Opinion & Analysis

High stakes as India erases autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir

What is happening in Kashmir and why does it matter? Sanjal Shastri, a PhD student at the University of Auckland, explains the latest developments in the dispute.

OPINION: Last week, India revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The removal of the region’s autonomous status to form a united India has been a part of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election manifesto since the 1980s. After the party’s re-election in May, the BJP had the electoral majority to pass through the legislation. The government also revealed its plan to split the region into two union territories, forming Ladakh with a Buddhist majority and Jammu and Kashmir with a Muslim majority. 

Kashmir’s status has long been disputed, with competing claims by India, Pakistan and China. In the days preceding the scrapping of the special status, there was a general feeling among the public and media that the government was about to make a major decision on Article 370, the constitutional article that has provided greater autonomy for the region since 1950.

The announcement was met with both jubilation and disbelief. A passionate speech by the Ladakh Member of Parliament hailed the decision as a victory that fulfilled Ladakh’s long-standing demand for union territory status. Among those who criticised the decision were members of the opposition Congress party and India’s Left, who raised concerns over the legal implications of the move and claimed such a move requires the ratification of the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly.

How other countries have reacted

The decision immediately raised tensions between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani government announced the downgrading of diplomatic ties. All bilateral trade has stopped. The reaction from Pakistan, for the time being, has followed expected lines and tensions are more likely to remain rhetorical than to lead to a direct military conflict. But the change will permanently alter the dynamics of India-Pakistan relations. Until now, Pakistan’s Kashmir policy had been built around the fact that the region enjoyed autonomy. The decision completely integrates them into the Indian state and transforms Kashmir from a bilateral dispute over an autonomous region to an ‘internal matter’ of domestic concern. This new status fundamentally alters the core dispute between the two countries.

The Chinese government issued a statement criticising the decision, highlighting their own territorial claims over Ladakh. However, China has so far not taken concrete action. Considering the prevailing trade dispute with the US and the volatile situation in Hong Kong, the Chinese government appears to be cautious.

Otherwise, many in the international community are likely to see the issue as one between India and Pakistan or a matter of India’s internal affairs. The USA, UK, Sri Lanka, Maldives and the UAE issued statements suggesting the issue is between India and Pakistan. Russia put its weight behind the Indian government, saying it is a matter of India’s internal affairs. 

What it means for Kashmir

Within the Kashmir Valley, there is now a blanket curfew and strong military presence. Those measures mean large-scale protests are highly unlikely. Curfew was relaxed for Friday prayers and the festival of Eid. There have been reports of protests on some international media outlets. At the same time, Indian officials have issued a press release stating no major protests or disturbances have taken place over the weekend.

Given the contentious nature of this issue, a clear picture on the law and order situation cannot be built based on existing media reports. But the curfew will eventually be removed permanently and security forces will need to be ready for some kind of disturbance. We can almost certainly expect backlash from separatist groups. It appears that the government is preparing for such an eventuality and has already deployed additional troops in the region. Similar security measures have been taken across India, with airlines asking people to report at the airport three to four hours before departure.

The government’s ability to deliver on promised development will also impact how the change is received in Jammu and Kashmir. Until now, unemployment has been cited as one of the primary grievances pushing youth to join the anti-government insurgency. In his speech announcing the decision, Home Minister Amit Shah highlighted the absence of economic development, lack and educational and employment opportunities in the valley as the key reasons for the absence of peace. He blamed the existing provisions for the absence of private investment. Under Article 370 and 35A, no individual from outside Jammu and Kashmir could seek employment or invest in the state.

With autonomy revoked, the government hopes that investment from other parts of the country can help develop local infrastructure. If the Indian government is able to deliver economic development, improve educational opportunities and generate employment, the region could be transformed. Economic development and access to high quality education could potentially open new opportunities for people in the region in the long run. The success of this project depends on the government’s ability to bring in peace and stability and attract investors.

For the government of India, the stakes in Jammu and Kashmir are very high. Economic development, employment and quality education will not emerge overnight. If the government eventually delivers on the promised development, this will go down as one of the high points in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s legacy.

Sanjal Shastri is a PhD student at the University of Auckland. Views expressed in this article are personal to the author. 

Main image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting in Jammu and Kashmir in 2016/Wikimedia Commons

- Asia Media Centre