Why is an action so widely castigated internationally so wildly popular in India?
Turn first to Modi’s own justification for the decision: In a 40-minute televised address to the nation in Hindi, he argued it would boost economic development, fight corruption, and end gender, caste, and religious discrimination in the erstwhile state. As the prime minister put it, the voided constitutional provisions had “given nothing but secessionism, terrorism, nepotism and widespread corruption on a large scale” to Kashmir.
In Modi’s telling, Kashmir had languished too long as a backwater scarred by violence and ruled by corrupt dynastic politicians who siphoned off federal funds meant for the people. Tighter integration with the rest of India, he argued, will create new jobs as both state-owned firms and private Indian enterprises rush to invest. Students can look forward to more government scholarships. Film crews will return to the iconic Kashmir Valley, once a Bollywood favorite. A new generation of Kashmiri leaders will rise to take their people toward a bright future in the benevolent embrace of Mother India.
Considering Modi’s popularity—225 million voters chose the BJP in national elections this year, giving it India’s largest political mandate in 35 years—it should surprise nobody that many of his compatriots find him persuasive. Moreover, his claims contain a kernel of truth. State laws preventing outsiders from owning property may have dampened investment in tourism, and refugees from Pakistan could not vote in state elections despite having lived in Kashmir for decades. In the end, Modi is selling a sunny promise of the future. Reject it as Pollyannaish and you risk looking like you want it to fail.
And while critics see the government’s decision, taken without consulting Kashmiris, as deeply undemocratic, many Indians view it differently. Since the 1950s, the BJP—then called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—has campaigned to abrogate constitutional provisions that, at least in theory, limited New Delhi’s control over Jammu and Kashmir to defense, foreign affairs, and communications. The party manifesto this year repeated the pledge. By this logic, Modi won an election and kept his promise to voters. That’s what democratically elected politicians do.
What about the more than 500,000 Indian soldiers and paramilitary forces in Kashmir, 35,000 of whom were rushed into the state shortly before the government’s announcement? Kashmiris may resent their overbearing presence, but elsewhere in India they are seen as the good guys, serving selflessly amidst a hostile population. In February, a suicide bombing in Kashmir killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops traveling in a convoy, and provoked tit-for-tat air strikes between India and Pakistan.
Human-rights groups criticize Indian troops for blinding protesters with buckshot, but viewed from the other side, the use of pellet guns—rather than live rounds sometimes deployed in other Indian states—suggests concern for life, not unwarranted brutality. Indeed, the government says its shutdown of normal activities in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley (including a month without internet or mobile-phone services) stems from a desire to save lives. Three years ago, more than 50 people died in protests after security forces killed Burhan Wani, a leader of the Islamist terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen.