Hours after the first UN Security Council meeting on the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in 50 years last week, Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged heavy cross-border fire that lasted for a day at least.
News reports cited anonymous Indian officials as saying that an Indian soldier had been killed when fire opened up across the Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. The Line has been seeing similar clashes since 1947, when the British ended their 200-year rule in the Indian subcontinent and divided it into two separate states, Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India.
China and Pakistan succeeded in convincing the UN Security Council to hold a meeting “behind closed doors” on Kashmir, the first since the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. The meeting came after India ripped up the special constitutional status of its part of Kashmir, stripping the region of its autonomy on 5 August.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan encouraged the idea of holding the meeting, saying that “it is the responsibility of this international body to end the suffering of Kashmiris and ensure the conflict is resolved.”
New Delhi said that the status of the region was a domestic Indian matter. “We don’t need international busybodies to try to tell us how to run our lives. We are a billion plus people,” head of the Permanent Mission of India to the UN Syed Akbaruddin told the media in New York following the Security Council meeting.
US President Donald Trump called on the two nuclear-armed foes to engage in negotiations, urging Khan to decrease the tensions through bilateral talks.
Since its creation as a modern state in 1846, Kashmir had been a point of contention between Muslims and Hindus. Rifts deepened after the independence of the Indian subcontinent, and regional divisions continued after the creation of Pakistan the following year.
The division was based on giving Pakistan the Muslim-majority regions of the subcontinent, with Hindu-majority regions going to India. The exception was Kashmir, whose Hindu ruler, the then maharaja, requested that it join India despite its majority Muslim population.
Pakistan and India have gone to war three times over Kashmir in 1947, 1964 and 1999, in addition to the war of 1971 that ended in Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan assisted by India.
Both countries now control parts of Kashmir, but each claims the entire region. Tensions escalated earlier this year when Jaish-e-Mohamed, an armed group based in Pakistani Kashmir, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed more than 40 soldiers from the Indian forces stationed in the region.
Immediately following the attack, New Delhi announced it was adopting “diplomatic measures to isolate Pakistan completely” and imposed a customs tariff of 200 per cent on Islamabad’s exports to India. It threatened to cut water flows to Pakistan in a punitive measure against the latter’s support of “Islamist extremists opposing Indian rule” in Kashmir.
Due to the escalating tensions, the Indian parliament then approved the abolition of Articles 370 and 35a of the Indian Constitution related to the autonomous rule of Kashmir and the powers of its local parliament, splitting the state of Jammu and Kashmir in two and downgrading it to a union territory.
This sparked a row with Pakistan and rage in Kashmir. India called in more troops to add to the half million soldiers it already has in this area of the Himalayas.
Article 370 of India’s Constitution is related to Kashmir’s autonomous rule except in matters of defence, foreign affairs and communications. Article 35a granted Kashmir’s parliament the right to decide who was given residency and land ownership in the state. The article gave Kashmir residents the right to maintain the demographic balance of the region and its Muslim majority.
In tandem with the Security Council meeting, the Indian authorities started the gradual re-instalment of telephone services in Kashmir last week after cutting them off completely for two weeks when the Indian government ended autonomous rule.
Local police said 17 out of 100 main telephone lines were back in operation in the Kashmir Valley, the most troubled area in the region, but that mobile and Internet services were still severed.
Tens of thousands of protesters have demonstrated in Kashmir since 5 August against the Indian moves. Some of the demonstrations ended in clashes with the Indian security forces. In addition to the 10,000 extra troops India has sent to the region, the country has also imposed harsh restrictions on the movement of locals, arresting and imposing house arrest on hundreds of politicians, academics and activists in Kashmir.
Ending Kashmir’s autonomous rule puts the region under the direct authority of New Delhi. The move has been hailed in India’s mainstream media, which commended Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision.
The Indian move on Kashmir may also be an escalation in the tensions between India and Pakistan after the electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, an extremist Hindu political party led by Modi.
The Indian premier’s decision has won the support of much of the Indian public, with social-media postings in India claiming that groups calling for ending India’s rule in Kashmir were actually “terrorists”.
There has been calm among the secessionist movements in the Indian states of Assam, Manipur and Punjab, and the Maoists in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, but such calm has rarely been seen in Kashmir. This is despite the fact that Kashmiri young people have benefitted from enrollment in India’s elite universities and occupied jobs across India and not only in its northern states.
The BJP ascent to power in New Delhi has contributed to the belief that Kashmir should not remain an exception to regulations elsewhere in India, particularly on the right of Kashmir’s parliament to maintain the state’s Muslim majority.
The party has been pushing more Hindus to reside in Kashmir in order to turn the region into a Hindu-majority area like the rest of India. The elimination of Kashmir’s special constitutional status will likely spread tensions in neighbouring Indian states because it will destabilise the sensitive federal balance of the country, however.
The move could spread tensions in a country marked by ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. Many of India’s states had been enjoying federal-type rule decades before the country gained its independence from Britain. Ending Kashmir’s autonomy is a source of fear for many that the decades-long self-rule of any state could now be ended abruptly.
Changing the status of Kashmir could also shake the confidence New Delhi has toiled to establish with states that saw post-independence secessionist tendencies. The separatist inclinations in those states calmed two decades ago, but this new move may result in enflaming tensions in the region, which may bode ill for all concerned.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Kashmir domino effect?