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India Has Taken Kashmir, But Winning the Hearts and Minds of Kashmiris Will be Harder

5 minute read

On the sunny, cloudless morning when Imaad Tariq was born in Kashmir, most of his family had no idea. “Nobody knows that my wife delivered a baby boy,” says Tariq Ahmad Sheikh, at the hospital on Aug. 6, a day later. “We couldn’t inform family, nor is anyone able to reach here.”

In the early hours of Aug. 5, the Indian government shut down the Internet as well as landline and cell networks in Kashmir, as part of an unprecedented bid for greater control of the disputed Himalayan territory, which both Pakistan and India claim and over which they have gone to war three times. Some 7 million people in the region were left with no way to contact the outside world, as the government closed schools, banned public meetings and barricaded neighborhoods. Officials arrested more than 100 people, including political leaders, activists and former chief ministers of the state. Local reports quote police saying at least one protester died.

But few Kashmiris will know any of that. Many may not even be aware that hours after the blackout began, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah announced the state of Jammu and Kashmir would be stripped of the special status it had held since shortly after the Partition of British India in 1947. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government said it would revoke two crucial articles of India’s constitution that have guaranteed Kashmiris the right to their own flag, constitution and near autonomy for seven decades. Overnight, India brought in radical changes to its only Muslim-majority state, while its population was left in the dark.

To some, India’s move was a rebuke to President Trump’s suggestion in July that Modi had asked him to mediate in Kashmir, which New Delhi angrily denied. Others see it as an attempt to shift the region’s demographics; the legal maneuver paves the way for (largely Hindu) outsiders to buy property there for the first time, sparking comparisons to Israeli settlers in the West Bank. “Kashmir was always seen as real estate, not a place with people,” says Nitasha Kaul, a Kashmiri writer based in London. Scrapping Kashmir’s autonomy has long been a goal of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which returned to power for a second term in May with an even bigger mandate. “A decision has been taken about Kashmir in which no Kashmiri has been a stakeholder,” says Indian journalist Rana Ayyub. “This is an attack on Indian democracy.”

And while Modi’s government stokes tensions between Hindus and Muslims elsewhere, unrest in Kashmir has been steadily growing. A U.N. report in July cited local data showing 160 Kashmiri civilians were killed in 2019 alone, thought to be the highest figure in over a decade. In February, a suicide bombing by Pakistani-backed militants killed 40 Indian paramilitary police in Kashmir; in response, India sent fighter jets into Pakistani airspace and dropped bombs near the town of Balakot in Pakistan. (There were no confirmed casualties.)

India’s latest move has further widened the rift with its neighbor, risking a return to hostilities between the nuclear-armed states. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned Parliament on Aug. 6 that India’s actions would likely spark militant violence, leading to tit-for-tat strikes. “If we fight a war until we shed the last drop of our blood, no one will win,” he said. “It will have grievous consequences for the entire world.” Pakistan has since downgraded diplomatic ties and suspended bilateral trade with New Delhi.

But the risk to Islamabad of engineering a violent backlash via militant groups would be “very great,” says Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow at the London think tank Chatham House, especially as Washington has declined to intervene. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told TIME the Trump Administration so far is taking no action to prevent an escalation of the conflict between the two countries. And with Pakistan’s economy suffering, a fresh conflict with India could derail its attempts to repair relations with the West. “India in many ways has played its cards just right,” Shaikh says.

Beyond the geopolitics, though, it’s hard to see how India will win the hearts and minds of ordinary Kashmiris, who woke up on Aug. 5 to find their Internet cut off–and not for the first time. “There’s essentially no other place on earth that has had as many Internet shutdowns as Kashmir,” says Ravi Agrawal, the author of India Connected. Without any means of communication, it’s hard for locals to organize protests that could turn violent, just as it is for militants to plan an attack.

But at some point, the shutdown will end and Kashmiris will discover that Delhi has reshaped their lives in a move that carries echoes of a dark history. “I am reminded of the days surrounding Partition, when Indians and Pakistanis had no idea which country they woke up in,” Hafsa Kanjwal, a historian at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, wrote on Facebook. Modi is likely hoping a child like Imaad Tariq, born under a different constitution than his father, will grow up to embrace India. History suggests that might not be so simple.


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Write to Naina Bajekal at naina.bajekal@time.com