The Kashmiri Muslim community, a unique culture that for almost 70 years had its rights protected by special provisions in the Indian Constitution, is deep in sorrow, despair, and anger.
In stunning decrees on August 5 and 6, which a leading Indian journalist, Siddharth Varadarajan, suggests amount to a constitutional coup, those protections have been swept away by the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is known for his failure to prevent or stop a deadly pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 when he headed the state government there. The limited political autonomy and property rights that safeguarded traditional life in the Kashmir Valley are gone, enabling the most conservative Hindus’ goal of remaking the demography of India’s only Muslim-majority state with an influx of Hindus.
Now under direct rule by the central government as a “union territory” backed by hundreds of thousands of Indian military and paramilitary troops, Kashmir may experience more violence, experts say. By India’s own reckoning, tens of thousands of Kashmiris have died since waves of insurgency began in the late 1980s. A lot of the action was directly promoted or funded by Pakistan, though the Pakistanis did not create the insurgency, despite Indian claims. Many thousands more Kashmiris have “disappeared” in Indian military or police custody, Kashmiri human rights activists say.
Delhi had long ago lost the allegiance of frustrated young people in Kashmir, and a new generation of them are now demonstrating again at their peril in the streets of Srinagar, the Kashmiri capital and religious and cultural center. Tragedy has entered every neighborhood and touched most families. “Kashmir at war is a private purgatory,” Paula Newberg, a professor on rights and the South Asian state at the University of Texas, wrote in a prescient 1997 book, Double Betrayal: Repression and Insurgency in Kashmir.
Significant international criticism of India’s assault on democracy has so far been scant. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, a world-famous cricket star who came to power a year ago with a new party he created, has pledged to work with India, though he expelled the Indian high commissioner and cut trade with India after Delhi’s August decrees. Pakistani diplomats have been measured in their remarks, focusing on how to bring to the UN Security Council the issue of the sudden constitutional changes, which violate a 1948 Security Council resolution (38) still on the UN agenda, stipulating that any changes on the ground cannot be made unilaterally without consulting the council. Islamabad said on Saturday that it had gained China’s support to take a motion to the Security Council, but Pakistan has not received much support from other major nations, suggesting that its odds of success are slim.
The provisions in the Indian Constitution that have been abrogated—Articles 370 on political functions and 35A on prohibiting transfers of property to non-Kashmiris—were important to Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first prime minister, whose ancestors were Kashmiri Pandits, as high-caste Hindu Brahmins are known in the region. Nehru, a cosmopolitan figure with global recognition, was a secular leader interested in modern development who shunned Hindu extremists—one of whom assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
Modi and his enforcers in the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) preach Hindutva, the concept of a society and nation built by and for Hindus, and stand opposed to everything that Nehru symbolized. This has led, for example, to mythologizing or inventing history, dismissing Western contemporary science, and closing intellectual debate generally. “Cow protection” associations proliferated after Modi was first elected, in 2014, ostensibly to protect sacred animals but in reality to beat up and kill Muslims who transport or trade cattle. Modi did little to rein them in, though he did eventually condemn the extremists.
Among many Indians, in both the Hindu majority and among religious minorities, there is outrage at what the BJP has done under Modi and his ultra-hard-line home affairs minister, Amit Shah. Petitions to the Supreme Court of India are being framed and human rights organizations are protesting, along with media leaders who have not been compromised or deterred by threats: “Make no mistake about this,” Varadarajan, a former editor of the daily newspaper The Hindu, wrote in The Wire, a news outlet he co-founded, “what Amit Shah and Narendra Modi have unveiled on Monday is not just an assault on the unique place that Jammu and Kashmir enjoys in India but on the very federal structure of the Indian constitution.”
Institutional and military issues are current topics of discussion in Kashmir, of course—not least, the widespread reports of torture and other human rights abuses by paramilitary forces in support of Delhi’s occupation—but there are other areas to consider, perhaps less obvious and not always talked about publicly. The Indian military occupation has exacted great psychological and physical tolls. Unbroken lockdowns and curfews are making it hard to get food, and people are hungry. Stores are closed, jobs are lost. All communications are periodically cut, this time for more than a week. Roads are blockaded.
The humiliations and abuses by Indian soldiers are of long vintage. Reporters who were able to go to Kashmir when the insurgency exploded in 1989 were confronted by soldiers and the hated Central Reserve Police, slouching around shops and along the streets of Srinagar with rifles pointed at the chests or abdomens of passers-by. Doctors at Srinagar’s biggest hospital showed reporters the singed backs of patients where hot laundry irons had been pressed by security forces, and limbs withered by rollers that had destroyed muscles, apparently leading to kidney damage.
It has always been hard to find among Kashmiri Muslims anyone who wants to be called “Indian.” India is a foreign county there, and a hostile enemy.
Hafsa Kanjwal, an assistant professor of South Asian history and a specialist on Kashmir at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, argues against romanticizing the history of Kashmiri life in the centuries before a Hindu maharajah ruling over the Muslim-majority “princely state” region committed Jammu and Kashmir to India after independence in 1947. The maharajah did so in order to seek protection from invaders from what would become the Pakistani side of a “Line of Control,” which has served as an unofficial border between Pakistan and India since the departing British split their colony into two nations, one for Hindus and the other for Muslims, and border talks stalled. But no one had consulted the Kashmiris, a reality at the root of much anger, especially among Kashmiri Muslims who had expected to become part of Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan claimed Kashmir, and after independence the Kashmiris were promised a referendum on their future—on whether to unite with India, Pakistan, or neither—but it was never held.
Kanjwal said in an interview that during the rule of the Dogra (Rajput) maharajahs, Kashmiri Muslims were largely rural peasants. They had little or no education compared with the Pandits, who were well-educated people holding high-level jobs in the realm. After Indian independence, however, as the education of Muslims improved, along with their ambitions, “the Pandits started to feel marginalized when they saw a movement for Kashmiri freedom develop,” Kanjwal said. So while neighbor-to-neighbor relations continued with Muslims, who often shared cultural practices with Hindus, “there was tension because of different levels of marginalization.”
By the late 1980s, and with murders of Pandits, Hindu nationalists turned those tensions into a fear campaign that ultimately caused the flight of Pandits from the Kashmir Valley. “I think that story has been completely disfigured by the Hindu right,” Kanjwal said. “Their trauma was greatly inflated to fit the Hindu nationalists’ narrative. No genocide happened. There were maybe 200 to 300 Pandits killed [some Pandit organizations say the figure is higher]. That number compared to the tens of thousands of Muslims who have been killed—it’s just completely absurd to think about things like an ethnic cleansing or a genocide.”
Still unknown is how many Pandits will want to go back.