Explainer: What is happening in Kashmir?

India’s decision to abolish Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and place it under direct military control has inflamed tensions between the Indian and Pakistani governments and raised concerns globally. How did it come to this?

What is the history of the conflict in Kashmir?

The roots of the long-standing conflict over the Himalayan region of Kashmir can be traced back to British colonialism and its legacy.

India and Pakistan’s independence from the waning British Empire in 1947 was accompanied by a brutal and calculated partition which resulted in widespread violence between Hindus and Muslims. Jammu and Kashmir, then a ‘princely state’ within the Kashmir region, was given the option under the Indian Independence Act of joining with either India or Pakistan; but as a Muslim-majority state with a Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh, neither of these options were without complication, and the population’s fiercely held Kashmiri identity left the state independent, albeit for only a few months.

Following a Pakistan-backed invasion by Afghan tribesmen in October 1947, Hari Singh appealed to India for aid; India agreed, on the condition that Jammu and Kashmir accede to India. This agreement rendered Jammu and Kashmir autonomous in all matters other than defence, foreign affairs and communications.

The war which followed eventually led to Indian entreaties to the United Nations, which recommended that a referendum be held to finally determine whether the state would join with India or Pakistan. However, neither country could agree to a deal to demilitarise Kashmir in anticipation of such a vote. As a result, it was never held.

Although a ceasefire line was established in 1947 following a ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan, the region was left divided. Conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir would erupt again in 1965 and in 1999, by which time both nations were nuclear-armed states. Today, both Delhi and Islamabad claim sovereignty over the entirety of Kashmir, whilst in practice only controlling parts of it; internationally, its territories are recognised as ‘Indian-administered’ and ‘Pakistan-administered’ respectively.

What is Article 370?

Historically – and particularly in light of the armed struggle against Indian rule which has persisted for three decades within the country, which India has long accused Pakistan of fomenting – Indian-administered Kashmir has been treated as a distinctive entity. The original 1947 agreement with India laid the groundwork for Article 370, a constitutional clause drafted in 1952 which guaranteed its autonomy over all but a few significant reserved matters.

Some have argued that successive Indian governments have, at best, respected the letter but not the spirit of Article 370 – most notably through the lengthy imprisonment of Kashmiri leader Sheikh Abdullah - which can only be revoked with the approval of the Kashmiri people’s elected representatives. Nevertheless, this constitutional reality has not dissuaded the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which promised to abolish Article 370 in its 2019 manifesto.

What has the Indian Government done?

International concerns were raised earlier this month when tourists in Kashmir were advised to leave the region, in response to claims from the Indian Government that there was a terror threat. This was quickly followed by the deployment of over 100,000 Indian troops to reinforce the 500,000 already stationed in what is the most heavily militarised area in the world. All communications – internet, cellphones and landlines – between Kashmir and the outside world were abruptly cut off by India.

It quickly became clear that this was all prologue to India’s ultimate intention: on August 5, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 without the consent of the Kashmiri people, who were by this point held captive within a country that had become a prison. Kashmiri political leaders, including those who had been in coalition with the BJP, were detained, as were many Kashmiri children; local authorities have been replaced by Indian paramilitaries; and streets and towns have been blockaded with razor wire and armed guards.

What does this mean?

For decades, Article 370 provided constitutional legitimacy for Delhi’s rule over Indian-administered Kashmir – the chief piece of evidence employed by Indian governments of the past that India’s role in Kashmir was not one of military occupation. Modi’s revocation of that Article 370 has destroyed any such illusion.

The stripping of Article 370 also involved the abrogation of Article 35A of the Indian constitution, which reserves the rights of Kashmiri residents to own land and immoveable property, to vote and contest elections, to seek state welfare benefits and government employment, meaning that not only has the limited autonomy of Kashmir been eliminated, but that some of the most fundamental rights of its citizens have been abolished also.

Another interpretation of the present crisis, much voiced by critics of the Modi government, is that the abolition of Kashmir’s special status has removed any legal basis under which India can administer over its territory in the region. Under this view, India is now indisputably a foreign occupying power.  

What has been the response?

Predictably, reaction from Pakistan has been immediate and condemnatory, with Islamabad refuting New Delhi's claim that constitutional issues are an internal Indian matter. The parliament of Pakistan has downgraded diplomatic relations, cut trade with India and suspended travel links.

However, given international worries over tensions between the two nuclear powers, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told Al Jazeera this week: "There are two nuclear-armed states and we think war is not a solution - it is mutual suicide and has never been our option.

"We are going to articulate our case diplomatically, politically and we will look at the legal options.”

Despite Modi’s move pleasing the BJP rank and file, reaction within India has been sharply divided. According to Indian feminist Kavita Krishnan, who recently joined a fact-finding mission to occupied Kashmir in defiance of government orders: “there have been huge protests all over India against the move by students, workers, women, Dalits, and Left and social movement organisations.”

China, a long-term ally of Pakistan, has formally asked for closed consultations in the UN Security Council to discuss India’s actions, but there is little indication it will do more than offer formal condemnations of the occupation.

Last week, Russia’s UN deputy permanent representative Dmitry Polyanskiy told press that he favoured a “bilateral track”; in a later statement on social media, he added that Russia hopes Kashmir will be settled “bilaterally by political and diplomatic means only”.

President Donald Trump has urged both India and Pakistan to ease tensions, revealing on Monday evening that he had spoken to both Modi and Pakistan’s Imran Kahn, tweeting: “A tough situation but good conversations!”

Picture courtesy of Steve Eason

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