Zack Blumberg: Indian nationalism reaches north

Wednesday, August 14, 2019 - 5:02pm

In August 1947, Britain announced the partition of the British India Colony, creating two separate, independent nations: the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. To say the Partition was controversial would be an understatement; it has, nearly single-handedly, defined the geopolitics of the region since. In the decades following, the Partition India and Pakistan have quarrelled ceaselessly, fighting over land and power. However, no issue has been more contentious than the dispute over the region of Kashmir. Driven by the forces of Hindu nationalism, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, with President Narendra Modi at the helm, have made rash decisions in an attempt to gain political clout, both endangering the region’s (limited) stability and forsaking India’s founding principles. 

Like many of the issues which define the India-Pakistan conflict, tensions over Kashmir have been present since the day the two nations became independent. Lead by the last British Raj, Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, the objective of Partition was to divide the British territory along religious lines, with Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, this exercise in oversimplified nation-building went poorly: it lacked adequate consideration for religious minorities like Sikhs, and the lines themselves were not drawn particularly well, leading as many as 15 million people to try and flee across the newly created India-Pakistan border. 

Caught in the middle of the chaos was Kashmir, an area which Mountbatten was unsure how to handle. Though the region was majority Muslim, it had close cultural ties to greater India. Ultimately, Kashmiri leaders were permitted to choose between remaining independent or joining either nation. While Kashmir initially chose independence, Pakistan soon invaded in an attempt to conquer it, leading to a UN intervention and a ceasefire. Included with the ceasefire was a UN-backed border division which gave nearly all of the land from the original, colonial province to India. In 1950, India passed constitutional Amendment 370, which allowed Kashmir a great deal of political autonomy, something which made it unique among Indian states. Though conflict over Kashmir has persisted since 1950, the fundamental workings of its political existence have remained largely unchanged, at least until very recently. 

Earlier this week, Kashmir’s political fate took a dramatic turn thanks to Modi and the BJP. Under Modi’s command, the Indian government sent 10,000 military troops into the region, forced people into their houses and cut off internet. Though this was the most drastic action Modi has taken, it is all part of his larger plan to essentially annex Kashmir.

In addition to simply using military force, Modi is working with the Indian government to remove a Kashmiri law, included under Amendment 370, that does not permit foreigners to buy property in the region, something which was implemented to preserve its unique cultural and religious positions and allow Kashmiri Muslims to remain a majority. In addition to that, the Modi-led government plans to repeal Amendment 370 as a whole, and they have revealed plans to divide the region into two provinces, one of which would contain a Hindu majority and be ruled directly by New Delhi. In doing this, Modi would have annexed a historically autonomous Muslim region, with the goal of making it a Hindu-majority Indian province. 

Though this is obviously not the first time an Indian leader has looked to expand the nation’s territory, this is a particularly concerning move for several reasons. First, it reflects the forces of populist nationalism, which Modi and many other leaders of his ilk utilize. A common move among populist leaders is making decisions with the primary goal of firing up their political base, even if they are divisive or do not benefit the country as a whole. In this situation, it is clear Modi believes that politically and religiously annexing Kashmir will appeal to his Hindu nationalist base, allowing him to retain voters going forward.

However, like many moves aimed primarily at firing up one’s political base, this will certainly have many negative externalities. Kashmir is already extremely dangerous thanks to longstanding India-Pakistan tensions, and a surprise annexation of the area is likely to spur more conflict, inciting violence and potentially leading to the deaths of civilians. Furthermore, it is unclear how the region’s Muslims, who learned of India’s annexation goals via military crackdown, will be treated in the coming months by the government. 

While this move is based in Modi’s Hindu nationalism, it also represents an attack on one of India’s basic governing principles: religious freedom. Although Mountbatten and the British attempted to divide India and Pakistan along religious lines, India decided to become a secular state with no national religion, despite being around 80 percent Hindu (this contrasts with the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan”). Despite containing both a Hindu majority and a great number of religious minorities, India has managed to maintain its secular status ever since its founding. However, Modi’s Hindu nationalism stands in direct contrast to India’s principle of state secularism, and Modi’s actions in Kashmir could damage the latter. Annexing Kashmir in the name of advancing Hindu political power puts India’s secularism into question, and creates a dangerous precedent going forward. Ultimately, while India and Pakistan have long fought over regional territory, including Kashmir, Modi’s actions represent a religious, nationalist assault on India’s legacy of secular governance and are cause for concern. 

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.