSS,” says Pranav Gupta, a Berkeley graduate, also a student of Indian politics. “While officially they’re an independent organization, there are strong links between both. Together, they constitute a larger family of allied organizations.”

Like the RSS, the BJP has been criticized for inciting anti-Muslim violence — one study shows that as the party becomes more competitive in a district, the rates of ethnic violence in that district increase. Narendra Modi himself, the BJP’s leader and the current Prime Minister, was accused of being complicit in ethnic violence when he was Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. He has also been a member of the RSS since his youth.

The BJP’s base is diverse, not comprised solely of Hindu nationalists. Many BJP supporters are young urban entrepreneurs and tech workers who vote for the party because they support Modi’s economic liberalization policies. But as the revocation of Article 370 suggests, the party still has deep roots in Hindu nationalism, and it has not given up on its desire to bring Jammu & Kashmir under the full control of the Indian state. 

“The median voter in India sides with the BJP on this issue,” Gupta notes. “The Congress Party knows that this is not a winning issue for them, so they cannot take a very strong stance on it.” So while Jammu & Kashmir is not necessarily a motivating issue for most Indian voters, the state’s integration has been a long-held goal for the BJP’s base of Hindu identitarians who want to see a more homogeneous — and more Hindu — India.

The Potential for War

On February 14, 2019, 40 Indian soldiers were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a personnel carrier in Jammu & Kashmir. While a Pakistan-based militant group took credit for the bombing, the Pakistani government denied any prior knowledge of the attack. But while terrorist attacks have been a reality in the region for some time, it’s hard to discern just how much of a hand the Pakistani state has in them.

“There is a deep state in Pakistan that has more leeway than other intelligence agencies in other states,” says Verma. The intelligence agencies of the Pakistani government can sometimes act unilaterally, independent from the rest of the federal apparatus. In many ways, Verma says, they are more powerful than the nation’s civil institutions.

Whether or not Pakistan orchestrated the attack, the incident heightened tensions between the two nations. The Indian air force quickly responded with a bombing in Pakistani territory; India claims that the bombing killed many terrorists, though Pakistan has not confirmed this. In India, violence against Muslim citizens followed. This, coupled with the April 2019 election (in which the BJP again won a comfortable majority of seats), gave Narendra Modi and his party a good deal of political capital — the kind of mandate needed to bring a long-awaited goal of the RSS to fruition.

In August, the Indian parliament passed the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganization Act, scheduling the removal of the state’s status for October 31. Indian troops were then stationed to enforce a state-wide curfew, and telecommunications services were temporarily suspended. The law went into effect on the 31st — as of November 2019, it is no longer correct to refer to the region as “the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir.” Kashmir is now a “union territory,” with even fewer constitutional privileges than that of a state. 

Nevertheless, Gupta notes that the immediate future is not as bleak as some international commentators say. “These restrictions can’t go on forever,” he says. “Restrictions on mobile internet will have to end. Activists will have to be released. When all of this starts, then we don’t know what will happen — we will be in uncharted territory.” As India brings Kashmir into the fold, it will have to start by restoring normalcy to the region. Lifting the ban on outsiders purchasing land was a blow to Kashmir’s autonomy, but unless the region becomes politically stable, development there will not be seen as a good investment and there will be no influx of Indian citizens from other states. Thus, if Modi’s goals of integrating Kashmir are to be met, the current status quo cannot last long.

The prognostications for a serious military conflict are also overblown. “Beyond the strategy of appealing to the UN — which they have already tried without any major effect — there will not be any big change in status with regards to Pakistan’s policy towards India,” Gupta says. “There may be a rise in terrorist attacks, but the Pakistani state can’t afford a full-blown military conflict.” Indeed, both nations have nuclear weapons, and some estimates say that a war between India and Pakistan could potentially cost 100 million lives. For Pakistan to escalate this conflict to that level would be incredibly foolish.

While a full-scale war is unlikely, that’s not to say that India is free to do as it wishes in Kashmir. The 2019 airstrike was the first time that military planes from either country have crossed the border since they became nuclear powers, and the international community is now paying close attention to the region. Terrorist bombings — including those sponsored by the Pakistani deep state — may increase as a result of this policy, and as with the attack in February, could result in Indian Muslims facing persecution. Bringing Kashmir into the Indian fold will be a gradual process. But for Hindu nationalists, it has been well worth the wait.

Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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