Why Modi’s Kashmir coup threatens India’s democracy

Simon Tisdall
Photograph: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times/REX/Shutterstock

It’s tempting, though illogical, to blame Donald Trump for all the world’s ills. Yet was it America’s self-aggrandising president who triggered last week’s sudden crisis between India and Pakistan over Kashmir? When Trump took office in 2017, his ignorance of international affairs was seen as potentially dangerous. Those fears now look well-founded. Kashmir may provide conclusive, catastrophic proof.

The trouble started on 22 July when Trump hosted Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, in the Oval office. Despite previously accusing Pakistan of supporting terrorism and slashing US aid, Trump was all smiles. Why? Because he needed Khan’s help in cutting a peace deal with the Taliban. Trump yearns to tell America’s voters next year that he ended the 18-year Afghan war and brought the troops home.

Naturally, Khan wanted something in return. That included US help with the disputed, Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan came to blows as recently as March. Islamabad has consistently sought to internationalise the problem by involving the UN and third parties. Like his predecessors, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, insists it is an internal matter.

Divided Kashmir, the frontline between two nuclear-armed powers, lives daily with a bitter legacy of violent insurgency and human rights abuses. It is where Muslim and Hindu extremists clash. It is a place where diplomats tread with utmost care. But not a president with a big ego and mouth to match. Oblivious to historical booby traps, Trump jumped in feet-first at his meeting with Khan.

“I was with prime minister Modi two weeks ago and we talked about this subject,” Trump claimed. “He [Modi] actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Kashmir.’ Because this has been going on for many, many years. I was surprised at how long … If I can help, I would love to be a mediator.”

Trump’s claim about a mediation request was immediately dismissed by India. The external affairs ministry basically accused him of making it up. Later that same day, the state department reaffirmed the official US position that Kashmir was a bilateral issue.

All the same, analysts suggest, Trump’s clumsy intervention spooked Modi. He and his ruling nationalist BJP party have long sought to assert federal control over Kashmir and end its semi-autonomous status. This aim was reiterated during last spring’s election. Modi was always likely to do it, sooner or later. The alarming thought of Trump wading in prompted him to act now.

To be fair, neither Trump nor the colonial British (whose hurried 1947 independence handover began the whole sorry saga) are ultimately responsible for what is happening today. Blame for more than 70 years of scrapping and squabbling lies squarely with successive Indian and Pakistani governments. Blame for the immediate crisis lies principally with Modi, a life-long, hard-line Hindu nationalist.

Before becoming prime minister in 2014, Modi was best-known for his shocking role in the bloody 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, when he was state chief minister. National leadership brought increased international acceptance and respectability. But now the original, chauvinist Modi #1 is resurfacing. It is an unedifying spectacle.

Boosted by May’s landslide re-election victory, lauded by a sycophantic press, and untroubled by a discredited opposition, the “divider-in-chief”, as Time magazine recently dubbed him, seems set on replacing India’s founding secular, federalist tradition with a centralised, majoritarian, authoritarian state in keeping with the concept of “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu nation or polity).

“Today, the hold of Hindutva [Hindu-ness] has reached a new level – a hegemony across geographical space and social depth,” analyst Achin Vanaik warned in June. “What is the end goal? The fact is that a proper Hindu Rashtra cannot be secured until a Hindu state in all but name (or even explicitly) is established.”

In seeking to rule on the basis of race, religion, faith and fear, rather than on a constitutional, legal, consensual, inclusive basis, Modi is arguably a man of his times. Rough parallels can be drawn with Trump’s identity politics and China’s Xi Jinping, doing in Xinjiang and Tibet (and potentially Hong Kong) what Modi appears bent on doing in Kashmir.

Add to that the BJP’s record of anti-Muslim rabble-rousing, reflected in a rise in hate crimes since 2014, and a violent explosion on the ground in Srinagar and other centres looks unavoidable. The current security and communications lockdown cannot continue indefinitely. It’s also likely external, non-state militant groups will try to intervene.

“In Kashmir, the insurgency fighting to undo historical wrongs and betrayals will get a new reason to fight,” wrote Haseeb Drabu, a former Jammu and Kashmir minister. “This time, the Kashmiri insurgents will be morally supported even by the pro-India parties in the region. Kashmir’s crowded political space will get reorganised into two clusters: stooges and separatists. The middle ground has been obliterated.”

Though popular with many in India, Modi’s constitutional coup undermines the federal compact and pluralist democracy. “India has many asymmetric federalist arrangements outside of Kashmir. This act potentially sets the precedent for invalidating all of them,” wrote Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a leading academic, who pointed to possible knock-on instability in Nagaland, Uttar Pradesh, and Bengal.

As the storm he helped create rages on, Trump is keeping uncharacteristically quiet. His mediation offer has not been repeated and the US has declined to criticise Modi, calling instead on Pakistan to exercise restraint. Gallingly, Islamabad’s appeals for international support have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

For a moment back there, Imran Khan may have thought he had a friend in the White House. Turns out he was mistaken.