In an act of breathtaking audacity, the Indian government has announced it will change the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and draw the state into a more tightly woven union with the rest of the country. The decision is enormously significant, not least because there is a long-running dispute between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan over the Himalayan territory. Both lay claim to Kashmir and have fought two wars and engaged in a third armed clash over the region. There have been multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions on Kashmir. And the contested situation remains under international scrutiny, so much so that US President Donald Trump recently offered to mediate between Delhi and Islamabad.
Even so, the shock factor of India's announcement undeniably gives it a temporary advantage. On Monday, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 of the constitution, which has been the basis of India's relationship with Kashmir for seven decades and gave the region protected status. As part of the wholesale political reorganisation, India will divide and downgrade Jammu and Kashmir into two separate union territories, a category that signifies direct rule by the government in Delhi. Hindu-majority Jammu and the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley will make up one union territory, albeit with a locally elected legislature, answerable to a government-appointed official; Buddhist-majority Ladakh will form the other, without a legislature.
Article 370 gave Jammu and Kashmir more autonomy than any other Indian state, in exchange for its October 1947 accession to India two months after its independence from Britain and the creation of Pakistan in Partition. It also gave the province privileges unavailable to other Indian states. It had its own constitution and flag, as well as the ability to remain demographically distinct because of restrictions on non-residents buying property there. In practice, Kashmiri autonomy had visibly eroded over the years and Indian law, security presence and dictats increasingly prevailed, particularly following the decade of violent insurgency in the 1990s, which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives. However, the symbolic nature of the state's special status in the Indian constitution has always had an emotive pull. It seemed to safeguard – in law, at least – Kashmiris' right to agency. But now all that is gone and with it comes the further humiliation of Jammu and Kashmir being divided into two separate union territories.
The rapid developments are a reminder of the truth of former president Barack Obama’s memorable line: elections have consequences. Mr Modi led his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to a landslide victory in May on the promise of revoking Kashmir’s special status. But few, in India or abroad, expected his government to act so quickly after the election to fulfil his manifesto pledge. That it has done so has already been warmly received in India. Indians are increasingly receptive to the BJP’s long-held argument that Article 370 was a “historic blunder” by the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and that its legacy has been divisive. The argument goes that Article 370 prevented Kashmir from properly integrating with the rest of the country, ultimately denying it the chance to attract investment and provide economic opportunity for young Kashmiris.
But not everyone is celebrating Mr Modi’s decisiveness. To many, it seems as if BJP-ruled India is arbitrarily seeking to declare checkmate in the dispute with Pakistan and do something more insidious besides. Among Kashmiris, there is the fear the BJP government wants to subsume Kashmir’s very sense of itself as India’s only Muslim-majority state, a unique mountainous region inhabited by a proud people, known for their distinctive culture and sensibilities. Now that non-residents will be able to buy property in Kashmir, an influx of settlers from other parts of India is likely, akin perhaps to the Han Chinese who surged into Tibet in the last half-century.
Unsurprisingly then, prominent Kashmiri politicians have reacted with anger, with former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, one of a number of politicians placed under house arrest ahead of the announcement, criticising the article’s revocation by “an occupational force” and describing it as a “dark day for democracy”. India’s main opposition Congress Party has attacked the “unconstitutional” nature of the government’s decision. As for Pakistan, condemnation has been swift. Islamabad rejected the “unilateral” attempt to change the status of an “internationally recognised disputed territory” and foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi warned India it was “playing a dangerous game which will have serious consequences for regional peace and stability". In a separate statement, the Pakistani government called for world leaders to condemn the "irresponsible, unilateral and irrational behaviour of Indian leadership".
These are stirring words but it is unclear what, if anything, will happen next. India was clearly well-prepared for the fallout. Last week it issued a security alert and asked tourists and Hindu pilgrims making the annual trek to the Amarnath shrine high in the mountains to leave. Nearly 30,000 extra troops were dispatched to Kashmir on the pretext of imminent militant attacks. On Sunday, the Indian authorities went further by imposing a curfew and banning gatherings of more than four people. Internet and mobile networks were blacked out, making it difficult for Kashmiris to respond to events that materially affect their future.
If Kashmiris are unable to do so themselves – and many, like Ms Mufti, feel they have been “muzzled” – might the wider world respond? Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has appealed to the international community. Will it intervene – or will Mr Trump act in any meaningful way after his twice-repeated offer to mediate? The US president might already have played a decisive role, albeit not the one intended. The mediation offer, initially made while Mr Khan stood by his side in the White House, was received with outrage in India and suspicion the US wanted to use Kashmir as a bargaining chip to secure Pakistan’s compliance on Afghanistan.
As former Indian high commissioner in Pakistan Gopalaswami Parthasarathy put it: "India sought to send out a message to Pakistan and Kashmiris that it means business – that things will not continue as before."
They won’t; that’s a given. But new and more grave complexities might arise.