The recent events in Kashmir are of great concern. They pose a risk of further inflaming the already tense relationship between two nuclear armed neighbouring states and also increasing tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities in India and Pakistan and in the global diaspora.
The origins of the Kashmir dispute go back to the original decision by the Attlee Government to partition India and establish two countries, India and Pakistan in 1947. Jammu and Kashmir was a former independent Dogra Kingdom. In 1947 the ruler of the princely majority Muslim state opted to join the secular Union of India, rather than new Muslim state of Pakistan. Since then, and following several wars between India and Pakistan, Kashmir has been divided by a Line of Control separating Pakistani administered Kashmir, Azad Kashmir, and Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. There is also a part of Kashmir which was ceded to China by Pakistan. Following the first war between India and Pakistan the United Nations adopted resolutions upholding Kashmir’s right to self determination. Both the governments of India and Pakistan have opposed the idea of an independent Kashmir. India also argues that the UN resolutions were superseded by the bilateral 1972 Simla agreement which brought to an end the third India – Pakistan war which had been fought over the independence of Bangladesh,
There has been serious conflict and social and political violence since 1989 when many Pandit Hindu communities were forced from their homes and serious damage was done to the once vibrant tourist industry in Srinagar and the Valley. However an elected government was restored in 1996 and despite difficulties there had been improvements to the security situation. There has been an upsurge in protest and violence in Indian-administered Kashmir since July 2016. The trigger was the killing of Burhan Wani, the leader of the armed group Hizbul Mujahedin by the security forces in that month.
There have been numerous clashes between the Indian and Pakistani military across the Line of Control. Incursions by armed terrorist groups into Indian-administered Kashmir from Pakistan-administered Kashmir have also continued. In February 2019, more than 40 Indian soldiers were killed in an attack in Pulwama.
The disintegration of the broad based and ostensibly secular Congress as India’s premier party, at both national and state level over the last thirty years, and its more recent replacement by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has significantly changed the situation nationally and in Kashmir. The BJP’s policies on Jammu and Kashmir have been perceived by many as strident and chauvinist, based on Hindutva, the concept of a Hindu nation. The BJP had long called for abolition of the special provisions for Jammu and Kashmir which had been in existence since 1949 under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. It allows Jammu and Kashmir to have its own constitution, a separate flag and independence over all matters except foreign affairs, defence and communications. Although this autonomy has been greatly eroded in practice over recent decades.
The BJP criticised previous Congress governments for what it regarded as a form of Muslim appeasement. But until recently it had adopted a more pragmatic approach in office compared to that it had espoused in opposition. However following the recent national elections, which it won decisively, the Bharatiya Janata Party has changed its approach.
During the campaign Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had promised to Revoke Article 370. Except for one clause to which the Government does not object, this happened by presidential order on 5 August.
A Bill has also been rapidly approved by both Houses of Parliament splitting the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two new Federal Union territories. One will be called Jammu and Kashmir, which will have a state legislature. The other is Ladakh, which will be ruled directly from New Delhi.
The revocation of Article 370 extends to a key provision added under it, known as Article 35A. This gives special privileges to permanent residents, including state government jobs and the exclusive right to own property in Jammu and Kashmir. It is intended to protect the state’s distinct demographic character as the only Muslim-majority state in India. It has long been controversial with many in India including the BJP, viewing it as discriminatory against non-Muslims and women and harming development. It was introduced in its current form in 1954 but a similar law was in place prior to Indian independence in 1947.
Thousands of additional soldiers were sent to Jammu and Kashmir prior to the 5 August announcement. A curfew is still in force. At least two senior Kashmir opposition politicians and former Chief Ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, have been detained and there is a communications ‘lockdown’. It is hard to find out what is happening on the ground.
The Indian Supreme Court will very likely be asked to rule on the constitutionality of the BJP-led government’s latest actions. But this could take some time.
Many critics of revocation regard it as breaching the contract upon which the Maharaja of Kashmir decided to join India in 1947. Some lawyers think that this means there could be an international law dimension too.
The reaction to these events in Pakistan has been robust. The foreign ministry said India is in breach of UN resolutions and Prime Minister Imran Khan said “…incidents like Pulwama are bound to happen again… I can already predict this will happen. They will attempt to place the blame on us again. They may strike us again, and we will strike back.”
On 7 August, Pakistan expelled India’s High Commissioner and recalled its own top diplomat from New Delhi. It also announced the suspension of bilateral trade.
China has said it supports Pakistan’s stance, highlighting its opposition to the establishment of Ladakh as a separate territory ruled from New Delhi. China currently controls territory which India claims as an extension of Ladakh.
It has been the longstanding view of the United Kingdom and other Western governments, since the 1950s, not to get involved in discussions of sovereignty and international law, but simply to urge all parties to resolve the Kashmir dispute peacefully. There is serious international anxiety that the revocation of Article 370 could trigger another full-blown conflict between India and Pakistan, both of which are nuclear weapon states.
The US has called on all parties to “maintain peace and stability along the line of control”.
The UN Secretary-General has called for restraint. In 2018 the UN called for the establishment of an international commission of inquiry into human rights abuses since 2016 on both sides of the Line of Control. India rejected this call.
In view of the importance of the relations between the United Kingdom and both these significant Commonwealth countries it is vital that the UK Government uses its good relations and contacts to urge both India and Pakistan to act responsibly and deescalate tensions. The government should also be active with international partners in the European union, the Commonwealth and the United Nations, to seek to reduce tensions and the danger of conflict in the region. The government must also act to ensure that events in Kashmir do not cause tensions within diaspora communities in this country. It must act strongly against any extremist groups which seek to exploit these events.