It has long been called the most dangerous place in the world. Still, few Americans know anything about the place; nor could they point out the troubled region of Kashmir on a map. Yet for 62 years India and Pakistan have contested for control of the province. In fact, a long-running insurgency there has even been punctuated by at least three inter-state wars between the nuclear armed powers. Now, after India recently revoked Kashmir’s "special status" – essentially annexing the disputed (and Muslim-majority) territory – there might just be another war. Tens of thousands have already been killed over the years; how many more will now die is anyone’s guess.
It’s tempting to blame the British for the whole mess. After all, like so many ongoing world conflicts, the violent struggle in Kashmir has its roots in the dissolution of venal, exploitative British Empire in the decades after World War II. Before its independence in 1947, British India – known as the raj – consisted of a massive, ethnically diverse mega-state that included the modern countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Burma (Myanmar). When the Brits took off, ethnic and religious tensions boiled over into a state of civil war as the raj bloodily devolved into separate Hindu and Muslim majority countries. Perhaps a million people died and fifteen million others were displaced in a tragic population swap that set a gold standard for ethnic cleansing.
Kashmir, meanwhile, had been contested even before partition. The Muslim-majority region was then ruled by a Hindu maharaja (local ruler). When the British pulled out, the hasty partition plan had stipulated that Kashmir could accede to either India or Pakistan. In rather undemocratic fashion, the maharaja decided to join his Hindu brethren in the state of India. War broke out, the United Nations intervened, then the UN recommended a plebiscite to allow the people of Kashmir to choose their national status. Had the election been held, the province would almost certainly have joined Pakistan. Yet neither state could settle on a demilitarization plan, no plebiscite was held, and the territory has remained divided ever since, with India in control of about two-thirds of Kashmir.
Since 1947, India – well tutored by the British, no doubt – has treated Kashmir as its own colony. It deploys more than 500,000 troops to pacify and occupy the region, in what constitutes one of the largest military deployments in the world. International human rights reports have catalogued systemic abuses by Indian military personnel including the use of excessive force on protesters, torture of prisoners, and rampant sexual violence against civilians. Pakistan, and its insurgent proxies, are, to be fair, also guilty of human rights abuses according to these reports. Nevertheless, it is India – the larger and more militarily powerful nation – that holds most of the cards, and thus responsibility.
Which brings us to the seminal, tragic, and potentially explosive recent decision by India’s Hindu-chauvinist Prime Minister Narendra Modi to unilaterally revoke Indian-occupied Kashmir’s "special status." Though this action sounds technical and esoteric, it is actually essentially a blatant annexation of disputed and occupied territory, a clear violation of basic international law. What’s more, the revocation now allows Indian Hindus to enter and settle Kashmir in a shameless attempt to alter the religious balance in typical settler-colonial fashion. India has since sent in extra troops, declared something approaching martial law, and shut down most all communications and social media (a move disturbingly reminiscent of Egypt’s dictatorship and Saudi Arabia’s theocracy).
These are hardly acts worthy of India’s once proud status as the world’s largest democracy. That should come as little surprise. Ever since the ascension to power of Modi – who as chief minister of the province of Gujarat was complicit in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms – and his Hindu Nationalist BJP party, it is a sad fact that India’s democracy is withering away in all but name. A once proudly secular state is, like much of the world, drifting rightward and towards outright religious chauvinism.
That, then, is the truly worrying part. Set aside, for a moment, that India is one of the world’s largest (and growing) economies, and that both it and Pakistan possess sizable nuclear arsenals. That’s all disturbing and (when it comes to the nukes) enough of a worldwide existential threat. Yet seen through a broader lens, India’s drift towards hyper-nationalist and religious authoritarianism is just the latest (and biggest) part of a global trend.
Indeed India’s outright annexation of Kashmir and opening of the flood gates to ethno-religious settlement fits the model of apartheid as practiced by Israel in the West Bank and China in Tibet or its western province of Xinjiang. It’s not simply coincidental that Modi’s Hindu annexation comes right on the heels of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s threat to officially annex the occupied Palestinian West Bank to the unabashedly Jewish state of Israel. Both, of course, are flagrant violations of international law and the post-World War II Nuremberg Principles.
Men like Modi and Netanyahu both represent and use the religious, hyper-nationalist right wings of their political bases. Nevertheless, they are also tools of those extremists and liable to be lurched ever further rightward by the fervor and potentially violent threats of those core supporters. Remember, of course, that just as it was a Jewish extremist (not a Muslim Arab) that assassinated the relatively moderate Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin – probably extinguishing any hopes for peace in the Holy Land – that it was a young Hindu fanatic (not a Pakistani Muslim) that killed Mahatma Gandhi and thus any prospects for communal peace in the old raj. In fact, Gandhi’s assassin was a member of a Hindu-extremist group that preceded and has ties to Modi’s BJP.
Modi’s rise to and concentration of power is just one large part of a right-wing authoritarian and irredentist surge worldwide: from Trump in America to Bolsinaro in Brazil; from Putin in Russia to Netanyahu in Israel, among many others. The U.S. and its Western partners cry foul and openly fear China’s proposed Belt and Road initiative – an infrastructure development and investment initiative that would stretch from East to Central Asia and on to Europe – but seen in another light, it is America that is backing its own "belt" of theocrats and strongmen in the region. Specifically, the list includes, from west to east, "partners" including Egypt’s military dictatorship to the Saudi theocracy to Iraq’s Shia-chauvinist majoritarian state, and now to Modi’s Hindu-nationalist India. Such a de facto alliance hardly befits America’s proud, if self-proclaimed, status as the "leader of the free world" and global "beacon of democracy."
Thus, when it comes to Modi’s dangerous and oppressive annexation and potential settlement of Kashmir – even with its resultant threat of conventional or nuclear war – expect Uncle Sam to remain silent. After all, President Trump admires strongmen like Modi (and Bibi and Bolsinaro and even Putin) and hasn’t shown an iota of concern for oppressed Muslims anywhere on planet Earth. So it will be only the sounds of silence that rings as India’s "democracy" proudly joins the club of native displacement and ethnic cleansing-based states formed on a settler-colonial model.
And, lest we forget, these include not only the once pariah countries of Russia and South Africa, but the "modern," "democratic" states of Australia, Canada, Israel, and, however discomfiting: the U S of A. It’s deplorable and dangerous, what’s happening in Kashmir and within India writ large. Nonetheless, Modi and his BJP Hindu-nationalists are certainly in good company.
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen