Delhi: Standing before the deep-red ramparts of a centuries-old fort, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed his country of more than 1.3 billion people on its Independence Day and called on them to join him in building a "new India".
Modi is the most dominant Indian leader in nearly five decades, flush with a landslide re-election victory in May that left his opponents in disarray. He has long embraced a brand of nationalism that views India as a fundamentally Hindu country rather than a secular republic, wooing voters with a mixture of hope and fear common to right-leaning populist leaders around the globe – a group that includes US President Donald Trump.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on its Independence Day.Credit:AP
If there was any question about the seriousness of Modi's intent to transform the world's largest democracy, such doubts vanished last week. That is when the Modi government discarded seven decades of history and stripped Indian-controlled Kashmir – the country's only Muslim-majority state – of its autonomy and statehood. The move ratcheted up tensions with Pakistan, India's nuclear-armed neighbour, which also claims the disputed Himalayan region.
The change in status for Kashmir may be just the start. Stripping the region of its autonomy is one of several key, long-held demands of Hindu nationalists. They believe this year's thumping election victory for Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has paved the way for them to implement an agenda that emphasises Hindu primacy in India, a diverse democracy that is also home to nearly 200 million Muslims.
What's more, the way Modi executed the decision on Kashmir indicates what his "new India" might look like. For his supporters, the step shows Modi to be a leader of courage and ambition, unfettered by precedent and guided by a direct understanding of the popular will.
"The work that was not done in the last 70 years has been accomplished within 70 days after this new government came to power," Modi said in his address on Thursday, speaking in front of a billowing, oversize Indian flag on a podium garlanded with jasmine flowers. "I have come to accomplish the task assigned to me by my countrymen. I work selflessly."
Modi has said the change in Kashmir will deepen national unity and improve development in the strife-torn region, which has witnessed an armed insurgency against Indian rule since 1989. But fearing violent unrest in response to last week's decision, the government has instituted an unprecedented clampdown there – cutting all phone lines, shutting down internet access, severely restricting residents' movement and imprisoning hundreds of local politicians and party workers.
For his critics, Modi's move on Kashmir is proof of his anti-democratic and majoritarian impulses. They say he imposed radical change on Kashmiris without consulting them or their leaders in a manner that may contravene the constitution.
"This is not just about Kashmir – it's about the future of India," said Sumantra Bose, a political scientist at the London School of Economics and the author of two books on Kashmir. Modi and his party are using Kashmir as a means by which to "advance their broader and ultimate agenda of turning India into a Hindu republic in all but name," Bose said.
An Indian soldier guards a deserted road during lockdown in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, on Thursday.Credit:AP
India became an independent nation 72 years ago. Pakistan, which was created at the same stroke of midnight, declared itself to be a home for the Muslims of the subcontinent. But India's founders had a contrasting goal – to build a secular republic where people of all faiths were equal citizens.
The dispute over Kashmir has festered ever since. Last month, Trump offered to act as a mediator between India and Pakistan on the question of Kashmir, a proposal swiftly rejected by India.
For Hindu nationalists, there are two major items on the to-do list in addition to eliminating Kashmir's unique status.
The first is the construction of a grand temple to the Hindu god Ram at the contested site of a former mosque in the town of Ayodhya. The country's Supreme Court is hearing a case on the land dispute there and could deliver a verdict later this year. The second priority is instituting a law that applies to all citizens in matters such as divorce and inheritance. Different communities have their own such laws, with some arguing they are an expression of religious freedom.
On the Ram temple issue, the BJP is optimistic that the court will deliver a verdict on the land dispute within two months, said Sudhanshu Trivedi, a party spokesman. But he said that building the temple would not proceed immediately and that a "positive atmosphere" between Hindus and Muslims should be created first.
Modi and his powerful right-hand man, Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah, also have announced other moves that critics say target religious minorities. The BJP may reintroduce a citizenship bill that will give refugee status to Hindus and Christians – but not Muslims – who enter India from neighbouring countries. Shah has also indicated he wants to conduct a nationwide exercise to register citizens in order to identify migrants who have entered the country illegally, many of them Muslims.
Eradicating Kashmir's unique status within India has been a long-held dream of Hindu nationalists. "The State of Jammu & Kashmir, with its oppressive Muslim-majority character, has been a headache for our country ever since Independence," reads a mission statement of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group that is the ideological parent of the BJP.
The state's distinct status was guaranteed by a clause in the constitution known as Article 370. It was a crucial element of the negotiations that followed Kashmir's entry to India after the country became independent in 1947. While the scope of the clause had narrowed over the subsequent decades, it still allowed Kashmir to opt out of certain federal laws and to enact regulations preventing non-residents from buying land.
Modi's move to end Article 370 is broadly popular in India, and some opposition parties have supported it. In the rest of the country, the seemingly never-ending violence in Kashmir is a source of frustration and fatigue, wrote Ashok Malik, a former adviser to India's president. Indians are also concerned by the plight of Kashmiri Hindus who fled after facing violence when the insurgency began.
But observers were still surprised by the radical nature of last week's moves. Modi not only rolled back Article 370 but also split off the mountainous region of Ladakh into a separate territory. He then stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its status as a state, downgrading it to a "union territory," something that has never been done in India's history. The new status will give Delhi more power over Kashmir's affairs.
The significance of these measures "cannot be overestimated," said A.G. Noorani, a lawyer and constitutional expert. "To say Kashmir is now a colony is not an exaggeration." Noorani said the government's moves were a legal "sleight of hand" that violated the constitution and would be challenged before India's Supreme Court.
Trivedi, the BJP spokesman, said that stripping Kashmir of its statehood was necessary to "take full control of the security apparatus" at a sensitive juncture: The government anticipates that militants in Afghanistan will turn more attention to Kashmir if peace talks between the Taliban and the United States are concluded. Such control over Kashmir will be necessary "for a year or two at least," Trivedi said.
In Kashmir, where the clampdown on movement and communication entered its 11th day, there is no illusion about the degree of control India intends to assert. Gun-wielding police and paramilitary forces were deployed in heavy numbers and traffic was forbidden on the road that leads to the stadium where the Indian flag was hoisted on Independence Day in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar.
As the rest of the country celebrates, "Kashmiris have been caged like animals and deprived of basic human rights," wrote Iltija Mufti, the daughter of Kashmir's former chief minister, in an open letter to Shah, India's home minister. Her mother, Mehbooba Mufti, has been detained and held incommunicado since August 5. Iltija Mufti said she has been prevented from leaving her home and threatened for speaking out about the plight of Kashmiris.
On Friday, the India government told its Supreme Court it would lift restrictions on people's movements and communication links in Kashmir in "the next few days", Reuters reported.
But experts say that it will take months or years to gauge the impact of such a radical departure from decades of Indian policy. Navnita Chadha Behera, a political scientist and expert on Kashmir at Delhi University, said she particularly worried that anger and frustration among Kashmiri youths could produce an upsurge in violence.
"Predicting the future in Kashmir is a hazardous task," she said. "Kashmir being what it is, it makes all your calculations go haywire."
The Washington Post
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