The West Bank. Gaza. Xinjiang. Modern-day concentration camps. Is the 12.5 million strong, majority Muslim, northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) next?
At the time of writing, the state is under curfew: its telecommunications have been silenced and its mainstream political leaders detained. Approximately half a million troops are already stationed in Kashmir, making it one of the most militarized areas in the world.
Over the past few weeks, and in the run-up to the curfew, a further 35,000 Indian soldiers have been deployed as tourists and non-residents rushed to escape the dragnet. Meanwhile, locals fearful for their future stockpiled food and other supplies – engendering a mass panic.
The contrast could not be more different from when I visited the Himalayan region some 36 years ago, back in 1983.
It was at the tail-end of the Hippie era: I spent a week on a houseboat in the Dal Lake before heading off for a “Boy’s Own”-type adventure to Kargil and the predominantly Buddhist region of Ladakh. By 1989 however, a bloody insurgency was to begin and the rest, sadly, is history.
Fast-forward to today and Kashmir – already the scene of 3 wars between India and Pakistan – is once again on a precipice.
In a series of rapid-fire constitutional amendments, the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stripped Kashmir of its statehood, removed its autonomy as well as safeguards, which prevented outsiders from buying land in the region.
What does all this mean? Essentially, Kashmir has been downgraded. It will be divided into 2: J&K on one side and Ladakh on the other, both ruled directly from Delhi as Union Territories.
While Modi has promised an eventual return to “state” status and better development, there’s already talk of Hindu settlers flooding into Kashmir; irrevocably altering its demographics.
This is just the latest tragedy to befall the storied and troubled land.
Broadly speaking, the Kashmir Valley has historically been majority Muslim, while Jammu (to the south) is predominantly Hindu and Ladakh, Buddhist. All 3 areas were ruled by the Dogra Maharajas, who were Hindu.
When Partition came in 1947, Kashmir’s Maharaja at the time, Hari Singh, chose to accede to India, rather than Pakistan as most of his Muslim subjects allegedly wanted.
The region hence became the centerpiece of the wider struggle between India and Pakistan, with both sides claiming sovereignty over the entire region.
To address the controversies surrounding its accession, certain constitutional guarantees were given to Kashmir, including autonomy over all matters except foreign relations, communications and defense. India also made a (as yet unfulfilled) pledge to hold a plebiscite on Kashmir’s ultimate status.
Modi’s BJP party (and its RSS parent body) view these guarantees as an aberration: unwarranted privileges for a truculent Kashmiri Muslim populace and an obstacle in their quest for Hindu Rashtra, a Hindu state.
However, defenders have claimed that Kashmir’s “special privileges” were an essential part of India and its Constitution’s Nehruvian secularism.
The concessions, although unpopular, were a guarantee to Kashmir’s Muslims—and by implication, all the nation’s minorities—that choosing India would not result in their identities being subsumed into the Hindu majority.
Kashmir’s presence in India was supposed to be a living rebuke both to Pakistan and the subscribers of the RSS’ ideology.
All of that seems like a distant dream now.
Indeed, the Modi government’s actions in Kashmir highlight its determination to carry out the RSS program in full.
This includes the erasing of both the pluralistic India championed by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the sanctity of the secular Constitution drafted by the Dalit Dr BR Ambedkar.
But it would also be a mistake to lay blame for this erosion of India’s liberties solely at the door of Modi, the BJP and the RSS.
No: this is something that the Indians who re-elected Modi with such a huge majority in the last elections own.
After all, successive Indian governments of all ideologies over the last 40 years progressively watered-down Kashmir’s autonomy, while also not holding a referendum and disallowing the issue to be taken up for UN arbitration.
Moreover, the positive glee by which Indian netizens have greeted the latest news—with many of them hailing it as the “Final Solution” to the “Kashmir problem”—suggests that Modi’s actions enjoy popular support, if not adulation.
But the joy may be short-lived.
The possibility of a confrontation with Pakistan and even China (which has a residual claim on Ladakh and has criticized the changes) may be remote.
The real damage, however, will be to India’s soul.
If they could do this to Kashmir—and the voices of its people were totally ignored—what’s to stop similar outrages from being visited not only on India’s other minorities but also its non-Hindi speaking regions: Karnataka, Assam and Tamil Nadu?
The subjugation of Kashmir is more than just about religion: it is about the destruction of a unique national culture that was practiced by different faiths. It’s about the homogenization of India, or rather, the end of its rich diversity.
Its reputation as an anti-colonial icon, as a beacon of Asia: secular and progressive, democratic and pluralistic, now lies in tatters.
The colonized have become colonizers.
But this is what the Indians who voted for Modi wanted, after all.
They wanted a “strongman” and now—for better or worse—must live with the consequences he brings.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.