A tangled skein of history unravels as Modi clenches the iron fist

Indian Muslim women wear masks depicting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Bhopal, India, 31 July 2019. (Photo: EPA-EFE/SANJEEV GUPTA)

The politics of the status of Kashmir is in a big mess right now, but it could become much worse if Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues with his current policies. And this, in turn, could provoke a dangerous regional crisis.

While at a local haberdashery, buying several cashmere jerseys (their prices were marked down steeply for a sale at the end of winter; there are some things one should never buy at full price!), I was contacted by one of our editors with the assignment that I should focus closely on cashmere for our next story. “Cashmere?” I asked myself, more than a little puzzled.

Was there somehow a new, worrisome high-end fabric connection to the ongoing US-China trade debacle, especially given the fact that China is the source of something like 70% of the world’s cashmere garments, and Americans buy a big share source in order to keep warm and fashionable? It finally dawned, the lightbulb went on – the topic was “Kashmir”, not that very fine, very warm wool from the underbellies of special goats. It was the ongoing troubles in India’s northernmost state that were of concern now.

There actually is a connection between the two, and this was the source of my initial confusion. The cashmere goat species originated in what is the geographical location known as Kashmir, and “cashmere” was the 17th-century English spelling of the place, and thus the word in two spelling variants has stayed with both the goats and the place up near the Himalayas ever since. Ah ha. Actually, my confusion could also be traced to the possibility that I was insufficiently tuned into the problems in Kashmir, focusing more on things like Donald Trump’s latest outrages, the ongoing bungling over Brexit, the continuing shambles of the Middle East, or the political and human costs of migrations out of Africa across the Mediterranean or of Latin Americans into the southern rim of the US.

Meanwhile, a thread of Kashmir’s current troubles, as opposed to the travails of the goats, can be traced back to centuries before the first high fashion, warm, silky-smooth cashmere jersey was found on the shelves of ritzy department stores for roughly the cost of a small used car.

In the middle of the 14th century, Islam came to Kashmir and, over time, the vast majority of the population became Muslim, just as with a significant share of the population of the rest of the subcontinent of South Asia. In many cases, the rulers of those quasi-independent states were also Muslim, even when their inhabitants were not. And sometimes the reverse was true, as with Kashmir where its prince was Hindu.

As long as virtually the entirety of India was effectively under the sovereignty of Great Britain (save for small enclaves under the control of Portugal and France), the complexity of imperial India’s racial, religious, ethnic, caste, and linguistic mix, the tapestry of variations and permutations of direct rule and indirect rule via the various princes made it relatively easy for Britain to expand its control – and keep the entirety of India under its authority well into the 20th century. This control came to take on greater force through the 19th century via institutions such as the imperial Indian army and police, the railroads, the administrative and customs authorities, and an India-wide economic network that helped knit together this vast land.

But as the advent of nationalism across the colonial empires of the European nations began to gain strength, post-World War I, Indian nationalism similarly began to grow. But somewhat differently than was the case in some colonial possessions, an all-Indian nationalist movement with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru at its apex, came into conflict with a religiously-based, identitarian nationalism, led by Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

His movement was adamantly in favour of the creation of a separate Islamic state, bringing together the two halves of Muslim-majority territory in India – eastern Bengal plus lands in the west inhabited by the Pashtuns, Sindhis, Balochs, Punjabis and other ethnicities – into the new, avowedly Islamic nation of Pakistan, through the partition of imperial India in 1947.

Under the terms of the British withdrawal, the various princely states that had been the objects of indirect rule ostensibly could select independence or absorption into India or Pakistan – with certain privileges and residual forms of authority retained by their respective princes. The vast majority of these rulers ultimately joined newly independent India, although the Hindu sultan of the strongly Muslim territory of Jammu and Kashmir dithered about a decision in the face of considerable pressure to declare for independence instead.

Since that moment of independence, India has continued to claim the entire princely state of Jammu and Kashmir based on the state’s 1947 instrument of accession to the new India. While Pakistan has claimed Jammu and Kashmir based on the territory’s majority Muslim population. Meanwhile, China has its claim to the Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin.

As the 1947 partition became increasingly violent, the two successor states to the earlier imperial India – India and Pakistan – separately invaded the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, with the Indians seizing the greater portion of the majority-Muslim territory. By the end of the fighting, India held most of the populated areas and productive agricultural land, including the capital of Srinagar and popular highland tourism areas such as the famous Vale of Kashmir. The Pakistanis gained the northern and western reaches of Jammu and Kashmir, but those were mostly the less-populated mountainous areas.

Thereafter, on the Indian side of the ceasefire line, Jammu and Kashmir was granted certain communal and political autonomy rights such as modest aid for those Kashmiris undertaking the Haj. These have prevailed for decades, until the beginning of this new crisis.

Along the way, since independence, the two nations have fought several wars. However, the large-scale 1971 war that had led to the dismemberment of Pakistan – with the independence of Bangladesh as the key result – had not led to major Kashmiri fighting.

Meanwhile, a separate border war between India and China in 1962 had allowed the Chinese to seize several strategic portions of northern and eastern Kashmir that had long been claimed by China to negate a 1914 border delineation between British India and Tibet, the McMahon Line. The Chinese opposed the territorial delineation on the grounds Tibet did not have the independent status to make such an agreement, and that the treaty represented one more in a series of unequal treaties foisted upon a weak China in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

When Narendra Modi became the Indian prime minister, his policies were set along a sharply pro-Hindu, effectively anti-Islam agenda. This effort has gained additional momentum following his recent electoral victory earlier in 2019, provoking the current Kashmir crisis.

As Indian journalist-historian Kapil Komireddi, in a commentary for The Washington Post, has written on the current crisis:

For two weeks, Kashmir, Indias sole Muslim-majority state, has existed in a surreal state of nonexistence. Since a presidential decree abolished the state, revoked its autonomy and partitioned it into two federally administered territories, the Internet has been shut down, cellular networks have been disabled, and even landlines went dead. Public assembly is banned, and citizens are under curfew. A soldier has been stationed outside every house in some villages. Eight million people have been cut off from the world and from one another. Pharmacies are running out of medicine, households are low on food, and hospitals are clogging up with injured protesters. Narendra Modi, Indias prime minister, insists that all this is for the good of the Kashmiris. Indias grip on Kashmir has seldom been stronger. Its hold on Kashmiris, however, has never been more threadbare.

Modis sudden takeover in Kashmir is the fulfilment of a long ideological yearning to make a predominantly Muslim population surrender to his vision of a homogeneous Hindu nation. It is also a way of conveying to the rest of India a union of dizzyingly diverse states that no one is exempt from the Hindu-power paradise he wants to build on the subcontinent. Kashmir is both a warning and a template: Any state that deviates from this vision can be brought under Delhis thumb in the name of ‘unity’.”

Most recently, the Modi decisions have effectively ended any elements of that longstanding Kashmir autonomy, severed most communications into and out of Kashmir, carried out restrictions on political activity and resulted in the arrest or detention of a number of politicians and media figures.

According to reporting in The Washington Post, “Modi, who has defended the Kashmir changes as freeing the territory from separatism, and his supporters have welcomed the move. One of the revisions allows anyone to buy land in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which some Kashmiris fear could change the regions culture and demographics. Critics have likened it to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.”

While some of these restrictions have recently been rolled back after a two-week period, following the hostility that the crackdown has fed and the spread of those protests across the territory, the latest rollbacks have done little to lessen hostility to the national government, nor given most Kashmiris any sense their state’s earlier, unique autonomy is about to be reinstituted, let alone that the prime minister’s positions on his programme of maximal Hindu nationalism have changed in any way.

It would have been one thing if this Kashmiri tension and the associated crackdown had only domestic repercussions, although that would be problematic enough from a human and civil rights perspective. But given the divided state of Kashmir and the many unresolved tensions between the two rival subcontinental powers, the possibility of yet one more outbreak of open hostilities evolving from problems in Kashmir between the two nations cannot be ignored. Two additional, crucial elements are important as well. First is that the two nations are both nuclear-armed. Second, they have a track record of entering active warfare over godforsaken, arid landscapes such as the Rann of Kutch, let alone fighting along the Line of Control that divides the two parts of Kashmir.

So far at least, there has been little effort internationally in successfully ratcheting down the current bilateral tensions. Instead, there has been a loose talk between the two nations about facing down their respective rival. By Friday 16 August, the UN Security Council had been unable to reach any recommendations or to propose any actual international actions designed to tamp down the smouldering dispute.

As The Washington Post also reported, “There was a deadly exchange of gun and mortar firing between Indian and Pakistani forces Saturday across the militarized Line of Control that divides Kashmir between the archrivals. Both countries claim the Himalayan region in its entirety, and they have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir.

An Indian soldier was killed by Pakistani forces in Nowshera sector, Col Aman Anand, an Indian army spokesman, said in New Delhi. Earlier in the week, Pakistani security forces said firing by India in the region killed three Pakistani soldiers and two civilians in separate incidents. Both sides frequently exchange gunfire in the region and accuse each other of violating a 2003 cease-fire accord. In Islamabad, Pakistani military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said the countrys armed forces were fully prepared to respond to any Indian aggression.”

In the current state of global circumstances, it would be easy to shrug off the Kashmir issue as one more relatively minor ruction in a long history of tension and limited fighting. After all, the global economy is beginning to look as if it will start flat-lining soon enough; the US-China dispute continues to gain the attention of an increasingly nervous world; and American-Russian tensions (despite the US incumbent president’s unceasing efforts to ingratiate himself with his counterpart in Moscow) grow as well.

Then there are all those other hot spots such as the Korean Peninsula, Syria, and the Persian Gulf’s bordering states and their involvement in the disastrous struggle in Yemen. This litany does not even include the looming catastrophe of global climate change, the many crises in the movements of people as either refugees or equally desperate economic migrants, and even the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the fundamental changes in workplaces around the world that revolution will bring.

But a real, full-blown conflict between India and Pakistan could easily embroil other nations such as China or the US. And behind that, as noted earlier, there is the baleful fact that the two nations are nuclear-armed – and that they hold grievances that cannot easily be assuaged by a return to the status quo ante. Imagine just for a minute if active trans-border hostilities did break out and either nation felt it was about to be seriously bested on the battlefield. While India has made a pledge of something akin to a no first use of its nuclear weapons, that would not necessarily preclude a retaliatory response, even in the face of global disapproval. This is now an issue in serious need of global, adult tough love. DM


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