The scrapping of Article 370 of the constitution and the dismemberment of the state of Jammu and Kashmir have been much commented upon in recent days. Some commentators have seen these frightening events as rehearsals of what is to come elsewhere in India while others regard them as extensions of state repression in Kashmir and elsewhere in India by all the ruling parties since 1947. The fate of ordinary Kashmiris looks dire and India’s claim to be a democracy is facing its most severe test.
What the Modi government has just done in Kashmir can surely be understood as a mix of xenophobia, anti-Muslim policy, political theatre, and cynical realpolitik. I offer two remarks that might further illuminate the timing and special malevolence revealed by the decision to strip Kashmir of the last vestiges of its special status.
The first is that for the Hindu Right, all of Kashmir, on both sides of the Line of Control, stands for Pakistan. This may appear to be a banal observation given the long struggles between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and the longstanding efforts of the Indian state to paint Pakistan as the source of all Kashmiri dissent.
But the timing of the reading down of Article 370 is nevertheless striking. After approaching the brink of a full-scale war between the two countries in February 2019, both states pulled back. On the Indian side, this was a humiliating defeat for the BJP, a concession to its military incompetence, its incapacity to defy global political opinion, and its failure to bring Pakistan to its knees.
Nevertheless, Modi won a spectacular victory in May 2019, fuelled by his massive propaganda machine, his growing Hindutva electoral base, and his crony capitalist supporters. This electoral victory encouraged his voters to raise their anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan expectations to an unmanageably high level.
Notice the timing: a huge victory for the BJP in November 2018 (through the dissolution of the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly), followed by a humiliating diplomatic concession to help make peace with Pakistan in March and April of 2019, followed by the extra-constitutional conversion of Kashmir to a militarily secured Union territory in August 2019.
The causes of the recent decision to accomplish a legal coup in Kashmir surely have long-term motives for the Modi regime. But the short-term trigger was to the need to give their electorate something to salve the diplomatic defeat in the aftermath of Balakot in early 2019. Kashmir in August 2019 is a blood offering for the BJP military mouse that roared in February 2019.
Thus, Kashmir is indeed a proxy for Pakistan, but in a new context. The stunning removal of state privileges for Kashmir may have been prepared months, perhaps years, ago, but it became a necessity for the BJP during the course of this year. This sequence of events was not inevitable. But it follows a logic that makes terrifying sense.
There is another long-term proxy logic at play for the BJP in Kashmir today. And that has to do with Gujarat after the pogroms against Muslims in 2002. In the months after the burning of the Godhra train, a democratically elected government in Gujarat led by chief minister Narendra Modi, ably abetted by the present home minister, oversaw a systematic effort to target Muslims, to sponsor mob violence against them, to mobilise detailed data to target Muslim leaders, homes and businesses and to cordon off the Muslim population of Gujarat in the name of peace and security.
This series of actions by the Modi regime in Gujarat were largely accomplished by organised mobs, but were closely supported by the bureaucracy and police forces at the disposal of the chief minister. This time in Kashmir, he did not need mobs to inflict terror in Kashmir. The security forces are the organised mob that holds Kashmiris hostage in their own land and homes.
Gujarat was Modi’s political lab for his push to national power and the incomplete effort to terrorise Muslims in Gujarat after the Godhra incident. This period witnessed the first major state experiment in mobilising legal, bureaucratic and military power in the service of reducing Indian Muslims to barely human beings.
During this August, therefore, Kashmir has played a dual role for the BJP. It confirmed the power of a Hinduised state machinery to terrorise Muslims, as in Gujarat in 2002, and it restored the reputation of this regime in the eyes of its followers, by making Kashmir perform the role of a fully dominated territory of India, the displaced fantasy of Indian rule over Pakistan.
In this way, Pakistan has morphed into Kashmiristan, where India can now exercise its full dominion without losing the appearance of being a parliamentary democracy among many opinion-makers across the world.
Kashmiristan is both a fantasy and a laboratory. The fantasy dimension is key. In this fantasy, Kashmir becomes a subjugated Pakistan, and the Partition is partially deleted. Further, this is a fantasy in which Kashmir, as the playground of love, lakes and mountains in Bollywood cinema, becomes the feminised version of Pakistan, populated by fair women ripe for the taking.
In this fantasy, the leisure sites of Bollywood love become real estate playgrounds for Indian speculators and developers. Real estate is the feminised counterpoint to the militarised territory. Kashmiri bodies and Kashmiri land thus become available for Indian nationalist desires.
The laboratory aspect of Kashmiristan renders it an experiment in de-constitutionalisation, the process by which the Indian constitution is steadily turned into a fig leaf for runaway executive power and unadorned military muscle.
This experiment inaugurates a new era in which India competes for primacy with Brazil, the US, the Philippines, Turkey and other emerging mass tyrannies, in which xenophobic order replaces democratic law. Welcome to the age of the masculine Centre and feminised states. Kashmiristan is us. We are all now waiting for the BJP baaraat.
Arjun Appadurai teaches in New York and Berlin and has published widely on globalisation and South Asia. His forthcoming book (with Neta Alexander) is Failure (Polity Press, UK, 2019 Fall).