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India’s aggression over Kashmir

Narendra Modi’s high-handed action over the disputed territory is likely to revive conflict with Pakistan

The crisis over Kashmir, triggered by the Indian government’s decision to impose direct rule from Delhi, has universal relevance. It says much about the times we live in and how we are ruled. Here is a semi-autonomous state, part of a federal union protected by a constitution, which has seen its democratic freedoms abruptly abolished by executive decree. This was a very Indian coup, but one with a global context.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and the ruling nationalist BJP stand accused of acting without proper legal authority by unilaterally revoking article 370 of the constitution, which guarantees Kashmir’s special status. Delhi’s arbitrary bifurcation of the state into two union territories (Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh) is also legally contentious. Opponents say Modi has opted for “raw power” over legitimacy.

Modi also ignored UN resolutions on the internationally recognised dispute with Pakistan over sovereign control of the Kashmir region and, notably, the 1972 Simla agreement, which stipulates that its final status must be settled by peaceful means. That point was made last week by the UN secretary-general while appealing for “maximum restraint”. To cap it all, Modi failed to consult Kashmir’s political leaders, whether pro-independence or pro-India, or the Kashmiri people. Quite the opposite, in fact. Political leaders were placed under house arrest. The population was placed under curfew. Means of association and communication were cut. And massive army deployments have been used to enforce Delhi’s diktat.

By subverting the constitution, ignoring India’s Simla obligation to ensure that the “principles and purposes” of the UN charter govern relations with Pakistan, and removing Kashmiris’ right to self-governance, Modi has placed himself squarely in the wrong. To argue, as he does, that Kashmir is solely an internal matter is to ignore the realities of 70-plus years of strife.

So it is particularly striking how insouciant has been the reaction of governments around the world. The US and EU reiterated their Delhi-appeasing view that Kashmir is a bilateral not an international issue. Britain’s response was feeble. Dominic Raab, the neophyte foreign secretary, meekly thanked India for a “clear readout of the situation”.

Not a word of public criticism of Modi’s high-handed behaviour. Not a thought, apparently, for the dire implications for the UN’s authority, international law and the so-called rules-based global order. Not an iota of understanding that India’s enhanced military occupation may revive a conflict that weaponises religion, race and identity in place of democratic dialogue and inclusion.

If this sounds familiar, it should. This is the dog-eats-dog world created by Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and copycat ultra-nationalist “strongman” leaders. It is a lawless world where the rules no longer apply, where pacts and treaties are bypassed or torn up, where nations blindly pursue perceived self-interest and where minorities, however defined, are mocked, ignored and exploited.

In this harsh, ugly world, Modi the hardline Hindu nationalist and his Muslim-baiting BJP colleagues are a good fit. It may be the case, as Modi argued last week, that Kashmir has suffered from decades of violence and a lack of jobs and investment. It is certainly true India’s record of human rights abuses in Kashmir is a shaming one.

But by imperiously imposing his will, Modi only raises new obstacles to progress. This is not the way forward. It will not improve the lives of most Kashmiris. It will not ease the security burden on the Indian state. More likely, it will lead to political resistance across the board, escalating confrontation and the exploitation of tensions by violent extremists on both sides. Modi claims a “new era” has begun. Kashmiris see only a new calamity.

Pakistan’s reaction has been predictably hostile. Imran Khan, elected prime minister one year ago, once spoke of improving relations with Delhi. Such hopes are shattered now. Khan and his generals have sensibly avoided a military response, instead imposing diplomatic and trade sanctions. But this may not satisfy public opinion. Militants based in Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir will want, more than ever, to take the fight to India.

Khan has limited options. His country is severely indebted. Modi has been clever in strengthening ties with Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia that traditionally bankrolled Pakistan. None of them spoke up on Islamabad’s behalf last week. Meanwhile, relations with the US have become strained, not least over Afghanistan.

No surprise, then, that Pakistan has increasingly looked to China for support. Beijing was one of the few countries to condemn Modi’s coup. It has a geo-strategic interest in curbing India’s influence. It also has a territorial stake in Kashmir. But China’s abuses in Xinjiang, another Muslim majority entity, and its overall attitude to democracy, self-determination and human rights make it a problematic partner.

As India steamrollers into a deepening quagmire in Kashmir, Britain and other western countries must work to keep Islamabad on side and at peace. A bullish Modi cannot to be relied on to eschew further provocations. The weaker and more isolated Pakistan becomes, the greater the risk it could hit out.

The opinions expressed and the arguments employed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the views of the CETRI.