The contested region of Kashmir has long stoked the rivalry between neighbors India and Pakistan and has been the subject of repeated armed conflict between the two powers. But despite the periodic flare-ups, there has also been a useful, if precarious, balance, with both sides claiming the entire region while each nation administers territory on its own side of the de facto border known as the Line of Control. China administers another disputed part of the region to the east.
The equilibrium has been maintained in part by a section of the Indian constitution known as Article 370, under which the Indian-controlled portion was granted a measure of autonomy. The region remained majority Muslim — the only area in the country that is — even as Hindu nationalists rose to power in India in recent years.
Now the balance has been thrown off. Over the weekend, the Indian government suspended telephone and internet service, imposed curfews, ejected tourists and placed local leaders under house arrest. On Monday, authorities stripped the state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy and announced that it would be split and placed under direct parliamentary control. A ban on property ownership by outsiders was lifted, potentially allowing Hindus to settle and end the Muslim-majority status (the portion of the territory known as Ladakh that borders Tibet is majority Buddhist).
Hindu nationalists and Ladakh are cheering the moves, which were championed by recently reelected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. Pakistan and China are protesting. And the world’s most militarized region once again has been thrown into turmoil. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers.
These unilateral, aggressive and provocative acts by the Indian government do no credit to the world’s largest democracy. Restricting civil liberties and cutting off communications are hallmarks of thuggery, not freedom. And needlessly exacerbating tensions in this tensest of regions is irresponsible.
Although the particulars differ, a useful comparison may be made with the current situation in Hong Kong, where residents feel the impatient and oppressive hand of the central Chinese government moving to undermine the territory’s special status and limited autonomy.
But India has gone further, not just undermining but sweeping away autonomy.
Lifting the ban on property ownership by outsiders brings to mind the Israeli government’s encouragement of Jewish settlements in territories it seized by war and that are overwhelmingly populated by Palestinian Arabs.
The moves are the disheartening, but increasingly common, rejection of ethnic pluralism not just in India but also around the globe, including in the United States.
Kashmir lies partly in and partly adjacent to the Himalayas and includes alpine glaciers and lush valleys. It has always been a crossroads for migrating peoples and invading armies, and its people represent multiple ethnicities, cultures, languages and faiths.
Like most of the rest of the Indian subcontinent, it was occupied for centuries by British overlords who ruled through local princes and nobles.
In 1947, India won its independence but was at the same time partitioned into two countries — majority-Muslim Pakistan to both the east and west, and the Dominion, later the Republic, of India in the center. (East Pakistan later broke away and became Bangladesh.)
The Kashmiri territories were courted by both India and Pakistan, and also contemplated independence. The state of Jammu and Kashmir, although majority Muslim, was ruled by the Hindu Hari Singh. War broke out among rival forces. Singh signed his state over to India, which maintained an uneasy truce with Pakistan until renewed warfare in 1965, in 1971 and again in 1999.
In recent decades, Kashmiri separatists have sought further autonomy or independence from India, which alleges that Pakistan is behind the unrest.
In February, a member of the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed carried out a suicide attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy. The Indian Air Force responded by crossing the Line of Control and then entering into airspace over Pakistan proper, dropping bombs near the town of Balakot. Pakistan then shot down an Indian plane and captured, then quickly released, the pilot.
The history of the India-Pakistan conflict includes numerous episodes of military actions that resulted, perhaps intentionally, in little damage and few casualties while sending clear messages of defiance to the other side and pride to voters at home.
But it also includes verifiable battles and slaughters that exacerbate the misery of the people of Kashmir and perpetuate the conflict between the two countries. Both of which, it bears repeating, are armed with nuclear weapons.