A masked Kashmiri man with his head covered with barbed wire attends a protest in Srinagar.
A masked Kashmiri man with his head covered with barbed wire attends a protest in Srinagar. (Danish Ismail / Reuters)

India’s Diverging Paths in Kashmir

By taking away the region’s autonomy, the country is changing the balance between those who favor dialogue and those who support violence.

SRINAGAR, India—Meet Rehman and Syed. The two, both in their mid-20s, live a short distance from each other in Indian-administered Kashmir. Both live under a heavy military presence, their movements circumscribed, and are unable to question the ubiquitous men in uniform. Both had brothers who opted for militancy, taking up arms against the Indian authorities, eventually dying at the hands of the Indian army.

And now both symbolize a widening split among Kashmiris. On the one side is Rehman. His brother was killed in the 1990s, when an insurgency against the Indian government was at its peak, and his body lies in a graveyard near an apple orchard in the district of Pulwama. Yet Rehman, who asked that he not be identified by his full name for safety concerns, holds out hope that reconciliation with New Delhi is possible. On the other side is Syed, who lives in the neighboring district of Shopian. The night before I met him, he had holed up in a relative’s house, hiding from the army. The region had been under near-total lockdown for weeks, and he feared being arrested. His brother was killed last year, and Syed’s reaction was the opposite of Rehman’s—the only way left to fight the Indian government’s excesses, he argued, was to pick up a weapon.

This gulf—between dialogue and violence, between engaging with New Delhi and rebelling against it with force—is a long-running division here. But it is one that has been exacerbated by the Indian government’s recent decision to strip Kashmir of its limited autonomy, a move that has also had the effect of shifting the balance of opinion away from the former group—Rehman’s—which, though no proponent of the central authorities, has favored talks to ease restrictions in the region. Now the latter group—Syed’s—appears to be in ascendance, capitalizing on draconian measures to galvanize anger in the country’s only Muslim-majority state against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government.

Kashmir has been claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan since their independence and partition in 1947, making it the cause of wars between the two countries and, for the past three decades, the site of recurring cycles of violence. Yet over its long history, Kashmir has also been, by turns, a center of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. It flourished under benevolent kings and proved resilient under rulers whose boots were put to the neck of a less willing populace—the 12th-century writer Kalhana wrote in his epic history of the region, Rajatarangini, that Kashmir could be conquered not by force, but only by spiritual ideas. The irony is that until Modi made his decision to, as he saw it, end the Kashmir problem, there were signs that locals here were starting to accept the idea of (limited) Indian rule. But Modi now stands accused of causing panic, deploying more soldiers in an already heavily militarized region. And even as the authorities ease some restrictions first put in place on August 5, when they announced without consultation that they would end Kashmir’s autonomous status, it may now be too late to win back Kashmiris.

On August 4, the day before Modi’s government announced that it was ending Kashmir’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy and breaking it up into two political units administered directly from New Delhi, security officials went on an arrest spree. But this was not just a purge of the militant opposition—they rounded up everyone from local leaders and pro- and anti-India citizens to current and former politicians. Among those detained were the leaders of the National Conference, traditionally Kashmir’s leading mainstream party, whose founder, Sheikh Abdullah, first argued for a pro-India position in the 1940s. “We have decided to work and die for India,” Abdullah said in March 1948. Even though his relationship with New Delhi had its ups and downs, his party and his political heirs stuck to the principle of Kashmir being part of a secular India, albeit with considerable autonomy. This middle road came at a cost: Hundreds of party members have been killed by anti-India militants over the decades.

One of them was Abdul Jabbar Sheikh, whose son Ishfaq Jabbar followed him into the National Conference, eventually representing the party in the Jammu and Kashmir state parliament. Jabbar is now among scores of politicians incarcerated here in the Centaur Hotel, which the authorities have turned into a makeshift prison. When I went to the building one day a few weeks ago, National Conference staffers had gathered outside the hotel, hoping to see Jabbar. (The police have allowed some carefully controlled visits, letting the “inmates” out of their rooms into the hotel lobby.) “Ishfaq Sahib’s father ... gave up his life for India,” one party worker, who asked not to be identified, fearful of retribution from the Indian authorities, told me, referring to Jabbar by a common honorific. “He was killed by the militants, and now … India has put his son behind bars?”

Inside the hotel, there was a similar sense of disbelief. Several politicians presided over gatherings of family members or addressed supporters, the two sets of people granted access. Among those arrested was Shah Faesal, an Indian civil servant turned politician who had been on the BBC saying that Modi was forcing Kashmir’s political class into one of two categories: stooge or separatist. Nearby stood Jabbar, who spoke at length, and angrily. “We gave everything for the Indian flag,” he said. “And one fine day I find myself in detention. I’m in shock.”

A close-up photo of Shah Faesal.
Shah Faesal speaks in Srinigar. (Danish Ismail / Reuters)

Bewildered, this establishment is now scrambling to construct a coherent view of its future relationship with the Indian government. Some in its ranks say they could argue for the return of statehood, a victory they could parade for their people. Others simply seem lost and betrayed.

New Delhi, however, appears in no mood to make any concessions. Modi and his supporters have long intended to revoke the constitutional article setting out Kashmir’s autonomy, and indeed included abrogating it as a pledge in their manifesto ahead of this year’s general election, which Modi won resoundingly. They say Kashmir’s status is an anomaly that only encourages opposition. The government’s defenders assert that, in time, Kashmiris will accept their new political reality. Since local officials have lost the power to control land use, non-Kashmiri Indians can buy land and invest, and an eventual tamping down of violence, should that happen, could further bolster the economy.

Opponents are skeptical, though. Kashmir’s autonomy was mostly symbolic, many acknowledge, but its loss sends the message that local preferences can be ignored. A sense of dispossession, represented by the arrests of the very politicians whom New Delhi had cultivated, can only spread, fostering alienation from the central state. And if the government can unilaterally impose such a decision without consulting Kashmiris, what voice do the region’s residents have to make demands in the opposite direction?

It has been nearly three months since Jabbar, Faesal, and a number of other politicians were locked up, and while some have been released, they were freed only after promising to maintain “peace.” The government is keeping a heavy security presence, and while landline and some cellphone connections have been restored, an internet blackout remains in place. Kashmiris have been refusing to send their children to school or open their shops, while farmers have not harvested their apples. These boycotts were called for by militant groups as much as by the locals here, and appear to have widespread voluntary support.

Whatever limited trust people had in the Indian military has evaporated. When I visited Syed at a ramshackle old farmhouse, he told me and my colleagues not to park outside, particularly as we were traveling in an SUV that could make Indian soldiers patrolling nearby suspicious. The army had already been a frequent visitor to Syed’s house since his brother joined a militant group in 2017. Those visits continued up to and after his brother’s death in July 2018. So far, Syed told me, his family has succeeded in persuading him not to run away to join the same group and seek vengeance. But he appeared, during our conversation, to be readying an argument to justify what seemed to be an inevitable decision. “They have snatched our identity from us,” he said. “What can we do other than fight?”

More than once, he pointed to Afghanistan—though he is by no means an expert on the country’s history or current politics, the tale of an Islamic resistance bringing a world power to its knees seemed an attractive motivator. “At times I think,” he said, “if it was possible for the Taliban to defeat America, then why can’t we defeat India?” Though he has not yet become a militant and acknowledges that there was a time when relations with the Indian army were stronger, that memory appears to be fading. “It wasn’t always a bad relationship with the army,” he said. “They built roads for us; we were friendly.” No longer. “Now I see them as an enemy.”

Still, Syed is probably in the minority, at least for now. There is broad acknowledgment among Kashmiris that renewed violence will bring not victory over the Indian state, but only more dead bodies. “Violence did not bring us anything,” Rehman told me when I met him in Pulwama. The Indian government’s actions, he noted, could nevertheless have a snowball effect, building up frustration until anger finally boils over. Of the many who have been arrested, most are young men. “When boys are picked up by police and harassed, they lose the will to live.”

That is already having an effect, with men like Syed willing to countenance violence and others like Rehman losing the argument. “No one wanted bloodshed,” Rehman said, “but now the balance has tilted.”