Is Kashmir a predominantly Muslim region?

India promises democracy - but humiliates the Muslims in Kashmir

When lifting the partial autonomy of Kashmir, the Indian government has its own religious-nationalist base in mind. She accepts to strengthen the violent separatists in the embattled region.

On Monday the Indian government announced that it would withdraw the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution guaranteed the population of the disputed region since 1949 privileges such as its own constitution and flag. The exemption was once a condition for the predominantly Muslim region to join the newly independent India.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which was brilliantly re-elected in May, now wants to fully integrate the troubled region in the Himalayas into the Indian Union. In doing so, she redeems an election promise. For her Hindu nationalist supporters, she also corrects a "historical error". The government promises the people of Kashmir that the lifting of the special status will bring them more economic development and democracy.

However, Modi's government doesn't seem to have too much faith that Kashmiri people will see it that way. It sent tens of thousands of additional soldiers to the already highly militarized region, blocked internet and telephone connections and called on thousands of tourists and pilgrims to leave Kashmir. Schools will remain closed until further notice, leading local politicians have been arrested as a precaution.

Humiliation for Kashmiri Muslims

This repression leaves rhetoric empty. The measure, which the government presented as an embrace, is likely to be perceived by many on the ground as an attempt at suffocation. In fact, the government does not have the welfare of the Kashmiri population in mind, but rather its own electorate, most of whom do not live in Kashmir. No issue is more reliably driving up the blood pressure of the Hindu nationalist right than the Kashmir conflict. For decades, the religious nationalists have been demanding that the special status be ended. In the repeal that has now taken place, you see a declaration of war on the archenemy Pakistan, who also claims the disputed region, and on the Muslim separatists.

administered by China, claimed by India
administered by India, claimed by Pakistan
unresolved status between India and Pakistan
administered by Pakistan, claimed by India

In fact, the lifting of the special status is a provocation beyond compare. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry announced that it would examine “all possible options” in order to respond to the “illegal steps” by the Indian government. That, too, is rhetoric for the time being - but in a region where two nuclear powers are watching each other, this is cause for great concern. All the more so as the situation was already extremely tense in the spring after a suicide bomber had killed over 40 Indian soldiers.

Large parts of the Muslim population of Kashmir will perceive the end of partial autonomy not only as a humiliation, but as a concrete threat. The Indian Constitution has so far forbidden people from other states to acquire land and hold state offices in Kashmir. The abolition of these rules is fueling fears among the Muslim population that the region will be colonized by Hindus. Hindu nationalist provocateurs played on Twitter with this concern on Monday by ironically asking for recommendations on buying property in Kashmir.

A troubled region becomes even more volatile

The danger is that Kashmiri Muslims will become further alienated from Delhi and many will be driven into the arms of the violent separatists. Over 500 people were killed in Kashmir in 2018, including civilians, security forces and rebels. It was the highest number of victims in a decade. It is true that the extremists no longer have the numerical strength they had in the 1990s. But that can change.

The government in Delhi would have good arguments for reconsidering the status of Jammu and Kashmir. Some laws of the state are anachronistic, such as the one that prevents women who marry foreign men from inheriting local property. In addition, Jammu and Kashmir have not adopted some progressive Indian reforms - for example laws against domestic violence and a new juvenile criminal law.

But instead of targeted interventions, the government opted for the complete abolition of the special status and thus for the greatest possible bang. Its symbolic meaning can hardly be overestimated. For many of the residents of Kashmir, who in fact already live under military occupation, partial autonomy was the last remaining concession. The lifting of the special status has made the most troubled region of a troubled country even more volatile.