Conflicts centered on Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia have seized recent global attention, overshadowing the dangerous escalation of the crisis in Kashmir. India’s government in August abrogated the political autonomy of the portion of Kashmir that it governs. To suppress protests, India has had to maintain a severe lockdown—effectively, a form of military rule—over more than 7 million people in the Kashmir valley. While India and Pakistan have avoided military clashes over this spike in their 62-year dispute over Kashmir, Dr. Mujibur Rehman, a scholar on Indian politics at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Central University, says the international community should organize a high-level factfinding mission to reduce the risk of greater violence.
You have said that India’s assertion of central control over Kashmir is an ideologically driven action by India’s Hindu nationalist political movement. So three months after that step, with Kashmir in an apparent deadlock, what seems likely to happen next?
When the government abrogated Kashmir’s political autonomy, it imposed this shutdown of normal life, and we heard that this was to last for three months or so, until winter sets in and Kashmir is under snow, which would make protest difficult. In mid-October, Prime Minister Modi assured the country that the situation will “normalize” within the next four months. Still, the government has not announced any specific plan for easing or ending this shutdown, so no one knows when it may end. There were statements by various BJP leaders that gradually, Kashmiri political leaders—from the National Conference or the PDP [Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party]—could be freed from house arrest on a case-by-case basis, and then allowed to participate in what government spokesmen call “normal political activities.” But this is unclear. What is a “normal political activity”? Will it include protests against the government’s actions?
There is a perception among India’s security agencies that all protest in Kashmir is engineered from across the border by Pakistan. India’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval, has given interviews in which he says that the majority of Kashmiris support the government and that all the dissent and troubles are created by a small minority. If that were true, one would think that the government could have formulated a response to deal with those few troublemakers and let the majority of Kashmiris lead their normal lives.
The government claims that the conditions in Kashmir are very normal. But they continue to black out information from Kashmir; they are prohibiting access by any independent media or other observers. And what information emerges, via YouTube, for example, does not suggest any normalcy. We hear that people are struggling to sustain daily lives, that hospitals are in crisis, that a humanitarian disaster looms.
The BJP [the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party] and its predecessor organization have long held the ideological position that provisions for India’s minorities—such as the autonomy of the largely Muslim Jammu and Kashmir—should be rolled back. The BJP has done so this year simply because it achieved the necessary parliamentary majority to make the attempt. But one is struck by its failure to attempt any dialogue whatever with Kashmiris. Personally, I can tell you that my university has a number of Kashmiri students. And many of my colleagues teaching at the University of Kashmir came to Delhi after this shutdown. From my discussions with some of them, it is clear that they are the kinds of people to whom the government could have easily reached out. They are not outside the mainstream of Indian institutions and political involvement, but rather they are part of it. And yet the government did not reach out even to these groups in Kashmir—the civil society, the universities, the media, the people in government bureaucracies. And so even these relatively favored groups in Kashmir feel deeply let down, not to speak of the mood that will be felt in the broad base of Kashmiri society.
The bottom line is that one is not getting any concrete signal of the kind of response that the government is formulating other than this shutdown, and some promises of restoration of law and order.
You also have said that this crisis reveals some broader problems in Indian politics and its ability to resolve issues of domestic conflict—notably the weakness of opposition parties, such as the Indian National Congress. Tell us about that.
Congress has not been able to take the pulse of the broad masses of people, and then to provide leadership on that basis. This is one of the reasons for its steady decline. A lot of the “tall leaders” of Congress are people without any mass base, who have held their leading positions at the pleasure of the Gandhi-Nehru family. From the point of view of Congress politics, the most disappointing element in this crisis is that you have a prime minister who ruled for 10 years, Dr. Manmohan Singh, and he has not made a serious statement on Kashmir ever since all these developments have taken place. So the opposition has articulated no strong alternative position.
Most of the Indian opposition political parties are not democratic political parties, but essentially are driven by families. They are dynastic parties. They are deeply fearful of the reaction that they would have to face from New Delhi because this government is quite determined and very efficient in unleashing all kinds of government machinery, to suppress dissent. I can read you a whole list of opposition leaders now in jail for corrupt or allegedly corrupt dealings. Also, the BJP is quite good at giving a spin to anybody who expresses concerns about Kashmiris’ human rights or the excessive use of force. When [Congress party leader] Rahul Gandhi or others speak about this the government stirs up public sentiment that they are helping Pakistan.
And since the national opposition parties do not have a political base in Kashmir, their electoral fortunes don’t depend on Kashmiri voters. They may be asking why they should speak up and take these risks. I am very disappointed by the opposition leaders because none of them have made a serious effort even to ask for the release of their colleagues, the leaders of political parties in Kashmir.
My sense is that the opposition parties might best go to their own voters and say they are concerned about the suffering of Kashmiri people—but that also, if today it is done to Kashmiris, tomorrow it may be done to people in other states—Uttar Pradesh or Karnataka or Assam or West Bengal. Therefore we have to preserve the rights of citizens given by the constitution.
While this abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomy is a BJP ideological project, part of the responsibility falls as well on other political parties—such as those in the United Progressive Alliance [a center-left coalition headed by the Congress party], which was in office for a decade before this government. If they had focused on Kashmir crisis earlier and achieved a resolution, India would not be facing this situation now.
What should the international community be doing?
The discussions and observations and Twitter messages from international and U.S. leaders so far have had no impact on the Indian government. So I suggest that a prominent international delegation—figures of the stature of, say President Obama and some major European leaders—should be organized. And it should press India’s government for the opportunity to visit Kashmir and investigate exactly what is unfolding on the ground. The limited press reporting we have seen gives every indication of a major humanitarian crisis, including a health crisis. Such a delegation should also press Pakistan for a similar visit to parts of Kashmir under its control.
India’s government has argued that Kashmir is a purely internal matter. But in the modern world, such claims of sovereignty by a ruling elite cannot justify actions that inflict endless suffering on their citizens. For India to persuade the international community of its rightful claim to govern Kashmir, it must demonstrate morally and constitutionally that Kashmiris embrace that governance. Yet the current shutdown demonstrates the reverse. The international community must be consistent in asserting that there is a bottom line that protects human rights—whether of religious minorities in Pakistan or Bangladesh or India, or of the Rohingyas in Myanmar.
A prominent international delegation pressing for the right to visit Kashmir and witness the situation would put the Indian government and its actions under the spotlight. The government would face some real pressure to accede to that request. In 2016, the government felt able to reject a lower-profile request that came from the U.N. human rights commissioner. But a truly high-profile delegation could at least raise attention on the issue and perhaps could push the government to reassess its actions and look for ways to moderate them.
Dr. Rehman is the editor of Rise of Saffron Power: Reflections on Indian Politics (Routledge 2018), and teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi. This post represents the views of the author and not those of USIP.