Some observers say the actions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government echo China’s moves in Xinjiang, another region with a large Muslim population.
Families in a Muslim-dominated region have been cut off from loved ones. Local leaders have been imprisoned. Soldiers roam the streets. Communication links have been severed.
The Indian government’s dramatic crackdown on Jammu and Kashmir is now a week old, and has shown little sign of abating, with a heavy military presence on the streets of the Kashmir Valley and major mosques closed on Monday on Eid al-Adha, the most important festive date on the region’s calendar, when local Muslims usually attend congregational prayers and host visitors with sweet treats.
For some observers, the actions of India’s central government in revoking Kashmir’s special constitutional status on Aug. 5 has raised unsettling parallels with the actions of another powerful country toward its Muslim-minority population: China.
Authorities in China’s western Xinjiang region have used many of the same tactics, at one point disconnecting the internet for nearly 10 months, while maintaining a heavy security presence on roads and, in the past two years, largely cutting off local Muslims from family living elsewhere.
Perhaps more importantly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has echoed Chinese rhetoric in his defence of his government’s actions in Kashmir, saying the heavy-handed intervention will usher in a new era of development, stability, investment, infrastructure construction and tourism – measures that, he said, ”will rid Jammu and Kashmir of terrorism and separatism.” In Xinjiang, officials have emphasized similar steps in their efforts to quell what they call a plague of radical extremism.
Is Mr. Modi’s BJP party “taking a page out of China’s playbook?” said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center. “Yes, in the sense that India aims to bring development to volatile regions in an effort to squelch separatist and broader anti-state sentiment.”
It’s unclear how long the Kashmir crackdown will last, although analysts say the government is unlikely to loosen its grip any time soon. But for now, what’s taking place in Kashmir “sounds eerily similar to what has been done in China,” said Saba Naqvi, author of a book on the recent history of the BJP, who was struck by the parallels on a recent trip to China.
India’s governing party has said the removal of the special status for Jammu and Kashmir – and a concurrent move to make the region into a federally administered territory – will create a more equal society, remove obstacles to economic progress and enable a more effective fight against terrorism.
Critics have cast doubt on the government’s ability to achieve those goals, accusing Mr. Modi of pursuing a Hindu nationalist agenda.
But Ms. Naqvi sees India’s dramatic actions in Kashmir – a major change pushed through with little evidence of public consultation – as symptomatic of a broader shift toward authoritarian conduct by leaders of the world’s largest democracy.
“China is very problematic because of the huge economic success of an authoritarian surveillance state,” Ms. Naqvi said. ”It creates a belief that if you are authoritarian, you will succeed. So you have democracies which are backsliding. And we are one of them.”
Comparisons between New Delhi and Beijing are tinged with irony, because China itself has spoken out against India’s actions in Kashmir. In a sharply worded commentary published after foreign ministers of the two countries met on Monday, the state-run Xinhua state news agency warned against fomenting an explosion of the “Kashmir powder keg.” China is not a disinterested party, since it claims part of Kashmir as its own territory.
And it may not be fair to single out China as a model for India, said Sharika Amin, 24, who planned to be in Kashmir to celebrate Eid, but instead spent Monday in New Delhi, worried about family she cannot reach who are being kept under curfew and close military watch. “Any state that rejects or wants to reject the mandate of people will emulate fascism,” she said. “Any country that is trying to lock down voices will have similar mechanisms of doing so.”
But in India, as in China, strict policies toward Muslim minorities have proven popular with dominant ethnic groups. Indian public sentiment has hardened in recent years toward Kashmir, and support is widespread for the Modi government’s latest policy; one survey last year found that 58 per cent of Indian adult respondents supported the use of greater military force in the region.
Once a princely state, Jammu and Kashmir joined India in 1947 on the promise of self-rule. But Pakistan also claims the region, a territorial dispute that has produced two wars and decades of bloody insurrection.
Kashmiris living elsewhere in India have long faced discrimination in a society that commonly associates the region with violent extremism. But on Monday, a group of Kashmiris who gathered for a sombre commemoration of Eid on a side street in New Delhi said they had experienced worse treatment in the past week. Some have been taunted by classmates and strangers asking how much they will charge to sell their property back home, since the constitutional changes end a ban on outsiders owning land in the region. In New Delhi, some Kashmiris have been evicted from their apartments. Others have received abusive phone calls.
Those sneering “think that whatever has happened is for the interest of the country, and it is for the larger good, and they are just deriving sadistic pleasure out of it,” said Nasir Lone, a Kashmiri social worker who left the region on Aug. 5, and has been unable to speak with his family – including his brother, a politician who is among local leaders under house arrest.
“What is happening in India right now should not happen in a democracy,” he added. “It’s only fair to compare it to what’s happening in other countries, like China – or like Palestine, for that matter.”
In the past few days, two regional BJP lawmakers have also publicly joked about men from elsewhere in India taking brides from Kashmir, where women have a reputation for fair-skinned beauty.
“It’s really like the victory of an occupying nation,” said Harsh Mander, a prominent Indian human-rights worker. “When you conquer a people, traditionally you think about occupying the land and using women as property.”
Fatima, 22, a university student who declined to provide a surname for fear of reprisal, worries that the constitutional changes will open the way for people from elsewhere in India to move to her Muslim-majority home in Jammu and Kashmir, much as China has encouraged ethnic majority Han Chinese to move to Xinjiang, where they now make up a large percentage of the population.
”Our culture, our traditions, everything is under threat now,” she said.
At the same time, analysts and Kashmiris alike question whether the Modi administration can succeed in its goal of using economic development to achieve calm.
“If you are able to transform Kashmir into a Singapore, would it really end separatist feeling?” asked Manoj Joshi, a fellow with the Observer Research Foundation who has published two books on Kashmir. He pointed to the persistence of separatist sentiment in much wealthier countries. “Development, per se, has not diluted the feeling that we are different, that we need something more than just economic growth,” he said. In India, “the narrative which the government has come out with on development – I don’t think it’s a credible one.”
Mr. Lone, too, fears that little good will come of India’s new grasp on Kashmir.
“If you cage your own people, if you lock down your own politicians, if you lock down all kinds of communication – how do you expect people to feel like they belong to you?” he said. “I don’t see how it’s going to help.”
The Globe and Mail, August 13, 2019