What the Kashmir decision means for Indian federalism — and democracy

In the run-up to his election victory in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a form of federalism that was “co-operative, not coercive”. The statement solidified a long-term trend of Indian leaders who have been willing to recognize the country’s regional diversity. Though the central government once regularly dismissed state governments — 95 times between 1966 and 1996 — such practices seemed a thing of the past. State governments became more likely to serve out their terms, and the central government seemed more amendable to seeking compromises with local leaders. Even the troubled state of Kashmir saw free and fair elections and a steep decline in violence between 2001 and 2017.

That is why the Modi government’s recent decision to restrict the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir is such a disturbing reversal. While Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party advertised its action as ending Kashmir’s “special privileges,” it actually did far more than that. It not only suspended the constitution’s Kashmir-specific provisions — which allowed India’s only Muslim-majority state a measure of autonomy to set its own laws — but also passed legislation reducing Kashmir’s status from state to union territory, vesting most powers in the central government rather than the local legislature.

In the American context, this is comparable to stripping Florida of its statehood and giving it the same status as Puerto Rico. The move will hardly help tackle the unrest in the Kashmir: Instead of having the same powers as other Indian states, Kashmir would have even less autonomy to address regional issues.

Moreover, the precedent is a disturbing one for India as whole. If a simple majority in parliament is all that is required to reduce a state’s status, that means that any state government — including those ruled by an opposition party or inhabited by a minority group — could have its autonomy restricted by the central government.

Given this possibility, Home Minister Amit Shah’s promise to restore Kashmir’s status as a state “when the situation gets normal and the right time comes” is ambiguous to the point of being sinister. Clearly, the government considers statehood — for Kashmir, at least — a privilege rather than a right.

Even before the legislation was passed, the central government used executive action in Kashmir to crack down on freedoms Indians in other states take for granted. The state’s legislature has been dismissed for nearly a year, and the center made no pretense of consulting with Kashmiris before changing its constitutional status. Internet and mobile services in Kashmir are suspended, a curfew has been imposed, all major political leaders are under arrest and the upcoming state elections appear to have been postponed. This means that Kashmiris have lost their freedom of assembly, movement, communication and association all at once. Since tourism is the state’s major industry, many have lost their economic livelihood as well.

Some of these measures to crush dissent are likely to remain in effect indefinitely. The suspension of Kashmir’s special status undercuts the efforts for peaceful compromise that mainstream Kashmiri political parties have been calling for, and will push young people toward civil disobedience and violence. This could lead to the expansion of existing separatist and Islamist terrorist movements, massive street demonstrations and the withdrawal of cooperation from government institutions.

Many suspect that the BJP intends to use its newfound power in Kashmir to change the demographic balance of the Kashmir Valley, particularly since it also eliminated a constitutional article preventing nonresidents from purchasing property in the state. Plans for military-protected Hindu settlements in Kashmir have been mooted in BJP circles for some time. The practicality of these plans is questionable — but the very fact that they have been discussed reflects the party’s lack of interest in building bridges with Kashmiri Muslims.

Since the government has foreclosed the possibility of any compromise, most observers predict that the only way it can continue to rule is through central repression. In such an environment, ordinary Kashmiris will likely spend the next several years caught between rubber bullet-shooting troops and stone-throwing protesters.

For the leaders of regional opposition parties lining up to support Kashmir’s change in status, these evils probably seem remote. The Indian government has long pursued a more repressive policy in Kashmir than elsewhere, and the BJP may seem less enthusiastic about centralization in states that are not majority Muslim. But their optimism may be misplaced: The BJP also recently moved to overthrow two other state governments by reportedly putting pressure on opposition legislators to resign or defect, suggesting it is willing to use questionable tactics against all opposition-led state governments.

Which state will it choose as the next target? And what does it mean for India’s federal system if the central government can rid itself of regional checks and balances almost at will?

Alexander Lee is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester.

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