By Kapil Komireddi
For two weeks, Kashmir, India’s sole Muslim-majority state, has existed in a surreal state of nonexistence. Since a presidential decree abolished the state, revoked its autonomy and partitioned it into two federally administered territories, the Internet has been shut down, cellular networks have been disabled, and even landlines went dead. Public assembly is banned, and citizens are under curfew. A soldier has been stationed outside every house in some villages. Eight million people have been cut off from the world — and from one another. Pharmacies are running out of medicine, households are low on food, and hospitals are clogging up with injured protesters. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, insists that all this is for the good of the Kashmiris. India’s grip on Kashmir has seldom been stronger. Its hold on Kashmiris, however, has never been more threadbare.
Modi’s sudden takeover in Kashmir is the fulfillment of a long ideological yearning to make a predominantly Muslim population surrender to his vision of a homogeneous Hindu nation. It is also a way of conveying to the rest of India — a union of dizzyingly diverse states — that no one is exempt from the Hindu-power paradise he wants to build on the subcontinent. Kashmir is both a warning and a template: Any state that deviates from this vision can be brought under Delhi’s thumb in the name of “unity.”
Those who believe that such a day will never come — that India’s democratic institutions and minority protections will assert themselves — also never thought that someone like Modi would one day lead the country. Modi once seemed destined to disappear into history as a fanatical curio. As the newly appointed chief minister of Gujarat, he presided over the worst communal bloodletting in India’s recent history in 2002, when 1,000 Muslims, by a conservative estimate, were slaughtered by sword-wielding Hindus in his state over several weeks. Some accused Modi of abetting the mobs; others said he turned a blind eye to them. The carnage made Modi a pariah: Liberal Indians likened him to Hitler, the United States denied him a visa, and Britain and the European Union boycotted him.
Since his 2014 election to the premiership, bigotry has been ennobled as a healthy form of self-assertion. Lynchings of Muslims — breathlessly demonized as jihadists devoted to seducing and converting Hindu women — by aggrieved Hindu mobs have become such a common sport that dozens of videos of grisly murders circulate on WhatsApp groups run by Hindu nationalists. Last summer, a minister in Modi’s cabinet garlanded eight men who had been convicted of lynching a Muslim man. In this universe, Kashmir could never remain autonomous, a place impervious to the desires of a majority happy to see its will done by violence.
Modi’s reelection this year emboldened the supporters whose rage he skillfully incited. The prime minister rarely acknowledges the murders of minorities. Rarer still are instances when he condemns them. Not once, in fact, has he memorialized, by name, Muslims slain by Hindu fundamentalists. This is not an accident. It is a small step from letting Hindu vigilantes subjugate their Muslim neighbors to subjugating them himself, using the power of the state, as he has now done in Kashmir.
Modi’s political awakening occurred in the training camps of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a right-wing paramilitary group that incubated the modern politics of Hindu nationalism. The RSS introduces young “volunteers” to the vast pantheon of supposed villains who plundered and emasculated India over the ages — the medieval Islamic invaders, the accommodationists like Mohandas Gandhi and the Congress party he led, the Muslim nationalists who mutilated India to create Pakistan and sought to abscond with Kashmir — and exhorts them to shed their Hindu impotence. The effect on Modi’s young mind was so powerful that he came to regard the RSS as his family, abandoned his wife and mother, and wandered through India as a catechist of the Hindu nationalist cause.
By seizing Kashmir, Modi has mollified votaries of Hindu nationalism and established himself as the father of what they proudly call the “New India.” Kashmir was always at the top of their wish list, which also includes the construction of a temple in Ayodhya, where a mosque stood for half a millennium before Hindu nationalists razed it in 1992; the erasure of small privileges granted to minorities (such as a subsidy for the Muslim pilgrimmage to Mecca); a legal end to religious conversions by Hindus; an extra-legal suppression of interfaith romance and marriages, especially when the bride is Hindu and the groom Muslim; and, ultimately, the rewriting of the constitution to declare India a formally Hindu state.
Kashmiri separatists who once labeled India a “Hindu state” could be dismissed at the time as chauvinists, and India could credibly argue for Kashmir’s place within its polyglot fold: The religion of Kashmiris was irrelevant to their full citizenship of the Indian state. But now the separatists’ claim against India has as much substance and weight as Abdullah’s against Pakistan. The argument of “inclusive nationalism” deployed by Modi’s predecessors to persuade Kashmiri separatists to participate in elections is unavailable to him, a religious nationalist. An India that has ceased to be secular will have forever lost its argument for Kashmir. The calm currently imposed on the region conceals a deep rage that is waiting to erupt. The abuse of Kashmir justified by Modi as “integration” may, if it is not confronted and reversed, be the beginning of the end of India’s unity.
This article was first published in The Washington Post