Terror grips the most militarized zone in the world after India’s Central Government terminated Jammu and Kashmir’s 70-year-old “special status” as the first step towards stripping the disputed region of statehood entirely.
Internationally infamous as the world’s hottest potential nuclear flashpoint, J&K originally acceded to India in 1947 only on the condition that the newly-formed country be restricted from interfering in the domestic affairs of the mountainous northern region. The agreement was sealed between the last king of J&K, Maharaja Hari Singh Dogra, and the representative of the British crown, Governor-General Lord Mountbatten. In 1949, when the passage of the constitution formed the Republic of India, the Maharaja’s conditions for accession were enshrined in Article 370.
The crux of the article – in combination with Article 35A of 1954 – was that, while J&K accepted India’s handling of issues like defense and foreign policy, the state otherwise reserved the right to autonomy in handling its domestic affairs. Kashmiris, thus, lived under their own distinct laws. Notably, citizens of other parts of India were prohibited from settling permanently or owning property in Kashmir. In the eyes of many Kashmiris, this prevented settler colonialism. On August 5, 2019, the President of India abolished this “special status” by decree.
Simultaneously, Home Minister Amit Shah – charged with India’s internal security – introduced a bill in the upper house of parliament to strip J&K of statehood, downgrade it to a “Union Territory,” and partition the region.
As Shah did this, the Central Government shut down Kashmir. It imposed a virtual curfew, banning movement of the public, shuttering educational institutions, and barring all public assemblies or meetings. It severed communications, cutting off phone and internet access. And it conducted arrests of mainstream Kashmiri political leaders – such as former chief ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah – on unknown charges.
India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which was just re-elected in May, campaigned on promises to scrap J&K’s “special status.” The BJP’s manifesto alleged that it was “an obstacle in the development of the state,” while Shah insisted it stood in the way of of Kashmir becoming an “integral party of India permanently” and was necessary for “national security.” Indeed, the tumultuous region has suffered a significant influx in violence in recent years.
Since 2014, when Prime Minister Modi’s regime first came to power, terrorist incidents in J&K have nearly tripled and security forces deaths have nearly doubled. According to a July 2019 UN report, independent bodies documented 159 security forces deaths in 2018 – a figure comparable to US troop fatalities in Iraq in 2009. The latest round of escalating tensions traces back to at least 2010, when mass protests erupted over an “encounter killing” of three civilians by Indian Army troops. Protests again erupted in 2016. During suppression efforts, security forces killed hundreds of protesters.
The Central Government has responded by flooding J&K with more and more soldiers. The small region – slightly smaller than the United Kingdom – is already occupied by a bare minimum of 500,000 troops. Since late July 2019, India has deployed nearly another 50,000.
Delhi has additionally responded by repeatedly dissolving J&K’s elected state government, imposing direct rule three times since 2015. The last time was in June 2018, after India’s ruling BJP withdrew from a coalition with then J&K Chief Minister Mufti – apparently because she advocated “reconciliation” instead of a “muscular security policy” as the most effective solution to the Kashmir conflict. Elections have not been allowed since 2014.
The ongoing occupation as well as the long-term use of direct rule – imposed for approximately ten of the past 42 years – contribute to the perception of Kashmiris that they are nothing more than vassals within the Republic of India.
The religious dimensions of the conflict reinforce that perspective. With a 68 percent Muslim population, many residents of J&K have historically felt like Muslim subjects governed by Hindu rulers. Their sentiments are enhanced by the authoritative agenda so abruptly implemented by the Hindu nationalist BJP, many of whose leaders have openly demanded that India be officially declared a Hindu Nation.
To understand the present situation, it is necessary to briefly examine the longer history of the region – including how it became what MK Gandhi called “a Hindu State, the majority of its people being Muslims.”
Hindu Rulers of Muslim Subjects
Religious conflict between ruler and ruled – as well as the sense that Kashmir is an object to be haggled over, traded, and valued only for the bragging rights of ownership – has persisted since at least the mid-19th century.
Islam took root in Kashmir in 1320 when the local king converted. By the end of the 1400s, most Kashmiris were Muslims. In 1586, the Mughal Empire sent a Hindu general, Bhagwant Das, to annex the region. He succeeded, writes 17th-century Dutch East India Company merchant Francisco Pelsaert, “by craft and subtlety, the lofty mountains and difficult roads rendering forcible conquest impossible.” Mughal Emperors then adopted Kashmir as their summer resort. Meanwhile, Pelsaert records, Kashmiris remained “for the most part poor.” In 1751, Afghanistan invaded and conquered Kashmir.
Kashmir’s situation changed in the 1800s. As the Mughal Empire crumbled, the young Sikh community in Punjab – immediately south of J&K – asserted itself militarily. The Sikhs fought invasions of Afghanis and Persians, waged war against the Mughals, and battled local Hindu kings. Finally, they established the Sikh Empire in 1801. In 1808, the Sikh Empire annexed Jammu and then, in 1819, attacked and overthrew the Afghani occupiers of Kashmir.
The Sikh Empire was then the only major region of the Indian subcontinent which the British had not colonized. Its downfall began when the Dogra brothers gained political control. Dhian Singh Dogra was made prime minister in 1818 and Gulab Singh Dogra was made raja of Jammu in 1822. From 1840 to 1845, they staged two coups, eventually installing a child on the throne.
In 1846, when the British invaded in 1846, Gulab – then prime minister – negotiated the Sikh Empire’s surrender. Shah Mohammad, a contemporary Punjabi poet, says Gulab “was serving none but himself” as he “paid obeisance” to the British “with all obsequiousness” and brought them in “by the arm.” The outcome was the 1846 Treaty of Lahore. The treaty included a reward for Gulab’s assistance in bringing the Sikh Empire to its knees – kingship over J&K. “After getting Kashmir in the bargain, Gulab Singh repaired forthwith to Jammu,” writes Mohammad.
Gulab was the first Maharaja of the Dogra dynasty that controlled J&K until the last Maharaja, Hari Singh Dogra, acceded the region to independent India.
The distinguishing feature of Dogra rule was exclusive state-patronage of Hinduism and a systematic campaign to Hinduize Kashmir. In her book, Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects, historian Mridu Rai explains that Gulab “was careful to emphasize his standing as a Hindu ruler” and publicly “denounced Hindu-Muslim marriages and conversions from Hinduism to Islam.” His son, Ranbir, began “construction of a Hindu state” and founded a government department “with the single aim of securing the glorification of the Hindu religion in the state.” Ranbir further “acclaimed the importance of being Hindu in order to rule in Jammu and Kashmir.” His son, Pratap, represented “the interests of only the small Hindu segment of his Kashmiri subjects.”
The situation had not changed by the time Pratap’s nephew, Hari, came to the throne in 1925.
Global changes that year, however, saw the rise of ethnocentrism and fascism. In the US, over 30,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, DC. In Italy, Mussolini made himself dictator. In Germany, Hitler published Mein Kampf, reformulated the Nazi Party, and founded the SS. And in India, KB Hedgewar founded the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a uniformed paramilitary which soon drew inspiration from both Hitler and Mussolini.
Kashmir: Torn by Hindu Nationalist Violence Since 1947
In 1939, as World War II dawned with the Nazi invasion of Poland, RSS leader – soon to be chief – MS Golwalkar published a manifesto.
“We, Hindus,” he writes, are “at war at once with the Moslems.” He declared that, “ever since that evil day, when Moslems first landed in [India], right up to the present moment the Hindu Nation has been gallantly fighting on to shake off the despoilers.” Praising Nazi Germany for having “boldly vindicated” the “Nation Idea,” he invoked the topic of “German Race Pride,” writing, “To keep up the purity of the race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races – the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by.”
Meanwhile, Kashmiri Muslims languished in the Hindu state constructed by the Dogras.
In 1941, nearly 80 percent of the population of the princely state of J&K was Muslim. Yet, writes political scientist Sumantra Bose, “Local Muslims were barred from becoming officers in the princely state’s military forces and were almost nonexistent in the civil administration.” Bose quotes a Kashmiri Hindu activist of the time, who said, “The poverty of the Muslim masses is appalling. Dressed in rags and barefoot, a Muslim peasant presents the appearance of a starving beggar…. Most are landless laborers, working as serfs for absentee landlords.”
With the conclusion of WWII, and the success of the independence movement, the Indian subcontinent finally secured its freedom from the yoke of the British Empire in 1947.
By then, the RSS had penetrated every major area of the subcontinent and boasted up to a half a million members. In J&K, Maharaja Hari Singh Dogra was left with a decision – join his state to Muslim-majority Pakistan, to Hindu-majority India, or remain independent. As he weighed his options, Golwalkar visited the Maharaja on October 17, 1947 to pressure him to join India.
In the days and weeks before Golwalkar’s visit, the Dogra’s troops and the RSS joined hands to conduct a state-sanctioned pogrom of Muslims.
In the mountains of Jammu, Muslims constituted a smaller majority than in the Kashmir Valley to the north. In September, they were targeted for ethnic cleansing. “The Dogra state troops were at the forefront of attacks on Muslims,” writes historian Ilyas Chattha. “The state authorities were also reported to be issuing arms… to local volunteer organizations such as RSS.” Chattha claims, “The Maharaja of the Dogra Hindu state was complicit in the targeted violence against Kashmiri Muslims.” According to some reports, he explains, Hari Singh Dogra was “‘in person commanding all the forces’ which were ethnically cleansing the Muslims.”
“Instead of trying to prevent such killings and preserving communal peace, the Maharaja’s administration helped and even armed the communal marauders,” writes Ved Bhasin, a witness to the massacre who later became a journalist. “It was a planned genocide by the RSS activists.”
After the Maharaja agreed to accession on October 26 – barely a week after RSS chief Golwalkar’s visit – the killings continued. “In the first week of November, the Pakistan government dispatched many buses to Jammu city to transport the refugees into Sialkot,” writes Chattha. The Dogra’s troops and RSS men “attacked the caravan and killed most of the passengers and abducted their women.”
By the end, the total number of dead was catastrophically high. Bhasin says, “There is no doubt that their number runs into several thousands.” Political scientist Christopher Snedden says, “Perhaps between 20,000 and 100,000 Muslims were killed.” A 1948 report in London’s The Times alleged that “237,000 Muslims were systematically exterminated.”
However many actually died, one tragic fact stood out. “There was hardly any family in the region which escaped the horrible wrath of communal hooligans,” writes journalist Zafar Choudhary. “The events of 1947 permanently changed the way the Muslims of Jammu would live or think. A majority of them was either massacred, or pushed to the other side of the divide; many fled to save their lives thus leaving behind a terrorized and harassed minuscule minority.”
In 1949, British civil servant William Barton, writing in Foreign Affairsmagazine, warned that a “militant group” called the RSS, “whose object is to absorb Pakistan, has of late been asserting itself.” He noted the “atrocities committed” during the “wholesale expulsion of Moslems from the Jammu province.” Barton added, “One wonders whether the Indian Government has considered the military implications of the retention of Kashmir in India. With half or more of the population hostile… it would have to maintain an army of occupation.”
India had already begun dealing with the ramifications of retaining Kashmir. On October 22, 1947, four days before the accession, India and Pakistan commenced their first of three wars over the region. Ever since, the two South Asian nations have incessantly squabbled over J&K as though it were a crown jewel.
In 1965, the second war over Kashmir claimed the lives of perhaps 7,000 troops – no one seems to have kept count of how many civilians died. The war ended in a stalemate. Yet the RSS’s Golwalkar was ecstatic.
In his 1966 manifesto, Golwalkar proclaimed, “The nation’s pulse has been quickened by an unprecedented upsurge of patriotic pride and self-respect. Verily this is the first and the foremost lesson that the war has taught us.” Analogizing the conflict to a mythological battle between the Hindu god Ram and a demon, he argued, “It is inevitable to annihilate the support – the evil persons – if we have to do away with evil.” This, he implied, required absorbing Pakistan into India. Demanding “the hoisting of our flag in Lahore and other parts of Pakistan,” he declared, “Since times immemorial, those areas have formed integral parts of our motherland…. Our fight for independence can be deemed to have come to a successful close only when we liberate all those areas now under enemy occupation.”
Kashmir’s Role in the Hindu Nationalist Political Agenda
“Jammu and Kashmir has been a focal point for Hindu nationalism ever since Partition,” writes political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot. “For the ideologues of this movement, as for so many Indians, the state became the bone of contention par excellence with Pakistan…. For the Hindu nationalists the state was inseparably a part of India.” In the 1950s, this contention produced calls for Akhand Bharat – an undivided Indian subcontinent whose hypothetical borders variously include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Tibet.
The demand to “restore the natural extension of the sacred land that is Bharat,” as Jaffrelot phrases it, gained a political infrastructure in 1951 with the founding of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh – the precursor to the BJP and the RSS’s first political wing.
In 1952, the BJS’s founder and president announced his commitment to full annexation of J&K. “Part of India is today in the occupation of the enemy,” declared Syama Prasad Mukherjee. “Is there any possibility of our getting back this territory? We shall not get it through the efforts of the United Nations: we shall not get it through peaceful methods, by negotiations with Pakistan. That means we lose it, unless we use force…. I am a communalist, I am a reactionary, I am a war-monger.” In 1953, Mukherjee made the issue a hill to die on – literally – when he launched an agitation in concert with the RSS-founded Jammu Praja Parishad, illegally entered Kashmir, was arrested, and died in jail of a heart attack.
The BJS never had much electoral success, but it remained devoted to Mukherjee’s vision. Over the years, its presidents included Prem Nath Dogra and Balraj Madhok – founding fathers of J&K’s RSS branch. And in 1965, in the midst of war, the BJS passed a resolution proclaiming, “Akhand Bharat will be a reality, unifying India and Pakistan.”
In 1980, the BJS was reformulated as the BJP with its last two presidents – lifetime RSS workers AB Vajpayee and LK Advani – at the helm.
The BJP’s 1984 manifesto called for “deleting” Article 370, a demand Advani advanced at the party’s 1986 convention. Its 1996 manifesto aggressively supported “reclaiming the portion of our territory which has been illegally held by Pakistan,” describing J&K as a “strategic border state” that has “emerged as the principal challenge to Indian nationhood.” That year, Advani’s protégé, the late Sushma Swaraj, reiterated demands for “the abolishment of Article 370” in a speech in parliament. The issue was largely shelved in 1998 – the year the BJP first gained national power – but it has been pressed by every party manifesto since 2009.
Former RSS spokesperson turned BJP mouthpiece Ram Madhav recently wrote that abolishing Article 370 “has been a running theme of the BJP and Jana Sangh.” Its existence, he insisted, led to “lack of development, progress, and prosperity.” Yet earlier remarks by Madhav suggest the real motive behind the BJP’s lightning-swift action on J&K may be commitment to Golwalkar’s call for “hoisting of our flag” in Pakistan. In 2015, speaking in Oxford, he declared, “The RSS still believes that one day these parts, which have for historical reasons separated only 60 [sic] years ago, will again, through popular goodwill, come together and Akhand Bharat will be created. The RSS believes in that, and as an RSS member, I also hold on to that view.”
That view is already being openly propagated in India’s parliament.
“Today, we have reclaimed Jammu and Kashmir,” said MP Sanjay Raut, a member of Shiv Sena, a regional Hindu nationalist party allied with the BJP. Speaking in the upper-house of parliament on August 5, he concluded, “Tomorrow, we will take Baluchistan, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and I have trust that this government will fulfill the dream of undivided India.”
Pursuing that dream may produce a nightmare.
Conclusion: No Part for Kashmiris in Kashmir Solution
On August 6, India’s lower-house of parliament ratified Amit Shah’s “Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill, 2019,” stripping J&K of statehood and partitioning it.
The same day, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed a joint session of parliament in his country. “With an approach of this nature, incidents like Pulwama are bound to happen again,” Khan warned, referring to the February 2019 suicide attack in Kashmir that left 40 Indian security forces dead. He added, “This will be a war that no one will win and the implications will be global.”
Meanwhile, what do Kashmiris want for Kashmir? No one knows. They are entirely cut off from the rest of the world. Forget about the freedom to express their hopes and desires for the future of Kashmir. They are banned from even accessing basic communications. They cannot speak to the media, they cannot speak to anyone inside or outside of India, and they cannot speak to any of their friends and family members living outside Kashmir.
As the BJP – cheered on by the RSS – expedites its J&K strategy, Kashmiris are denied the right to offer their opinion on the Kashmir solution.
That is as per the vision of the RSS’s Golwalkar. “To say that Kashmiris shall determine their own future is to repudiate the oneness of the country,” he writes. Thus, just as for the past several centuries, Kashmiris remain restricted from controlling their own political destinies.
Pieter Friedrich is a South Asian Affairs Analyst who resides in California. He is the co-author of Captivating the Simple-Hearted: A Struggle for Human Dignity in the Indian Subcontinent. Discover more by him at pieterfriedrich.net.