Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Modi’s Grand Strategy in Kashmir?
Modi’s Grand Strategy in Kashmir?

Modi’s Grand Strategy in Kashmir?

In early August 2019, Kashmir, a region contested by India and Pakistan, had its decades-long special status revoked. When Kashmir was integrated in 1947, India gave it a certain degree of autonomy, going so far as to allow it its own constitution. Since then, there have been myriad conflicts within the region, with Pakistan invading and attempting to claim the territory as well as separatist and terrorist groups demanding independence from India. Decades of violence settled into a stalemate in the area—a heavy presence of the Indian and Pakistani armies on both borders, countered by protests, unrest, and violence from the Kashmiri populace. This standoff has created a very harrowing balance of power as Kashmir finds itself a bed of conflict between two nuclear powers.

After years of mostly no change in the region, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked many officials by repealing Article 370 and 35a of the Indian Constitution—provisions that provide Kashmir and its residents certain privileges—as well as the Kashmiri constitution. It may seem that Modi’s actions may just be touting his party’s hard-line stance. However, his past actions and rhetoric indicate that the move is a calculated one. While this latest move does pose many risks, it is quite likely that Modi believes that he has employed a grand strategy to come out victorious in this conflict.

The current conflict has its roots in the post-independence partition of the Indian subcontinent. Princely states were asked to join either India or Pakistan. The State of Jammu and Kashmir was an interesting anomaly, however. The population was predominantly Muslim, with a Hindu and Sikh minority, while being ruled by the Hindu king, Maharaja Hari Singh. Accession to India would mean inviting the discontent of the Muslim majority, but joining Pakistan would endanger the interests of the minorities. Faced with this dilemma, the Maharaja elected to remain an independent state. Pakistan, however, intended to integrate Kashmir, even by force, if necessary. The Pakistani army trained and armed Pakistani tribes on the Kashmiri border, giving them instruction on invading the region. Outgunned and outmanned, the Maharaja turned to India for aid. India, upon securing an accession from the king, obliged with troop support. For the following months, India secured the regions of Jammu and Kashmir, while Pakistan secured the Gilgit region.

What followed was largely a stalemate and a continuation of the conflict resulting in no clear conclusion. As a result, India requested the United Nations to mediate. A committee was held to address the issues of the region, and a resolution was passed, proposing various troop withdrawals for both countries. However, neither India nor Pakistan was able to come to an agreement on any solution, furthering the stalemate. In the end, parts of Kashmir became administered India and others by Pakistan, but the conflict was far from over. Since then, both sides have been involved in skirmishes, wars, and the targeting of minorities; even China involved itself, allying with Pakistan after the Sino-Indian War in 1962.

Certain events have taken place surrounding Kashmir in the months leading up to the decision to revoke the Kashmiri constitution. While the move itself was a surprise, the events that triggered it are plain to see. Before Modi’s appointment to office in 2014, he ran a campaign based on taking a harder stance towards Pakistan and terrorism while also promoting a Hindu-nationalist attitude on the home front. After his election, in late 2016, there was an attack on Indian armed forces near the Kashmiri town of Uri by the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JEM). Right-wing leaders called for action against the terrorists, and military reports indicated that the terrorists were based in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This fact limited the retaliation options for Modi, as retaliating against JEM would be seen as an incursion on Pakistani territory, a move the previous party in power, the Congress Party, refused to do.

Modi, however, only in his first term, elected to double down on his hard-line stance, commissioning surgical strikes to eliminate JEM operatives in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The operation was a success, and was met with very positive reactions from the Indian populace, while at the same time inviting minimal backlash from the international community—expect for Pakistan. Three years later, in February 2019, a similar terrorist attack was carried out on security personnel in Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Like in 2016, Indian hardliners called for retaliation. An airstrike was carried out in Pakistan, and international backlash was minimal. In part due to the counterattack, Prime Minister Modi won re-election by a landslide. What these events indicate is a very important precedent learned by Modi; a hard-line policy is met with support around the world, so long as the intention is to safeguard against and respond to terrorists. Throughout these events—both recent and long past—India’s position on Kashmir has remained more or less the same. So why did Modi make his move now?

Given Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Hindu-nationalist stance, it would seem obvious as to why the abrogation of Article 370 was put into motion: to look better to constituents. However, it is important to understand that the precarious balance between India, Pakistan, and Kashmir is not easily trifled with. The stalemate between the three entities has existed for some time. Practically speaking, integration would be beneficial to India, as removing autonomy would give the military a stronger footing from which to secure Kashmir, while also affording Indian citizens certain privileges in the region. Many previous Prime Ministers would not have repealed Kashmir’s constitution for humanitarian reasons. India has had right-wing leadership in the last 70 years, who would’ve taken the chance to integrate Kashmir, if given the opportunity. However, the absence of opportunity is what prevented them from carrying out their goals. Modi, on the other hand, seems to have received quite a lot, in the way of opportunity.

Modi and the BJP’s past experiences with the international community could have led to the notion that hard-line actions—so long as they were made against terrorists or done in the name of national security—would be permissible. While that alone would likely not embolden one to take such a big risk, a few other international factors come into play. First and foremost: the United States of America. For most of Indian history, the U.S. has played a somewhat negative role towards India. This is largely due to India’s non-aligned stance during the Cold War, leading the U.S. to sign many arms deals with Pakistan. While this relationship has changed much in a post-Soviet era, the U.S. would at least keep an eye on affairs in the region. With the Donald Trump administration taking a step back from international policing, countries now have more maneuverability and free reign with their actions. In addition, the United States’ recent recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory can be used as a justification for India’s actions—preventing one country from integrating claimed territory while permitting another to do just that would seem hypocritical to the eyes of the global community. Russia’s claim on Crimea played out very similarly, and even now, the consensus according to certain polls is that the majority of Crimeans welcomed the move. Finally, perhaps the most convenient event for Modi was the outbreak of protests in Hong Kong. The Chinese government, a longtime ally of Pakistan, would likely have taken a more active role in opposition towards India’s move. However, given the international attention now on China for Hong Kong, it is no surprise that it has taken a step back from the Kashmir issue—aside from a few remarks—while dealing with its own more pressing problem.

While the obvious Hindu-nationalist motivations behind the integration of Kashmir are quite clear to see, there is some degree of political thought behind the act. Modi, over the course of his leadership, has tested the waters in his dealings with Kashmir and Pakistan, coming out successful on each occasion. On top of Modi’s own experience, India has for the first time witnessed the United States take more of a restrained role towards foreign policy. This, coupled with past incidents such as Crimea, and the convenience of the recent Hong Kong protests, has likely made the long and enduring task of revoking Kashmir’s special status somewhat easier for Modi.