Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
In a sweeping and controversial move on August 5, India transformed its relationship to the disputed territory of Kashmir. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to eliminate Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which for seven decades had granted Kashmir a special status within India. The decision effectively quashed any lingering Kashmiri hopes for self-determination and bound Kashmir more closely to India, reducing it from a state to a “union territory” administered directly from New Delhi. Anticipating outrage and protest, the Indian government placed the Kashmir Valley—where most of the state’s Muslim-majority population lives—under lockdown, arresting local politicians, cutting off communications, limiting movement, and flooding Kashmir with troops.
Though it took many by surprise, the decision to abrogate Article 370 didn’t come out of nowhere. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had long harbored the desire to revoke Kashmir’s nominal autonomy and normalize its status within India. For Indian nationalists, Article 370 and its associated provisions had become a symbol of Kashmir’s “incomplete” integration into the rest of the country. While the annulment of Article 370 sparked condemnation around the world, it won broad and immediate support within India, including across the gamut of opposition parties.
For Kashmiris, the triumphalism in the rest of the country was a final blow in a long series of betrayals and humiliations at the hands of the Indian state that have eroded Kashmir’s constitutional and political identity. In India, much of the debate following the withdrawal of the territory’s special status revolved around the history and principles of the Indian constitution. But in Kashmir, speaking the language of constitutionalism can feel incongruous in the face of unending trauma on the ground. Kashmir has been under a state of siege for the last three decades. The Indian government’s intermittent crackdown on militants and dissidents alike has bred allegations of widespread human rights abuses, including torture and rape. At the same time, cross-border infiltration from Pakistan has fueled further violence in the valley. Increasing numbers of locals celebrate homegrown militancy with a morbid, cultish passion. And there still has not been a reckoning for the ethnic cleansing in the 1990s when militants and locals expelled Kashmiri Hindus en masse, nor for the disappearance of hundreds of men at the hands of the security forces and the insurgents.
Kashmir has been under siege for the last three decades.
It is important for all sides to acknowledge this violence, which has raised barriers between communities. But there is a much deeper evisceration of human sympathies that lies at the heart of India’s imagination of Kashmir: the territory itself has become more important than the plight of its people. As a result, the government has failed to accept the full effect of the violence and oppression it has inflicted on Kashmir. It is this collapse of empathy that allows a democracy to endorse mass arrests, human rights violations, pellet guns, barbed wire, and the suspension of liberties and rights. India’s actions in Kashmir reflect the corrosion of its own democracy.
The abrogation of Article 370 has worrying consequences beyond Kashmir, revealing a country where there are fewer and fewer checks on the writ of the prime minister. The BJP government claims that the move represents the will of Parliament, since it was confirmed through bills in both the upper and lower houses of the legislature. But that formalism cannot hide two dangerous trends: the weakening of all independent institutions in India and the marginalization of Indian Muslims.
Indian democracy has always been messy, but the fragmentation of power across political parties and institutions has helped provide checks and balances against untrammelled executive might. Recent years have witnessed a troubling consolidation of power. Politically, the opposition is weak and divided. Modi and the Hindu nationalist BJP face no strong challenge from their political rivals. The rudderless Congress Party—the center-left, secular party that has ruled India for most of its existence—is mired in an internal leadership battle and is divided on the issue of Article 370, unable to mount an effective ideological resistance to Modi. Many regional parties, such as the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, were decimated in the last election; the Trinamool Congress, which holds sway over West Bengal, also suffered surprising defeats to the BJP. Enfeebled and embattled, regional parties cannot provide a much-needed check on central power.
Modi’s nationalism has thrown the entire opposition into a kind of intellectual stupor.
More tellingly, the opposition doesn’t have the intellectual self-confidence to take on the rising tide of nationalism stoked by the BJP, even when that ideology threatens core constitutional values. Nothing exemplifies this failure better than the hypocritical conduct of the Aam Admi Party, which rules in the capital city of Delhi and sits with the opposition in Parliament. This party had no compunctions in signing off on Modi’s plan to downgrade Kashmir from a state to a union territory even as the party campaigns for Delhi to be transformed from a union territory to a state. Modi’s nationalism has thrown the entire opposition into a kind of intellectual stupor, in which it is unable to defend democratic values.
Timidity and weakness are not the opposition’s only problems; it also lacks credibility. Several major opposition figures face corruption charges, notably the former finance minister and Congress Party leader P. Chidambaram, who was arrested in August under suspicion of embezzlement and money laundering. Security agencies like the Enforcement Directorate and the Central Bureau of Investigation were never entirely impartial under previous governments, but Modi’s government uses them to target political opponents at an unprecedented level. The public sees these prosecutions not as malicious abuses of state power but as part of the prime minister’s drive to create a new India by uprooting the corrupt old order—in other words, as of a piece with his actions in Kashmir. By ensnaring the opposition in a discourse of corruption, Modi has effectively blunted its voice. As a result, many opposition leaders feel compelled to redeem themselves by taking strongly nationalist positions.
The decimation of the political opposition has been accompanied by the erosion of independent institutions. Many Indians are fond of describing the country’s Supreme Court as “the most powerful court in the world” because of its independence and authority; K. K. Venugopal, the attorney general, praised the relationship of the court to the state in 2017, insisting that “the government of the day has always shown respect to this institution.” But it increasingly seems that the Supreme Court and other high courts, in their deference to the state’s executive power, have virtually abdicated their responsibilities to defend core constitutional values. The courts have delayed hearings on habeas corpus cases in Kashmir and declined to scrutinize the government’s mass detentions in the recently downgraded territory. The courts have also denied opposition leaders the same protocols of bail that would have been granted to normal citizens.
The weakening of judicial independence stems from the government’s attempt to enlist all of the country’s independent institutions in the project of Hindu nationalism. In addition to the courts, the government has sought to exercise more direct control over public universities, where it has become routine for critics of the BJP to be disinvited or “deplatformed.” In some cases, the government has even delayed the publication of economic data to muzzle talk of the country’s slowdown. Owners of media companies and editors critical of the government fear being targeted by the state. In short, the “integration of Kashmir” is happening against the wider backdrop of Modi’s push for nationalist conformity, his attempt to create a nation marching to one tune and one purpose. But beneath the symbolic shows of unity is the fearful vision of a republic where dissenters are at risk, where the opposition and media are gagged, and where normal institutional protections are fast vanishing.
Converting Kashmir into a union territory was a show of brute majoritarianism, a demonstration that India can downgrade its only Muslim-majority state. As such, it fits a pattern of the further marginalization of Muslims under the current government. In recent years, there has been a spike in religious hate crimes, including the lynching of Muslims by vigilante Hindu mobs for the alleged sin of possessing and eating beef. In a pending court case that could add to the tensions, the Supreme Court may very well allow the construction of a temple on the supposed birthplace of the Hindu holy figure Ram, where in 1992 Hindu nationalists demolished a mosque and sparked communal riots across the country. The government correctly outlawed the Muslim practice of triple talaq, in which men could divorce their wives by simply repeating the word for “divorce” three times, but that move may presage the abolition of Muslim Personal Law, India’s separate civil code for Muslims that governs marriage, divorce, and inheritance in accordance with some aspects of Islamic law.
Converting Kashmir into a union territory was a show of brute majoritarianism.
Away from Kashmir, another case of state power threatens to upend hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives. In the eastern state of Assam, the government, acting in accordance with a Supreme Court order, has identified nearly two million residents as foreigners, not listing them in the National Register of Citizens. This immense cataloguing effort began four decades ago as part of an attempt to track illegal migration into India from what is now Bangladesh. Though both Hindus and Muslims have been stripped of citizenship, Hindu nationalist groups have asked the Modi government to restore the citizenship of the Hindus swept up in this process. Many Muslims may remain excluded from citizenship, rendered stateless, and forced into detention camps.
Against this backdrop, the elimination of Article 370 can be seen as part of the Modi’s larger Hindu nationalist project: centralizing power and suppressing the claims of national minorities. India has long failed to make the promise of democracy alluring to Kashmiris. But the actions of this government, and the acquiescence of democratic institutions and political parties, make it even more unlikely that Kashmir will easily accept New Delhi’s rule. India thinks it has won Kashmir, but it might be losing the soul of its democracy in the process.