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A Silence to be Broken

Midnight, August 5. Twelve million people met with utterly consuming silence. No phone service, no internet, no television. 

Almost two months ago, on Monday, August 5, India implemented a harsh and unprecedented communications blackout in Kashmir. The measure was foreshadowed when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi acted upon the long-held desire of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to fully integrate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into India. The BJP claims that the complete union of Kashmir and India will only serve to boost the “lagging” state’s economic growth by bringing about new businesses and investments to the region. Despite such positive visions, the party fully anticipated bitter opposition from the Kashmiris towards this political move. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye puts it, this “draconian” communications lockdown—accompanied by arrests of protesters—is a preemptive effort to curtail unrest in the region. 

Kashmir is at the center of one of Asia’s oldest and longest disputes and is currently one of the most dangerous and volatile areas in the world. Its three neighbors have carved its bountiful land into multiple regions to make its domination an easier task. Here, multiple wars have been waged—in 1947, 1965, and 1971, to name a few—with the state’s citizens bearing witness to tens of thousands of deaths. 

In 1947, India was home to 565 princely states, each governed by local rulers who managed the state’s internal issues. However, these principalities were only semi-sovereign and owed allegiance to the British Raj, which controlled all external affairs. In August of 1947, the Partition of British India led to the formation of two independent countries: the Hindu-majority nation of India and the Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan. The princely states faced three choices—join India, join Pakistan, or remain independent. 

The state of Jammu and Kashmir had a Muslim-majority population but was governed by a Hindu, Maharaja Hari Singh. Wanting to preserve Jammu and Kashmir’s status as an independent nation, Singh signed a standstill agreement with Pakistan to ensure that services such as trade, travel, and communications would be undisturbed. Though the Maharaja offered a similar agreement to India as well, India did not sign it. 

In the following weeks, partition-related violence erupted throughout India and Pakistan, with the latter’s government putting increasing pressure on Kashmir to integrate into its newly formed country. In Kashmir, raids by pro-Pakistani rebels frequently disrupted the citizens’ orderly lives, leading the state’s Maharaja to seek India’s help and military might in defending his nation against further invasions. The Indian government made it clear that Kashmir must first sign an Instrument of Accession, which was a legal document allowing princely states to merge with either India or Pakistan. Singh promptly signed it, formally joining Kashmir and India. However, this agreement was conditional. Singh transferred only three powers to the Parliament of India: defense, external affairs, and communication. The government of Jammu and Kashmir would retain the right to pass legislation concerning all other matters of state.  

The next day, on October 22, the Indian army landed in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir, marking the beginning of the First Kashmir War between India and Pakistan—the beginning of decades of violence that would shake the region. From this point onwards, it seems that India and Pakistan would use Kashmir as a meter stick to validate their power and influence relative to one another. 

As this First War continued, the newly independent state of India was drafting its own constitution. In order to align with the original Instrument of Accession signed by Jammu and Kashmir, Article 370 was created. This provision stipulated that the Indian government could only create laws relating to defense, external affairs, and communications; no other aspects of the Indian Constitution would be applied to Jammu and Kashmir without the concurrence of its constituent assembly. Shortly after, Article 35A was issued, allowing the Kashmiri government to define who its permanent residents were, and what special rights and privileges they would enjoy. 

For seventy years, these Articles were left untouched. That was until August 5, 2019, when Prime Minister Modi revoked Article 370. In one fell swoop, the presidential decree stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special semi-autonomous status. 

Following Modi’s decision, two prevailing sentiments immediately took shape. One camp aligns with the views of Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, whose tweets likened India’s actions to a Nazi Germany: the “ideology of Hindu Supremacy, like the Nazi Aryan Supremacy, will not stop in [Kashmir]; instead it will lead to suppression of Muslims in India [and] eventually lead to targeting of Pakistan. The Hindu Supremacists version of Hitler’s Lebensraum,” Khan tweeted. 

The BJP’s right-wing policies have generally reflected Hindu-nationalist positions, which is the basis of the argument that Modi’s actions reflect a Hindu-nationalist agenda and a desire to conquer the only Muslim-majority region of India. In an interview with The Politic, Michael Kugelman, the Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, elaborated on this perspective. 

He expressed that the revocation of Article 370 may have been, in part, motivated by the idea of enabling “Hindu Indians from around the country to live there, buy land, or set up business” which could “have the effect of changing the dynamics of the Muslim majority region.” 

The second dominating opinion is well reflected by the Indian ambassador to the U.S., Harsh Vardhan Shringla, who argued that “this change will deliver social and economic justice to a region that was out of step with the rest of the nation.”

Samanvya Hooda, a Research Assistant at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) whose interests involve South Asian geopolitics and security, spoke to this matter over an email correspondence with The Politic. Hooda explained that India can now “begin the process to bring education and job opportunities to a conflict ridden state,” adding that “the merits of this recent move should be judged only on the effectiveness of the BJP’s strategy in normalising the situation in Kashmir, which has suffered from a Pakistan-sponsored proxy war for thirty years.”

The BJP’s actions, while bold, do not take many by surprise. As Hooda pointed out, “abrogating Article 370 has been a long standing promise in the BJP’s election manifesto, something for which Modi was voted in for in 2014 and 2019,” stemming from the idea that “no one state should get a disproportionate set of privileges over other states in the union.” 

Various other factors also come into play when unpacking India’s decision to act now, decades after Article 370 was implemented. Kugelman cited the possibility that “the BJP wanted to insulate itself from political vulnerability later in the term” by implementing the widely popular measure of revoking Article 370. 

Another spark beneath India’s swift and aggressive actions may have been the recent offer from United States President Donald Trump to mediate the “explosive” dispute between India and Pakistan. Trump’s offer has alarmed Indian government officials, who have previously affirmed that Kashmir affairs are “strictly an internal matter.” Furthermore, the Simla Agreement of 1972, signed between India and Pakistan, maintains that the two countries will settle their differences through bilateral negotiations or any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them. As Hooda articulated, “despite Pakistan’s repeated attempts to internationalize the issue…[India will] rebuff any attempts made by other actors in mediating about Kashmir.” 

In an interview with The Politic, Seetarami Bheemireddy, a doctor from Andhra Pradesh, explained that “most Indians feel pretty confident with the current situation considering that beyond one or two countries, Pakistan has not received much support.” However, if the escalating Kashmir dispute is left to India and Pakistan to sort out, it may not remain an internal affair. Given that the two countries are among the fastest growing nuclear arsenals, the greater reverberations of a standoff between them is troublesome; one might wonder why the United Nations and world superpowers have been largely silent on the issue. “The India-Pakistan dyad is arguably the one with the lowest threshold for nuclear use, and should definitely be viewed with concern,” Hooda said. 

Beyond the threat of this situation evolving into a nuclear conflict, the consequences of India and Pakistan’s tug of war have already taken shape. As Kugelman acknowledged, “UN designated terrorist organizations that have close ties to the Pakistani state…have carried out or claimed attacks in Kashmir.” Thus, many justify India’s clampdown on communications as a precautionary measure—based on the history of violence in Kashmir—to quell unrest among dangerous insurgencies supported by terrorist organizations. Hooda noted that Article 370 has “massive potential for use as propaganda by Pakistan-supported groups,” and “abrogating it practically guaranteed spontaneous mob violence.” “Therefore,” he added, “the government almost had a moral obligation to cut off communications to avoid widespread spontaneous violence, which was absolutely certain to occur.” 

While India’s implementation of a communications ban may well be a mode of curtailing “some power from entrenched separatists” as Hooda said, it is important to remember that attempts to silence such groups have devastated the Kashmiri population as a whole. 

For one, the lockdown’s ramifications have emerged in scientific communities which rely on openness and collaboration. Without the capacity for communication between research labs throughout the rest of India, there will be an inevitable stall in progress for Kashmiri scientists. 

The direct impacts of this blackout on Kashmiri lives should be the most vexing of all. It has left the region distraught with shortages of essential commodities, such as food and medicine. With security ramped up and limited means of movement, access to healthcare has dramatically decreased. Patients in need of emergency operations are unable to receive immediate help, and others are being delayed vital treatments. People outside the region are kept from contacting their loved ones, now for more than one month. Thousands of outspoken Kashmiris face-off with Indian occupation forces whose crackdowns on protests are violent and dehumanizing. Rohit Kansal, the Principal Secretary of Kashmir, confirmed that over 4,500 individuals have been arrested under the Public Safety Act, which allows detention for up to two years without trial. And throughout the state, schools have been shut down, creating the potential for major educational setbacks if the closures continue. 

What is worse is that Kashmir has not seen the worst of it. Hooda posited that when the restrictions in the valley are finally rescinded, “it is reasonable to expect an increase in support extended to terrorist groups manned by Kashmiri recruits.” If the region experiences an immediate surge in violence and conflict once again, Kashmiri lives will once again face tumultuous and resounding consequences. 

The Indian media filters the situation in Kashmir as one under control, while the people of Jammu and Kashmir face the violence, hunger, fear, and desolation that is inextricably tied with such severe limitations on freedom of expression and movement. The result? Nearly forty-five percent of its citizens are now suffering from some type of mental distress, including PTSD, while other citizens of India celebrate the BJP’s measure. This is a humanitarian crisis, not merely a political war; yet, many people neglect to see it as such. 

Kashmir is not simply a trophy to be won, and its people are not pawns in a game. Without the prospect of reconciliation between the people of India and Kashmir, India may use fear of civil unrest to legitimize the suppression of Kashmiri freedom. Many people continue to fixate on the validity of Article 370, but when were Kashmiri voices, the idea of self-determination, dismissed from the conversation? How much longer can the world quietly watch this humanitarian crisis unfold? When will the prevailing point of action shift towards protecting individual rights? 

Until those with a platform to speak up begin to mobilize against the glaring human rights violations, the valleys of Kashmir will continue to be overwhelmed by a deep, dark hopelessness. 

A hopelessness that rests on our shoulders and dwells in our silence.