Last week India revoked an article in its constitution that gave special status to Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state. It also moved in more than 10,000 troops and turned off landlines, mobile phones, the internet and cable TV in a major crackdown on freedom in the region.
Eight days in, the communications blackout remains intact, meaning people in the state are still unable to speak to each other or anybody outside the region.
Protests last week in the capital of Srinagar left several young people with pellet injuries. A subsequent curfew has restricted movement and prevented people from gathering in groups, even to celebrate the major Islamic festival of Eid, which began on Sunday.
It has been reported that cancer patients are missing treatment and a woman lost a child due to the harsh new rules.
Yet, BJP leaders assert that ‘peace is prevailing in Jammu and Kashmir’.
But why has this happened at all and what triggered it happening now?
How did the Kashmir conflict begin and how long has it been going on for?
The conflict over Kashmir has been waging for 72 years, dating back to the end of British colonial rule. Upon independence in 1947 British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe – who had never actually been to India – drew borders that divided the Hindu-majority country from its Muslim-majority neighbour Pakistan along arbitrary lines, setting the scene for a bloody partition that displaced 15 million people and killed one million.
The state of Jammu and Kashmir sits between India and Pakistan and at the time of partition around 75% of the population were Muslim.
Despite sharing a religion with Pakistan, Kashmir’s popular political movement at the time was secular and aligned with the Indian National Congress. Unsure which country to join, the region’s monarch, Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh initially hoped Kashmir would achieve its own independence.
However, a few months in an invasion by tribal fighters in Pakistan caused Singh to look to India for help, eventually signing the treaty of accession and joining the Indian Union in exchange for military support.
Under the treaty, Kashmir was given ‘special status’ in India, with Article 370 of the Indian constitution guaranteeing the state its own constitution, flag, and autonomy over all matters except defence, communications, and foreign affairs.
A special provision – Article 35A – also meant that only Kashmiris were allowed to buy land in the state. This was seen as integral to protecting the balance of the only Muslim-majority state in India, which at the last census was recorded as 60% Muslim, 35% Hindu and 5% Buddhist.
Since the first India-Pakistan war in 1947, a ‘Line of Control’ has separated one third of Kashmir which is controlled by Pakistan from the two-thirds which is controlled by India.
Another two wars over the region took place in 1965 and 1999 but the borders remained much the same.
Meanwhile among the Kashmiri population, the desire for autonomy has led to repeated uprisings and independence movements in different areas within the state, most notably in the Kashmir Valley. A prolonged uprising against Indian rule has led to numerous human rights violations over the years and thousands of deaths in the Kashmir Valley over the past three decades.
The UN has condemned human rights violations by Indian soldiers, as well as acknowledging Pakistan’s role in fomenting violence in the region.
What is happening in Kashmir right now?
In Parliament on Monday 5 August BJP Home Minister Amit Shah revoked the special status promised to Jammu and Kashmir and put the state on lockdown.
Shah introduced a bill to abolish the state and replace it with two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Any laws passed in the union territories will now require the approval of the government in Delhi.
Is this legal?
In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that Article 370, though ‘temporary’ in name, was very much permanent.
No legislative input or consultation was made with the Kashmiri people prior to this announcement and Article 3 of the Constitution says any bill that proposes changing the area of a state ‘must be referred by the President to the Legislature of that State’.
Shah has claimed that the Jammu and Kashmir assembly was dissolved meaning the state falls under the authority of central rule.
Inside the state a nationwide curfew has been imposed as internet, mobile phones and landline networks have been cut off as well as the arrest of several politicians.
Just hours before the announcement was made, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, two of the state’s former chief ministers, were placed under house arrest.
One of them, Mehbooba Mufti said: “today marks the darkest day in Indian democracy”.
In the preceding weeks 10,000 troops had been deployed to Kashmir and tourists and pilgrims were ordered to leave the region.
Why did this happen now?
For prime minister Narendra Modi and the BJP, the decision on Monday was the culmination of years of plotting to ‘integrate’ Kashmir into the Indian Union.
The promise to abrogate Article 370 was a founding pledge of the BJP, which they have now actually implemented.
Revoking the special status of Kashmir – India’s only Muslim-majority state – fits perfectly into the BJP’s pattern of attacking minorities and intensifying Hindu nationalist sentiment.
The BJP portray Muslims as enjoying special privileges and last week’s move was simply the natural conclusion of decades of right-wing Hindu attempts to fully integrate the state into the union – without its consent.
What does this mean for Kashmiri’s and what will happen now?
A widespread and understandable fear is that this is the beginning of the erosion of Kashmiri rights and the transformation of India’s only Muslim-majority state into a state just like any other.
Any news of dissent or unrest has been called ‘fake news’ by the BJP government and the international response has been predictably cautious and vague, eager to not upset any potential trade with India.
The conflict is often wrongly posited as an India-Pakistan issue. It is not. Only when one talks to people on the ground and engages and recognises local aspirations of the five regions of Kashmir alongside India and Pakistan’s nationalist and strategic goals will an effective solution become possible.
What does this mean for India and Pakistan tensions?
Having said that, the scrapping of Kashmir’s special status will undoubtedly cause tension with Pakistan and already Islamabad has expelled the Indian envoy, suspended trade, halted cross-border train services and banned Indian films.
Pakistani PM Imran Khan has vowed to challenge India’s actions at the UN security council, and take the matter to the International Criminal Court.
Zara Patel is the pseudonym of a British Indian journalist based in London, who frequently travels to India.