Irfan Nooruddin on Kashmir

Irfan Nooruddin is a professor in the Asian Studies Program of the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. His research focuses on issues of economic development, elections and democracy, and Indian electoral politics. He is the author of Elections in Hard Times (2016; with T.E. Flores) and Coalition Politics and Economic Development (2011), both published by Cambridge University Press. Dr Nooruddin has a BA in Economics and International Studies from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He was born and raised in Bombay, India.

Genevieve Collins CMC'22 interviewed Irfan Nooruddin on September 24th, 2019. 

On August 5, the Indian Home Minister announced that the government was revoking the special status that the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir has enjoyed for the past 70 years. Indian officials defended the decision to repeal Articles 370 and 35A stating that New Delhi will bring economic and social benefits to Kashmir not previously realized under the territory’s past special status. In your assessment, what accounts for India’s decision to roll back Kashmir’s special status?

There are two big points to remember about Kashmir and the revocation of Article 370 and Article 35A. The first, which is a critical one, is that the question for the BJP was never whether to do this; the question was when to do it. This has been part of the agenda of the Hindu nationalist party and movement since independence. For the Hindu right, the special status granted to Kashmir was always seen as evidence of appeasing Indian Muslims, undermining the state project of an independent and unified India. So, in a sense, this has been part of the manifesto of the BJP and the Hindu right for 70 years. This isn’t new and shouldn’t have surprised any of us. But why now? After all, the BJP had a majority in Parliament between 2014 and 2019 under the first Modi administration, and it had power even in the coalition between 1990 and 2004.

There are two factors that explain the timing. First are the events of March 2019: the suicide attack by terrorists on Indian troops in Pulwama, Kashmir, as well as India’s response. The Indian government conducted an unprecedented exercise of sending the Indian air force across the de facto border to bomb an alleged terrorist camp in Balakot, Pakistan. This was two months before the election, and it played incredibly well for the BJP. It cemented the BJP’s status as being strong against terrorism and strong against Pakistan. And the Party read that as evidence that it had a license to push hard against Pakistan and the status quo in Kashmir. Secondly, the party read the situation correctly; the majority of India does not feel any particular loyalty to Kashmiris, or to the status and autonomy that Kashmir has enjoyed for a long time. For average Indians, it is not something they think about a lot. And if they do, they get confused by it and even resentful. Why do they have a different status than we do? This coincides with the rampant Hindu majoritarianism that has crept into political discourse. These politics of resentment in India, in which the majority group (the Hindus) feels discriminated against, is not unlike what you see in the United States with Mr. Trump; he tells the majority that it has been disadvantaged because previous governments have appeased the minority groups at the majority’s expense. It’s the same logic. The BJP had a massive mandate from the people, and they feel a lot of pressure from the social side of the Hindu right wing, the RSS. Finally, the international climate was such that India could get away with their recent actions in Kashmir. In other words, since the United States is so distracted with other affairs and so obsessed with China, India figured it could do something that, in a previous administration, would probably have gotten much more pushback from the State Department and the president. Under this president and State Department, the BJP is going to get away with it pretty wholesale.

Under Obama, what do you think a response would have looked like?

I suspect that there would have been a much stronger condemnation of the cut off of the internet and the placing of some 900 legitimate mainstream politicians under house arrest, including three former chief ministers. The house arrest of Mr. Faruk Abdullah, who is 81 years old and in charge of the Public Safety Act, was a very draconian act. There would have been a lot more pushback, and a lot more concern expressed about India’s commitment to its democratic principles and freedom of religious minorities. However, much of that pushback might have been quite rhetorical, frankly. But the fear of being called out by the US would have been a much bigger deterrent then than now.  

How do Kashmir and its inhabitants fit into the Hindu nationalist narrative of the ruling BJP party?

They don’t fit. At its founding, the real question for an independent India was how to think about the basis of its identity. At independence, you had a Muslim Pakistan being formed, and more Muslims living in independent India than in Pakistan. In fact, there were more Indian Muslims than there were Pakistani Muslims up until a decade or so ago. The notion that a Muslim Pakistan would be balanced by a Hindu India was not really in the cards. But for a lot of people at independence, not just the Hindu right wing but even those in the center, there was a mainstream notion that India was a Hindu country, with a Hindu history, values, and culture. The debate here is not about the Hindu right wing idea that there is no room for non-Hindus on a religious basis. The BJP is making a cultural argument that the basis of India is rooted in Hinduism. Hence, day-to-day practices, cultural beliefs, norms and values should reflect the Party’s understanding of Hinduism. I say that deliberately because there is no one Hinduism. Hinduism does not organize around a particular religious authority. There is no equivalent of the Vatican. There is not even the equivalent of the ulema, the elite scholarly body of Islam. It is a much more decentralized and heterogeneous set of actors that inform Hinduism. There is a particular idea of what it means to be culturally Hindu, and then a desire to impose that on the whole country. Kashmir was defying that project because it is majority Muslim, the only majority Muslim state in the country; but it actually had, constitutionally, much autonomy from the Indian center. On a day-to-day basis, it’s not like Kashmir is setting its own foreign policy or signing trade deals with anyone. What it really meant was that the Indian government’s ability to be involved in certain functions of domestic state expenditures, like how the state grows food or builds roads, was smaller than it would have been in other contexts.

The context of the violence that occurred in the early 1990s led to a really different dynamic: violence was targeted at new residents of Kashmir, predominantly Hindu. These Kashmiri Hindus left in a mass exodus in the 1990s, known as the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandit population. That played out well for the Hindu right wing, not only because Kashmir was a Muslim state, but because Hindus were not welcome or accepted. Then you take Article 35A, which essentially limited property ownership and other perks to those who already had permanent resident status in Kashmir. By the way, this was not unique, as two other states in the northeast of India have something similar. But for Kashmir, the narrative that was constructed was that most Hindus are not welcome. Hindus could not come to Kashmir, buy property, and make a life as an Indian, which essentially created a separatist state within the country. I don’t buy that logic, but you can see why it resonated. So, to answer your question, Kashmir became a symbol of the Hindu right wing’s inability to actually implement its version of India. To be clear, the problem with Kashmir was never about the economy. What it is about is India’s asserting that Kashmir cannot be separate. India gets to control it.

What is the legality of repealing Articles 370 and 35A, both domestically in India and under international agreements and precedents? What are the repercussions, if any, for India of such a violation of international agreements?

There is a case in front of the Indian Supreme Court on the question of whether or not there was sufficient deliberation prior to the revocation, and whether or not the legislature had the power of revocation. The Supreme Court will rule in favor of the government; essentially, they’ll find that it was a legislative act, only affecting the part of Kashmir that is controlled by the Indian state. It does not make any claim about the line of control, which is the de facto international border. I would be very surprised if there is a serious legal decision that strikes down the revocation of these articles and to my knowledge, this revocation does not violate any international treaties. That said, it does, arguably, violate the spirit of the understanding about Kashmir. Recent events have changed the rules of the game as Pakistan has understood them since 1947 and 1948. Pakistan and Kashmir both insist that Kashmir should have had a plebiscite, a referendum, to decide if it was going to join India or Pakistan at independence. This was part of the UN resolution in 1948. So, one argument is that India has violated the notion that it would conduct a plebiscite, making the possibility of one moot. India would respond and say that this notion was dead at the moment of creation. In the immediate aftermath of independence, Pakistan sent in Muslim populations to what is today called “Pakistani-occupied Kashmir” by Indians, or “Free Kashmir” by Pakistanis. And so, the ability to hold a free and fair referendum on the future of Kashmir has not been possible since 1948.

How is Pakistan responding to India’s actions in Kashmir?

The main response has been a public diplomacy effort. Recently, Prime Minister Khan wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times and was interviewed by The Washington Post. On the world stage, Pakistan has been trying to draw attention to what it alleges are human rights abuses occurring in Kashmir now. Essentially, Pakistan sees this as an opportunity to change the narrative. Pakistan is so often accused of being complicit in terror, or at least not doing enough to fight terrorism. It struggles to seem like a legitimate state in the international community. India seems to be the favored child, who is seen as a responsible, democratic state. Pakistan sees this as an opportunity to change this perception. More formally, Pakistan got China to initiate an informal consultation of the UN Security Council back in August. This signaled that China was willing to take Pakistan’s side in this particular dispute. But that didn’t go anywhere. There has been some talk about a possible military response, but Pakistan has backed off of that. The response is mostly diplomatic, which is, at the end of the day, a good thing. Countries have a right to disagree with each other. As long as they disagree through diplomatic channels, that is all we can really ask for.

What has the repeal of Articles 370 and 35A meant so far for the Kashmiri people in practice?

Day-to-day life has been very difficult, by all credible reports. The repeal has been accompanied by a ramp-up of the militarization of the region. The Indian government had fears, some well-founded and some very exaggerated, that the revocation was going to lead to a massive outbreak of violence from every-day citizens and from the militant groups in the Kashmiri Valley. India increased its troops, cut off the internet, installed curfews, and imprisoned or put under house-arrest those who might incite violence. A lot of reports coming from journalists on the ground state that daily life has been very difficult, with a lot of uncertainty regarding the wellbeing and whereabouts of family and friends. They cannot call each other, and social media has been cut off. Essentially, what India’s critics argue is that Kashmir has been turned into an open-air prison, in which people are not free to move around and live a normal everyday life. The Indian government says this is an exaggeration. There is no violence, which is pretty remarkable, and India is slowly lifting the restrictions on the internet and mobile communications, as well as restoring the landlines in much of Kashmir. There is a slow return to normalcy. However, one of the major difficulties for the people is the complete uncertainty about their future. This came out of nowhere for them. There was and is no apparent consultation with any of the political parties representing the Kashmiri people.

How effective has the Indian government been in tamping down on civil unrest and mass opposition to this change in status?

They have been very effective. The worst-case scenarios of a ramp-up of militant violence or bombings have not occurred. That is really good news. How peaceful has it been? Frankly, that’s an open question given the media clampdown. We don’t really know, which is problematic. The BBC reported rallies and protests of thousands of people happening in the streets of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. The Indian government denied them, even though the BBC was showing images and had a reporter on the ground. There have been reports of police firing pellets and using tear gas against peaceful or unarmed demonstrators, as well as the arrests, beating, and torturing of Kashmiri citizens. The honest answer is that it does appear there has been a general level of stability maintained, but we should also be skeptical whether we have actually gotten the real and full picture.


Genevieve Collins CMC'22Student Journalist

Photo by Ana Singh [CC By]

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