Modi’s Decision on Kashmir Reveals a Brittleness in India

New Delhi’s abrogation of autonomy for the region might have local implications, but its consequences for Indian democracy are greater.

Kashmiri protesters chant slogans Wednesday against the Indian government in Srinagar. (Danish Ismail / Reuters)

Nearly two decades ago, President Bill Clinton called Jammu and Kashmir “the most dangerous place in the world.” Now the disputed Himalayan territory, claimed by both India and Pakistan, is again under a global spotlight. The reason: India’s sudden voiding earlier this month of a constitutional provision that gave the country’s only Muslim-majority province a measure of autonomy from New Delhi, and the bifurcation of the state into two separate federally administered territories.

India’s actions have clear regional ramifications. By tightening its grip on Kashmir, New Delhi has embarrassed and angered Pakistan, whose powerful army has long sought to wrest the territory from India’s grip. An India-Pakistan war could involve China, and possibly draw in the United States as well. It would also complicate President Donald Trump’s plan to draw down American troops from Afghanistan ahead of his reelection bid next year. But though these fears are plausible, they are also overblown. Simply put, a weakened Pakistan lacks the capacity to effect the change it seeks.

In the long term, the domestic implications of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions for India’s 1.3 billion people may prove more significant. Should the supreme court allow the government’s decision to stand, as appears likely, it will suggest that institutional checks on government power are weaker than many people assume. The ease with which the government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its statehood—over two days, by simple majorities in both houses of Parliament—also raises questions about the robustness of Indian federalism.

India has framed its actions in nonsectarian terms, but it’s hard to miss the symbolism of a Hindu nationalist government diminishing the power of elected Muslim representatives. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s obsession with Kashmir—dating back to the 1950s, when it was known as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—could end up opening a rocky new chapter in the relationship between the world’s largest democracy and its 175-million strong Muslim minority, the largest in the world.

Almost two weeks after the Indian announcement, much of the former state, in particular the densely populated Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, remains shut down and largely cut off from the world. Spools of concertina wire dot Srinagar, the former state’s capital. Thousands of uniformed Indian troops man checkpoints. Schools, colleges, and offices are closed. Fearful of protests, Indian authorities have suspended phone services, cable television, and the internet. Police have preemptively arrested at least 800 people, including two former chief ministers. Stray protests have nonetheless erupted, including one last week that reportedly drew more than 10,000 people. The Indian government says these numbers are vastly exaggerated.

The Kashmir dispute dates to the birth of India and Pakistan as independent nations in 1947 when Britain, the departing colonial power, gave about 560 nominally independent princely states a choice: accede to either India or Pakistan.

Those with a Hindu majority stayed in India, while those with a Muslim majority ended up in newly created Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir, a sprawling Muslim-majority territory about the size of Utah or Austria led by a Hindu king, tried holding out for independence, but when Pashtun tribesmen backed by the Pakistani army entered its territory, the panicked king acceded to India, which airlifted troops to Srinagar.

The terms of the accession confined the federal government’s power to defense, foreign affairs, and communications. India later encoded this principle of autonomy into Article 370 of its constitution, the provision effectively voided earlier this month. Another provision barred outsiders from buying land in the state, and from access to government jobs and scholarships. That too has gone. As things stand, people from all over India will enjoy the same rights in the two new federal territories as native-born residents.

When India-Pakistan relations threaten to go off the rails, the world usually focuses on the regional implications. This is not unreasonable. Both countries wield nuclear weapons. They have fought three wars since gaining independence. China, which controls 15 percent of Kashmir, including a portion ceded to it by Pakistan, is also part of the mix. (India holds 55 percent of the former kingdom; Pakistan has 30 percent.)

Many people in both India and Pakistan view Kashmir as integral to the countries’ respective identities. In Islamic Pakistan, carved out of undivided India as a homeland for Indian Muslims unwilling to live in a Hindu-majority nation, the existence of a Muslim-majority province in India sticks in the craw. Over the years, Islamabad has attempted to use diplomatic pressure, direct military action, and backing for Islamist terrorist groups to wrest the territory from India. India has not budged, though an uprising in Kashmir that flared in 1989 has led to at least 45,000 deaths over the past 30 years.

For India, predominantly Hindu but officially secular, Kashmir acts as a totem—symbolic proof that India’s ’s multireligious polity is stronger than the monochromatic alternative chosen by its estranged sibling. The erstwhile state only houses 8.5 million of India’s 175 million Muslims, but in symbolic terms it carries outsize significance. Kashmir telegraphs India’s emphatic rejection of the two-nation theory that led to the birth of Pakistan—the idea that Indian Hindus and Muslims do not merely follow different faiths, but represent fundamentally incompatible nations.

Pakistan’s traditional preoccupation with Kashmir ensures that events there also affect Afghanistan. Islamabad has long attempted to leverage its influence over the Taliban—a group Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, birthed in the 1990s and whose leadership it houses—to force Washington to address its concerns over the disputed territory. Earlier this week, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States hinted at rethinking support for a peaceful U.S. exit from Afghanistan by drawing troops away from the Afghan border.

On the whole, though, these fears may prove to be exaggerated. As I argued in The Wall Street Journal, a feeble economy, looming anti-terrorism sanctions, and a lack of global sympathy for the jihadist groups it backs in Kashmir limit Pakistan’s options. So far, it has failed to rustle up meaningful international support for its position either at the United Nations or among the great powers.

In the end, the greatest impact of Modi’s decision may not be on India’s neighbors but on India itself. In explaining their decision, both Modi and his top lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah, evoked a picture of a dysfunctional state, Jammu and Kashmir, helmed by corrupt local politicians and held back by laws that prevented the munificence of the Indian government from reaching the people. They also evoked gender justice, citing a provision that disallowed women from the state who married outsiders from passing on property to their children. In a nationally televised speech, Modi painted a picture of a Kashmir made prosperous by a flood of inbound Indian investment.

The New Delhi–based analyst Ashok Malik argues that India’s decision was spurred not just by the fact that opposition to autonomy for Kashmir has been a “foundational principle” for the BJP, but by growing fears that militants in the Kashmir Valley had begun to seek inspiration from the Islamic State. With the U.S. preparing to leave Afghanistan, it’s only natural for India to worry about Pakistan-backed jihadists turning their attention to Kashmir, as they did after the Soviet Union’s 1989 withdrawal.

But whatever the cocktail of ideology, domestic politics, and security concerns that drove India’s decision, it does not change the fact that the move reveals a certain brittleness in India’s constitutional arrangements. Who is to say that a future Indian government—or even this one, emboldened by the apparent popularity of its decision—won’t try something similar with a state such as Nagaland, Tamil Nadu, or West Bengal? That many BJP leaders routinely use shrill anti-Muslim rhetoric raises the stakes further.

In the seven decades since it gained independence, India has done well to hold together a large, multilingual, multifaith nation with democratic principles. It’s too soon to say whether this will change, but if Kashmir is a portent for India’s future, we need to start worrying.