If you didn’t notice that Prime Minister Narendra Modi just changed the status of the restive Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, I understand. On August 5, his government introduced legislation to abrogate Article 370, and even Article 35A, and—see, I’ve lost you already.
But don’t let jargon and legalese distract you: This may be the most important event in an enormously volatile part of the world since the end of the last century, with repercussions that will extend far beyond Kashmir itself. Most immediately, they will be felt throughout India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but the long-term effects could ripple much farther afield.
In reality, what’s at stake is the definition of democracy: Does majority rule mean that majorities simply rule? Or does genuine democracy require that minorities (whether defined in religious, ethnic, or ideological terms) be granted institutional protection to prevent their voices from being swamped? It’s a question with which nations across the world are now wrestling—not least the United States, Britain, and much of Europe. Except in Kashmir, the answers carry with them a non-zero risk of nuclear war.
Jammu and Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority state in a Hindu-majority nation. Explaining how it got that way requires a bit of history: In the colonial era it was part of a theoretically independent princely state of the same name, which had also included territory now administered by Pakistan and China. In 1947, when the British insisted that some 560 puppet princes choose one or the other of the newly created nations to join, the maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir dithered: Sandwiched between mostly Hindu India and mostly Muslim Pakistan, he (like many of his principality’s citizens) hoped for independence. It was not to be. Pakistan-based forces invaded, and once the maharajah signed his approval for accession, India air-lifted troops to block them. The nations have fought two major wars and many bloody skirmishes over Kashmir, but the Line of Control drawn after the 1948 United Nations cease-fire remains essentially the same today.