It's quite astonishing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent 3.5 hours in the company of politicians from Kashmir on June 24. It is surprising because he and his government have never really disguised their contempt for Kashmiris and their leaders.
In the swearing-in ceremony of the PDP-BJP government in 2015, Modi brazenly declared in Mufti Mohammed Sayeed's presence that he didn't "need advice or analysis from anyone in this world on Kashmir", just after the senior leader suggested that the prime minister pursue dialogue with Pakistan.
Modi's government ignored Kashmir's plea for flood relief in 2014 and after reading down Jammu and Kashmir's special status in the Constitution on August 5, 2019, Delhi had no hesitation in incarcerating virtually the entire political class including Mehbooba Mufti, Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, Sajad Lone, Yusuf Tarigami and others. Home minister Amit Shah called them the 'Gupkar Gang' and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval has in the past accused mainstream Kashmiri leaders of benefiting from Delhi's patronage while not giving India any political cover - a "loot and scoot" approach, as he characterised it.
Delhi moved swiftly in 2019; the internet was shut down for months, a crackdown on media commenced, and a raft of legislation was passed to ensure that those beyond Kashmir could buy land and potentially erode the Valley's Muslim majority. Pakistan was told that Kashmir was off the negotiating table. India had incorporated Kashmir in the full sense of the term and exercised complete political and military dominance in the Valley.
Analysts have characterised the June 24 meeting as a "humiliating walk back" for Modi and Shah and see the imminent US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a strong reason for the change in India's policy. As writers see it, the Joe Biden administration is keen on a peaceful India-Pakistan frontier. It is difficult to see what Modi's motivations may have been; it is not clear what policy goal he has in mind, he is not known to be moved by civilian suffering or by the pressing need for governance (think demonetisation and the management of COVID-19) and thus US pressure is a fairly plausible rationale for the change of tack on Kashmir. Delhi has, to that end, agreed to a ceasefire with Islamabad on the Line of Control, pursued backchannel talks with Pakistan (after vigorously advertising to the world in recent years how dangerous the neighbour is) and even with the Taliban, which Delhi had worked to defeat by assisting elements opposed to it.
Two things are worth registering here. A superpower leaving a country that it has been fighting a war in for 20 years is a big geopolitical moment for the region. What Washington is looking for from every stakeholder is to do its bit to address the security vacuum - for Pakistan to facilitate military operations as needed, for it to not turn Afghanistan into a haven for terrorist groups, and for Iran to cooperate as well.
The Modi government will want to be helpful but will find that its move to read down Kashmir's special status in the Constitution in 2019 has reconstituted a conflict that was politically frozen in many ways for decades and has set it off in directions where Washington does not want the region to go.
To get a sense of this, imagine what an alternative situation would have looked like now if August 5, 2019 had not happened: The Americans would be leaving Afghanistan; Washington's diplomats, so far as Delhi is concerned, would primarily be lobbying for India-Pakistan peace along the border; South Asia would not be a front for the US to worry about in terms of China's interest; and India would be focusing on ensuring that the ideological ambitions of the Taliban and other groups not extend to India. Kashmir would be mollified through a less-hardline approach, the maintenance of a hollowed out autonomy exercised by an elected J&K state government. The Kashmir issue, in short, would be silently steered into the long grass in the post-withdrawal scenario, while the focus remains on stabilising the Afghanistan-Pakistan sphere.
Instead what we have thanks to August 2019 is the end of Kashmir's autonomy, the absence of a legitimacy-conferring state government in Srinagar, a Biden administration and a progressive class in power in Washington that is very unimpressed with India and its machinations in Kashmir, Pakistan's importance enhanced yet again in the region, and China more invested in Kashmir and in control of Indian territory in Ladakh, arguably in part thanks to Amit Shah's grandstanding about Aksai Chin and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Overturning perceptions of India
Kashmir may seem like a small part of the problem, as the Valley contains only six million people living in a militarised zone, but its altered status after 2019 now threatens to attract the unwelcome interests of a variety of players in the region and beyond.
For one, it increases the diplomatic costs for Americans to maintain peace in South Asia by creating a whole new set of parameters for Washington keep a watch on. To take a post-2001 example, the US and other countries were tracking levels of terrorist attacks and militant infiltration in Kashmir (and interceded with General Pervez Musharraf and other regimes to scale these back); and they followed the human rights situation in Kashmir and spoke gingerly to Delhi because India's economy was booming. Now the US interest will switch to see if India is "creating facts" in Kashmir, it will want to observe if Delhi's attempts to turn Kashmir into Palestine or Tibet through settlements and military presence that have the potential to destabilise South Asia more broadly. The last thing the Americans want is for Kashmir to be refreshed as a cause celebre for Afghan groups and entities in Pakistan - and one way of preventing that is to watch and limit Delhi's manoeuvres in Kashmir.
August 2019 has also ended up reframing the international community's perspectives on Kashmir and cast India in an even more unfavourable light. While Kashmir's autonomy existed on paper, India's military presence in the Valley could previously be justified to the international community as a response to Pakistan-aided insurgency; now, after the evacuation of politics and the democratic process, India's armed forces run the risk of being perceived as being there to preside over the takeover of land at the behest of a majoritarian political project.
This is now a quagmire of Modi's making. He cannot restore Article 370 for fear of alienating his party base. What he is banking on, as the June 24 meeting shows, is to make mainstream parties sign on to his project for international acceptance. Modi is keen on meeting Biden in September and wants a semblance of a political process in Kashmir to convince the State Department - and reportedly held out the possibility of re-establishing statehood without restoring the Article, after the delimitation exercise is complete. The mainstream party leaders are, of course, aware of the international juncture, and are calling for restoration of Article 370 knowing full well that they have no future in J&K without it.
Delhi has plenty of practice in putting Western governments off the scent in Kashmir. It famously batted away Richard Holbrooke's interest in including Kashmir as part of a wider regional settlement when he was Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Barack Obama administration. It could do so then as India's economy was booming and because Delhi did not create the conditions for other countries to wedge their way back into Kashmir as Modi has done in 2019. Now India's economy is in decline, its stature on the wane and the Americans have again come around to the view that US objectives in the region are ultimately linked to constraining India in Kashmir.
There may be a view in Delhi that developments in Afghanistan don't affect India all that much as India can absorb a measure of violence in Kashmir. But this time is different - as noted, the departure of a superpower from a region after waging war for 20 years is a big deal for security in the region. Washington will not want South Asia to be unstable after it has expended $2.26 trillion and endured the loss of 2,442 US soldiers. The Biden administration and those to follow will be under political pressure at home to demonstrate that their withdrawal was the right decision. The possibility of resurgence in Islamist insurgency in the region is real and the West wouldn't want Kashmir to be the cause. Pakistan will be keen to fish in troubled waters and India will do the usual of blaming Islamabad for excesses in Kashmir. But India is a much less credible voice in the world now. Modi's illiberalism and downturn in India's democracy indicators make Delhi a less believable actor than it used to be. Shutting down the internet for months and incarcerating most of the political class are not facts audiences and progressives in the world forget easily.
For that reason, India's policy in Kashmir can end up becoming a crinkle in the Quad grouping (that includes Australia and Japan), as it has the potential to alienate a Democratic administration in Washington at various points, by generating ripple effects in the region. Members of the Quad do not yet have a point of open disagreement on values. Kashmir and the state of India's democracy could well be one.
A flawed model of politics
India finds itself in this position because Modi and the BJP have a model of politics that leaves no scope for negotiated compromise with political adversaries, let alone the weak. It is all about using the coercive power of the state to reinforce majoritarian messaging, the mobilisation of the party base, the building of a personality cult and management of media through fictitious optics of strength.
Reality, however, intervenes sometimes. Modi finds himself in a legal thicket of his own making in Kashmir that leaves him bereft of political options to bail out (unless the Supreme Court does him a favour by overruling the reading down of Article 370). His base will, meanwhile, be frustrated by the pace of Hinduising Kashmir because of international scrutiny; and China now sits astride on a part of Indian territory. The prospect of a two-front war is very real as a result and forces Delhi to sustain an expensive presence in Kashmir while increasing deployment along the border with China. All this leaves Washington a lot to manage in the region, when India could have been the big neighbour managing its ties with neighbours rather than add new dimensions to existing problems.
All that said, India retains a lot of power to coerce Kashmir while Americans may not have the bandwidth or capacity to push Delhi towards the return of pre-2019 status quo. Modi still has the choice of continuing to turn India into a thoroughbred ethno-nationalist state or a cooperative power in South Asia. He can either pursue majoritarian policies in Kashmir in order to consolidate his party's base or move towards a framework where South Asian connectivity and cooperation is possible. The temptation to turn Kashmir into Palestine by following the example of Israel is strong but Indian policymakers should know that Israel never had a situation like Afghanistan next door that creates an entirely different set of incentives for the US. Washington will want assurance that as the conflict in Afghanistan reaches a new stage Kashmir will not flare up again because of Delhi.
The article was first published in The Wire