Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
In August 2019, the Indian government radically overhauled its relationship to the disputed territory of Kashmir, scrapping the constitutional provisions that had allowed limited autonomy to the region for nearly 70 years. With the stroke of a pen, Kashmir ceased to be a state within India and instead became a “union territory,” governed directly from New Delhi.
The main provision that the government did away with, Article 370 of the Indian constitution, had granted Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in Hindu-majority India, control over most of its affairs with the exception of matters of defense, telecommunications, and foreign policy. Another provision, Article 35A, gave the natives
Modi, however, tried to downplay the ideological dimensions of the move. He outlined a vision of a peaceful, prosperous “new Kashmir,” tied more firmly to India. Investment would flow into the region, he insisted, creating jobs and draining the pool of disaffected young people who tend to join militant groups. Modi claimed that this bold action would end decades of ineffective Indian administration and lead to the integration of Kashmir within India.
Two years on, this dream seems like a delusion. Hostility in Kashmir toward India has only grown, thanks to the Modi government’s coercive policies and crackdowns on dissent. Militant activity has spiked as insurgents have gained new recruits and mounted more attacks in the last year. And the region’s economy remains in dire straits. If anything, the picture in Kashmir today is the exact opposite of the vision Modi sold the world.
New Delhi’s direct rule of Kashmir—and the consequent lack of an elected local government—has bred mismanagement and discontent. Bureaucrats and senior officials from outside Kashmir have been running day-to-day affairs in the territory, sidelining locals from many positions in administrative and law enforcement agencies. The failure to hold local elections has further underlined the general perception among Kashmiris of rule without consent. Despite New Delhi’s promises, elections remain a distant prospect in the midst of a government-launched process to redraw political constituencies, an effort critics suggest is intended to make Kashmir’s electoral balance more favorable to the BJP.
The Modi government had justified stripping Kashmir of its autonomy by claiming that the move would generate investment and jobs by allowing Indian companies to enter the region more easily. That has yet to happen. Months of restrictions and communication blackouts after August 2019 hit the local economy hard, and then came the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns. In July 2019, a month before Modi’s gambit, Kashmir’s unemployment rate was 16.3 percent. Today, it stands at 21.4 percent—the highest among all states and federal territories in India and well above the national average of 7.4 percent. Between August 2019 and July 2020, the region suffered $5.3 billion in economic losses. The Modi government sought to entice more Indians to move to Kashmir, but those efforts have proved futile so far.
Multiple laws passed since Kashmir became a federal territory seem to threaten the Muslim-majority character of the region. After the government got rid of Article 35A, it passed a new residency law that now allows anyone who has lived in the region for 15 years to become a permanent resident; previously, the legal provisions that guaranteed Kashmir’s relative autonomy prevented non-Kashmiris from settling in the region. The government has extended over 890 federal laws to the region, including land laws under which authorities can seize any area for industrial or public use or for use by the armed forces.
The government caused further alarm after officials encouraged Kashmir’s minority Hindus to seek restitution for property they lost during upheavals in the late 1980s and 1990s, tried to entice non-Kashmiris to move to Kashmir, and began transferring forestland to the armed forces. These measures have stoked fears among Kashmiris that the Indian government is determined to change the demography of the region. Militant groups warned of escalating attacks should outsiders start living in Kashmir. And in recent months, they have begun to deliver on their grisly promise.
Stripping Kashmir of its autonomy galvanized militants, spurring the emergence of new groups and fresh waves of violence. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a security-monitoring website run by the Institute of Conflict Management, 937 incidents of militancy, such as grenade attacks and gunfights, have taken place in Kashmir since 2019, with a steady increase in the pace of these incidents. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of people recruited by militant groups increased by 22 percent.
In October 2019, a new group called the Resistance Front announced its arrival with a grenade attack in Srinagar, the capital city. The group has since issued further warnings and carried out several attacks. The Resistance Front insisted that “any Indian who comes with the intention to settle in Kashmir will be treated . . . not as a civilian and will be dealt with appropriately.” Militant groups have killed eight non-Kashmiris in the last two months. Many experts believe that insurgents in Kashmir have also found inspiration in the Taliban’s August takeover of Afghanistan. A security official, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that the Taliban victory would impact Kashmir in the long run by fueling further militancy.
For their part, the government forces continue to face credible accusations of human rights violations, including the targeted killing of civilians and the fabricating of clashes—known in India as “fake encounters”—whereby authorities try to pass off the killing of civilians or suspected militants as part of a gunfight. In the last two years, authorities have buried the bodies of slain militants in remote, often mountainous areas, denying families the chance to inter their relatives. Officials claim that the threat of COVID-19 makes large gatherings at funerals a public health risk, but the move seems engineered to prevent public protests—and, at any rate, has backfired by leading to more outrage. In one prominently reported case in December 2020, the body of a teenager who was purportedly killed during a gunfight between security forces and militants was whisked away for a distant burial. The boy’s father vigorously denied the government’s claim that his son was a militant, demanded the return of his body, and maintained an empty grave in their village in protest. In response, authorities charged
The picture in Kashmir today is the exact opposite of the vision Modi sold the world.
Authorities have also cracked down on employees of various government departments for so-called antinational activities, leading to the expulsion of officials who may not accept the new hard-line policies. It has pressed multiple cases against journalists who have reported on human rights violations in Kashmir and interrogated and harassed dozens of reporters working with local and international media. In this intimidating climate, local and national media have embraced a good deal of self-censorship and become more reluctant to heap scrutiny on the actions of security forces.
The Modi government’s harsh policies in dealing with the mounting unrest have only made the situation worse. A senior police officer told me that many security officials believe that a civilian uprising in Kashmir is likely in the next few years. This fear has fueled the familiar vicious cycle, with strict crackdowns on dissent only stoking further ire.
The Indian government has too often relied on violence to quell restiveness in Kashmir. Its ironfisted approach to the insurgency in the 1990s encouraged a subsequent, more brutal insurgency. Repression in the following decade led to major civilian uprisings in 2008, 2010, and then 2016. Only an approach that prioritizes cooperation and the empowerment of Kashmiris will bring peace, but the Modi government has offered little to Kashmir while demanding its compliance.
The government could take a step back and reckon with the fact that its approach has achieved little on the ground. But the truth is that the Modi government’s interests in Kashmir are deeply political; it wants to sell a narrative to the broader Indian public of deliberate and bold action. In Modi’s view, moderating the government’s conduct in Kashmir will only hurt his standing in the rest of the country. As long as that political calculus persists, so too will Kashmir’s struggles.
Modi and his political party have long wanted to integrate Kashmir more firmly into India. But since he came to power in 2014, India itself has changed. Under Modi, the country has become less welcoming of religious difference, less committed to its founding ideals of pluralism and secularism, and increasingly intolerant of those unwilling to accept India as a Hindu nation—and not a pluralist one.
The peace and stability that Modi and his lieutenants promised Kashmir remain a distant prospect. The coming years will probably see Kashmiris grow even more alienated from India. India’s relationship with its neighbor and frequent foe Pakistan—another party to the Kashmir conflict—has become more strained in the past two years. In this context and in the absence of meaningful, peaceful engagement between Kashmiris and the Indian government, there will only be more violence.