On August 5, 2019 the Modi-led BJP government in India surprised most political observers by announcing its decision to revoke Article 370, a section of the Indian Constitution that had granted a special status to the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) which allowed it significant autonomy from the federal government in India. This bold move sought to put an end to a lingering uncertainty and stalemate over the status of Indian-held J&K for nearly 72 years. Certain basic facts about the origins of this conflict are poorly understood by Western journalists and I dare say many Indians and Pakistanis themselves and bear repeating.
Laying My Cards On the Table
As an Indian-American who has now been living in the US for 25 years, I have gone through a cycle familiar to many a first-generation immigrant. I spent the first few years in America reacting to feelings of cultural disorientation in my new home by seeking to consciously renew my Indian identity and intensifying the emotional connection with the idealized homeland. Then in the middle act there was a period of beginning to feel more and more at ease in America, being able to view events in India with a greater sense of objectivity and less defensiveness, and then finally in the third and final act, a legal and emotional break with India by applying for US citizenship, an act which culminates in surrender of one’s Indian passport and renunciation of Indian citizenship.
During the first act of the three Act play above, it was a period marked by hyper-sensitivity to US and Western media coverage of India. I found the coverage offensive and lacking in any nuance. Overwhelmingly the coverage was critical and unflattering and coming across such examples was guaranteed to quicken the pulse, set the temple throbbing and unleash feelings of anger and rage. As one entered the second act, these symptoms declined in their intensity and usually I would decide to skim or even ignore reporting on India, which would inevitably be lacking in insight and empathy. Now well into the third and final act of the cycle above, it saddens me that the reporting on India continues to be low quality and lacking in insight and rigor. A quarter century later, nothing has really changed, even as India is undoubtedly transformed as a nation in the 25 years since I left the Matrabhumi (motherland).
When discussing controversial topics, I believe an author must be honest about their intellectual beliefs, predispositions and biases. I intentionally used the evocative term “Matrabhumi” to indicate that although I now see myself as an American first, and am legally not an Indian citizen anymore, the country of my birth continues to have an emotional resonance for me. As I have lived in America, I have come to appreciate how unique India is. There is simply no country that can compare when it comes to the extraordinary ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity of India. The only comparable global peer is America. Both of these countries serve as an example to the world and indeed an inspiration of how to weave a national identity out of more than the raw soil of tangible markers such as ethnicity, but from the intangibles of shared values, feelings and aspirations. I was born a Hindu and see myself as a Hindu today despite my complete lack of religious observance of any kind, and in fact my agnosticism. All of the above is to say in a somewhat long-winded fashion that I come to my views on the Kashmir conflict with a certain backdrop and world view, and readers are free to discount my views on that basis if they so wish.
Historical Background on Indian Independence & Accession of J&K to India
When the British began the process of dismantling colonial rule in India, they did not merely partition the country into Pakistan and India, they also gave the erstwhile “Princely States” (vassal states of the British colonial regime) the option to either accede to India or remain independent. There were nearly 600 princely states in existence, which accounted for ~40% of the area of colonial India and nearly a quarter of its population. Most of these princely states were rump kingdoms of little geographic scope or population, but many were large and well-known. J&K was the second largest of these princely states, with a land area of ~77,000 square miles, approximately the size of Kansas or Nebraska. The last British census in India in 1941 estimated that population of J&K at 4 million, with 75% of residents being Muslim, and 25% being non-Muslim (mostly Hindus with a smattering of Sikhs and Buddhists). When India became independent of British colonial rule in August 1947, almost all princely states had acceded to either India or Pakistan, but the Hindu ruler of J&K, Maharaja Hari Singh chose not to accede to either nation and remained independent. A small country sandwiched between two massive nations was never viable as an independent entity. Mountbatten had advised princely states against remaining independent when he introduced the British plan for partition of India, but Hari Singh opted to dither, hoping for a miracle. In any case, Pakistan chose to force matters to a conclusion by invading J&K in October 1947. Hari Singh then signed an Instrument of Accession to become part of India and seek its help in expelling the Pakistani invading forces.
It is commonly assumed by Western journalists that some sort of vote or referendum on this issue around the time of Indian independence would have resulted in Muslim majority J&K voting to join Pakistan. However, this is by no means certain as the most popular Muslim political leader of J&K, Sheikh Abdullah who led the National Conference party was on very friendly terms with Indian Prime Minister Nehru, and was not an Islamist politician, even changing the name of his party from Muslim Conference to National Conference in order to broaden its appeal to Hindus. In fact, Nehru demanded that Hari Singh first free Sheikh Abdullah from jail before agreeing to help him overcome the Pakistani supply blockade that had started in September 1947. After Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947, Sheikh Abdullah was appointed the head of an interim emergency government on October 30, 1947 and eventually sworn in as Prime Minister of Kashmir in March 1948. Sheikh Abdullah repeatedly rejected overtures by Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah and indeed endorsed the Indian position in proceedings at the United Nations in 1948, although subsequently Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed in August 1953 and thrown in jail for allegedly conspiring with Pakistan to have J&K secede from India. Sheikh Abdullah would remain imprisoned till December 1967 with two brief interim periods of freedom.
The Indian Constitution & Article 370
When Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession, the Indian Constitution had not yet come into effect and the agreement limited the applicability of legislation passed by the Indian parliament to J&K with narrow exceptions carved out for laws related to Defense, Foreign Affairs and Communications. When the Constitution of India finally came into effect on January 26, 1950 (Republic Day in India), it granted significant autonomy to J&K in a section called Article 370, allowing J&K to develop its own Constitution and formally recognizing that any legislation passed by the Indian parliament would be inapplicable to J&K unless it related to the three exceptions carved out under the Instrument of Accession. In May 1954, the Indian Constitution was further amended in a section called Article 35A where only those residents of J&K who had maintained a domicile in J&K for the past decade were allowed rights to ownership of property and real estate in the state.
These additional restrictions on the rights of Indian citizens with respect to J&K were presumably friendly gestures to grant additional credibility to Sheikh Abdullah’s replacement and the second Prime Minister of J&K, National Conference leader Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, who replaced Sheikh Abdullah. Removal of these provisions for autonomy of J&K has always been part of BJP’s election manifestos, but since no action was taken in Modi’s first term, most observers probably thought of it as one of those promises meant to court voters, but not intended to be followed through on, thereby catching everyone by surprise when it came out of the blue in a trademarked Modi style swift and decisive action like demonetization of Indian currency in his first term.
The coverage in Western media on the revocation of Article 370 has been predictably critical of India. However, the tendency to approach the controversy from a pro-secessionist perspective in the usual “sympathy for the underdog” stance has left the reading audience deprived of any context and only superficially informed. This article aims at providing the missing context.
Demography and Geography of J&K
The casual consumer of Western news media is easily misled into thinking of “Kashmir” as a uniformly Muslim entity that is being kept forcibly in the Indian union against the overwhelming will of its people. A little geographical and demographic context shows how simple-minded that conception is. Historically, India’s claim to J&K has included Northern and Western territory captured by Pakistan in the 1948 war before J&K acceded to India, and also the Aksai Chin portion in the East controlled by China. Indian held J&K territory is ~100,000 square km (~50% of overall J&K including all territory claimed by India, or ~55% excluding China controlled Aksai Chin) and is comprised of three distinct geographic regions – Jammu (~26,000 square km or ~26%), the Kashmir Valley (~16,000 square km or ~16%), and Ladakh (~59,000 square km or ~58%). Although Ladhak is by far the largest of the three regions, it is sparsely populated, accounting for just ~2% of the total population of 12.5 million people. The Kashmir Valley although the smallest of the three regions in terms of land area accounts for a slight majority of the population at nearly 7 million people or ~55%, while Jammu has 5.4 million people or ~43%.
For those reliant on Western media accounts, it might come as a surprise to learn that 1 out of 3 people in J&K are not Muslim. This is a sizeable minority (mostly Hindus with some Sikhs and Buddhists), comparable to the demographic mix of non-Whites in a large diverse American state like New York or Florida. The demographic mix is also strikingly different for each of these regions – Jammu is a Hindu majority state with Muslims being only 31% of the population, while Ladhak is a narrowly Buddhist & Hindu majority state with Muslims being ~47% of the population. The Kashmir Valley on the other hand is overwhelmingly Muslim (~97%), although this partially reflects a murderous religious cleansing terror campaign against Hindu residents over the 1989-1990 period that decimated the non-Muslim population of the Valley, which was closer to 10% prior to this forced exodus. When Western journalists report on “Kashmir” they never include a single non-Muslim voice in their news stories. It is as if an American journalist were to cover a hotly contested election in Florida but silence all non-White voices and focus on just the White majority. The audience is left with ambiguity about whether Western reporting is focused on just the demands and voices of the Kashmir Valley or whether they are painting a broader picture for the state including Hindu majority Jammu and Buddhist majority Ladhak. So far this article had dealt with providing a historical, geographical and demographic context to the Kashmir conflict. Also entirely missing from Western media accounts of the conflict is any contemporary political context, which will be provided in Part II of this article.