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India’s Looming Ethno-Nationalist Catastrophe

The decision to revoke Kashmir's special status is part of a ghastly—and popular—agenda for Delhi's hard-right Hindu government.

Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty

In the long list of enemies maintained by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of India (BJP), the Muslims of the northwestern state of Kashmir have always held a special place. The only Muslim-majority state in India, and one guaranteed notional autonomy under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, Kashmir is routinely depicted by the right-wing Hindu BJP as the ungrateful beneficiary of Indian munificence, accepting endless sops while returning the favor with acts of terrorism and support for Pakistan.

The BJP on Monday announced in unilateral fashion that it would dissolve Kashmir’s special status and divide the state into two parts, one of which is to be ruled directly from Delhi. The proclamation was accompanied with a curfew in the state that included the house arrest of prominent Kashmiri leaders, the severing of all internet, cellphone, and landline connections, and the deployment of thousands of additional troops in what is already, with nearly a million soldiers, one of the most militarized regions in the world.

While Kashmiris remain completely disconnected from their family and friends, their civil liberties suspended, supporters of the Hindu right have been quick to signal their delirious joy, sometimes from very far away. “I have woken up in NY to the best news of my life about Kashmir,” blowhard actor (and husband to a BJP politician) Anupam Kher wrote on Twitter, making sure in his tweet to thank God, the Indian government, BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Modi’s sinister consigliere, Home Minister Amit Shah.  

This is not the first time that the Hindu right, led by Modi, has unleashed mass suffering in pursuit of its vision of Hindutva, an India that is largely or even exclusively for the Hindus. In 2002, when Modi was chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, a pogrom against Muslims left nearly a thousand dead and turned many more into refugees. Since Modi’s tenure as prime minister began in 2014, and especially since being handed a second term in resounding fashion earlier this year, such violence has percolated through the entire nation, provoking lynchings, assassinations, rapes, beatings, imprisonments, and constant abuse on airwaves and social media by Modi’s cheerleaders. 

The BJP’s hatred of Muslims is an inheritance from its century-old parent organization, the cultish paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; the chief of the RSS in the 1940s, M.S. Golwalkar, argued that Muslims were India’s Jews and that Hindus needed to manifest a “race spirit” similar to that of the Nazis. Now, BJP’s targets have expanded to include not just Muslims, but anybody critical of Modi, the party, and Hindutva. 

Such hate works, especially as little else in India does. In 2014, Modi and the BJP were voted into power despite their blood-stained record of pogroms and extrajudicial executions in Gujarat. Devotees of the Hindu right were joined in their support by liberals, both in India and in the West, who balanced Modi’s violent, paranoid, and authoritarian personality against the good governance he would supposedly usher in. But while Modi and the party are enamored of capitalism, they especially like crony capitalism, and have only managed to deepen India’s economic, environmental and social crises. 

Against this backdrop of perpetual crisis, Modi has perfected the grand, autocratic gesture. In November 2016, he imperiled a sick economy by unilaterally announcing the cancellation of large-denomination rupee notes. This was allegedly done to curb the flow of untaxed income, a ludicrous claim, given the number of his cronies who sit in London and New York after defaulting on massive loans from government banks. The demonetization led to severe misery for a majority of the Indian population, wage laborers, and small traders who conduct their business largely in cash. It transformed everyday life by fiat, with long lines of desperate people outside banks, an eerie mirroring of voters queuing up outside election booths. But Modi’s gesture seized headlines and provided an intoxicating display of power, with the damage to the economy and misery visited upon the majority failing to dent Modi’s popularity. The BJP’s victory margin in last May’s election was even greater than when the party first took control.

Monday’s decision to dissolve Kashmir’s special status is copied from the same template: done suddenly at great cost to a large section of people, but certain to appeal to the Hindutva fanbase. The Hindu right has for decades stoked resentment about Article 370 and its special treatment of Kashmiri Muslims. (At a BJP rally in Kolkata many years ago, I heard a speaker tell the crowd that Kashmiris received subsidized mutton for a special price so low that it would not even buy dog meat in Kolkata.) Targeting Kashmir’s special status is also seen as a blow against the liberal elites who preceded the BJP in governance, and who supposedly lacked Modi’s requisite toughness in dealing with Kashmiri Muslims.

All of this is, of course, fake news. Kashmir, like other border territories absorbed uneasily into the Indian republic, has for decades been treated as a colony by liberal as well as right-wing Indian governments. It is disputed territory, and the special status promised in Article 370 only tells one side of the story. Another side is told by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a piece of colonial-era legislation, still in effect in Kashmir, that offers virtual immunity to security forces for all acts of violence. India’s military occupation of Kashmir has unfolded apace under this law, spurring massacres, disappearances, torture, rape, and the deliberate blinding of protesters with pump-action shotguns firing cartridges packed with hundreds of tiny “nonlethal” lead pellets.

As with Modi’s demonetization drive, the apparent suddenness of the decision to remove Article 370 and carve Kashmir up into two administrative units is contrived. The declaration was preceded by the announcement of two fall summits in Kashmir for prospective outside investors. What such investment in Kashmir will look like is easy to guess from a cursory glance at the rest of India: more trash, more cars, more pollution, more concrete, more aggressive Hindu rock music, and ever more ugly assertions of the race spirit that Golwalkar wanted Hindus to learn from Nazis. The BJP wants to allow its Hindu majoritarian supporters to expand into Kashmir. If it looks like settler colonialism, that’s because it is. 

Elsewhere in India, in the northeastern state of Assam, Modi’s party has created a different kind of misery with a similar aim, by raising the specter of a Muslim migrant influx from neighboring Bangladesh. A nightmarish system of tribunals, detention centers, and updates to India’s “national register of citizens” has sparked what might be the largest disenfranchisement project in the world, as Bengali speakers—largely Muslim and mostly poor—suddenly find themselves registered as foreigners or “doubtful” citizens, with many thrown into prison because they cannot prove their Indianness. The pattern of governance is clear.

The problems India faces are so severe that any political party would be hard-pressed to address them. There is rising inequality, poverty among hundreds of millions, and little hope for job growth. Parched by drought and disoriented by shifting monsoons, the mainland of India is sometimes burning and sometimes flooded. Capitalism has hollowed India out, and climate change is beginning to reveal its devastating face with scant regard for colonial and postcolonial borders. In response, Modi and his party are now attempting to engineer a Hindutva version of lebensraum in Kashmir. Indians, as much as Kashmiris, should hope that he fails.