The architecture of South Asia has been altered. Last week, the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir had its autonomy revoked and is now under the direct control of the Centre, or the Government of India. Article 370 of India’s Constitution, adopted in 1949, provided for such autonomy except in defense, foreign affairs, telecommunications, and finance.
For decades, Jammu and Kashmir has enjoyed this special status, with its own flag and constitution. Kashmir is known in particular for its Zabarwan and Karakoram mountain ranges, blue lakes, Mughal gardens, poetry, and deodar cedar forests. It has water resources, and it once had a major tourist industry. Part of this Indian state also includes the high desert plateau of Ladakh, which borders China and contains the Aksai Chin territory governed by China but claimed by India.
What India has done is being well covered by the mainstream media. Why India has done it has not received as much attention.
By a quirk of history, the majority Muslim region of Jammu and Kashmir had a Hindu maharaja, Hari Singh, at the time of independence and partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947. The princely state had refused to accede to the new Indian union, and it was invaded by tribesmen from newly created Pakistan. The price of military help given by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was to join India, along with hundreds of other maharajas and nawabs. Today the territory is divided between India and Pakistan, separated by a Line of Control that is nearly 500 miles long. Pakistan’s holdings are called Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad (free) Kashmir and are sometimes referred to as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Since 1947, two major wars plus the 1999 Kargil conflict have been fought over Kashmir.
There are two reasons why India has acted at this juncture. The first involves the population of Jammu and Kashmir, which not only has loyalties divided between Pakistan and India but also elements who prefer their own independence. No credible statistics have emerged to define these extents, and for years India has avoided holding a plebiscite. Infiltration from training camps in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, combined with domestically inspired terrorism, has made Kashmir a potential flashpoint between Pakistan and India, which each have an estimated 140 nuclear weapons, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Both Presidents Clinton and Obama have called South Asia “the most dangerous place” in the world.
Reining in Kashmir has been a long-standing objective of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and it was also a campaign promise of Modi, who won a second landslide victory announced in May. Modi’s popularity was at an all-time high, which presented the opportunity to revoke the privileged status of Jammu and Kashmir, although the locus of unrest has been principally in Kashmir, which is nearly 100 percent Muslim. This action in Jammu and Kashmir dilutes Muslim authority and suggests that Modi did not trust the local Legislative Assembly to address national security with enough force.
The second reason for Modi’s action is not as obvious and has received only occasional mention: India is thinking strategically and is preparing for what it believes will be an Afghan Taliban takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan, following a peace treaty and substantial U.S. and NATO withdrawal. For decades, the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Pakistani ISI (intelligence service), and the Pakistan Army have collaborated as if joined at the hip, managing Pashtun nationalism as a force against the U.S. and NATO. While the Pakistan Army has waged counterinsurgency against Islamist and insurgent forces, it did just enough to receive continued U.S. military and financial aid, but not enough to prevail against an ethnic group that will be there long after a withdrawal by the West. Of late, the Taliban has expressed concern over the welfare of Kashmiris — operating in the future with the platform of a nation state in concert with the Pakistan Army and ISI, it constitutes an ominous and potentially aggressive threat to India’s national security well beyond the status quo.
Prime Minister Modi has stated that statehood will be restored for Jammu and Kashmir, but Ladakh will remain as Union Territory. And Pakistan is not the only country infuriated by India’s action. China has been particularly incensed by a recent comment by India’s Home Minister, Amit Shah, that Aksai Chin is included in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Frank Schell is a business strategy consultant and former senior vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago. He was a lecturer at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago and is a contributor of opinion pieces to various journals.