On August 5, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party government humiliated the people of Kashmir by robbing them of their autonomy in the midst of an unprecedented lockdown. Seven million residents of the Valley were placed under curfew and silenced as their phones, televisions, and internet access were suspended as an executive decision was made – on their behalf, but without their consent – to fully integrate them with the rest of the Indian union.
There is no doubt that Modi has scored a huge political win.
His electoral constituents across India – most of whom only conceive of Kashmir through the constant consumption of propaganda – are impressed, jubilant, and visibly grateful. In the absence of any meaningful opposition, and with much of the media endorsing the party line, the BJP will be difficult to dethrone any time soon.
Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood now stands revoked, and the Valley will henceforth be administered as a de facto police state. Going by its long record of excesses, New Delhi can be expected to rely most heavily on the coercive apparatus of the state to mute all expressions of discontent, whether they come in the form of militant attacks or peaceful rallies.
In his address on August 8, Modi appeared confident that “this system” would succeed in ending separatism. Blinded by power, he failed to acknowledge that separatist sentiment does not cease to exist just because it cannot be freely articulated. In fact, anybody expecting this brazen assault on the Valley’s freedom and dignity to eradicate the “irritant” of Kashmiri separatism will be disappointed. It will achieve quite the opposite.
In his 1882 lecture “What is a Nation?”, Ernest Renan noted that “shared suffering unites more than does joy”. As he saw it, “periods of mourning are worth more to national memory than triumphs because they impose duties and require a common effort”.
While Kashmiris – numb in the immediate aftermath of the constitutional changes – mourn now, they will soon turn to the common effort of sustaining themselves and their identities in an increasingly militarised context.
Kashmiris have not conformed to New Delhi’s will when it has oppressed them in the past – by rigging their elections, indiscriminately violating their human rights, and eroding the (now defunct) constitutional provisions guaranteeing them autonomy. To the contrary, separatist sentiment in the Valley has always flourished inversely to such imposed conditions of pressure and injustice.
To the extent that opposition to New Delhi forms a central pillar of Kashmiri identity today, it is because successive Indian governments have sought to “win” Kashmir by overpowering rather than accommodating the men, women, and children who call the Valley home. Further tightening of New Delhi’s chokehold will only validate and reinforce the oppositional nature of their identity and alienate Kashmiris beyond any possibility of reconciliation.
Until now, India could deflect criticism of its repressive policies by stressing the need to defend itself against a militant insurgency. But few will believe it was justified in collectively punishing millions of people – especially when the government’s own sources claim there are only around 300 active militants in the Valley.
With the veneer of an elected and nominally autonomous state government removed, and the objective of stamping out mindsets (not just militancy) clearly articulated, New Delhi has narrowed – if not altogether removed – the gap between itself and the oppressed.
As Israel’s ongoing occupation of Gaza and the West Bank reveals, a state scores no reputational points for forcefully reigning over unwilling subjects. Notwithstanding the obvious reluctance of international trade partners to antagonise New Delhi, over time this new chapter of Delhi-Srinagar relations will likely see Kashmiris – the unquestionable underdog in this imbalanced equation – invite more sympathy and moral support than they have before. And that is no small help to a community trying to stay resilient in the face of repression.
Apart from relying on brute force, Amit Shah suggested his government would also try to quell separatist sentiment by strengthening Jammu and Kashmir’s economy. In fact, with “the obstacle of Article 370” removed, he promised to “make it the country’s most developed” region in just five years. Again, the BJP’s approach ignores reality. Yes, there may be many cases where economic inequality and neglect fuel resentment.
But there is little evidence of development’s ability to flush out discontent in a context characterised primarily by political grievance. In fact, as political scientist Ronald Inglehart notes, improvements in one’s economic condition – and the associated satisfaction of material needs – may instead serve to increase one’s commitment to an ideological cause. Put simply, a Kashmiri who doesn’t have to worry about his next meal has more time to ruminate on matters of identity.
Indeed, there are plenty of contexts where a separate sense of identity has thrived amid relatively positive economic conditions. The fact that Scotland’s per capita GDP was – by some estimates – the 14th highest in the world did not keep a large minority of Scots from voting in favour of independence from the UK in 2014.
Low poverty rates in the oil-rich Kurdish governorates of Iraq could not prevent Iraqi Kurds from voting overwhelmingly for independence in a 2017 referendum. Catalans in Spain similarly voted for independence despite Catalonia being one of the country’s wealthiest regions. And China presently feels it necessary to detain and re-educate hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in spite of Xinjiang’s skyscrapers and shopping malls. Kashmiris should not be expected to barter their interests any more readily.
The government’s dual strategy of oppressing Kashmiris while developing the Valley will not eradicate separatism.
But the BJP is in the business of winning elections; it cares only that voters will reward it generously for doing what’s popular today. And so continues the conflict in Kashmir.
Nikhil R. Puri is a visiting fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.