February 2020

Is India finally playing catch-up learning from some of China’s worst draconian measures?

Protests have an important role to play in every revolution against systematic oppression

By Siddiq Bazarwala

It could be argued almost every revolution starts with a march.

India won its independence from Great Britain in 1947 while the Communist Party in China swept to power in 1949. India has since fought four wars with Pakistan invariably over Kashmir over the last seventy years, while the central Chinese government tactfully encouraged Han Chinese to migrate to the Xinjiang region, during the same period, ultimately titling the geography in its favour.

In a report titled China’s campaign for mixed marriages spreads to troubled Xinjiang by Washington Post in September 2014, Simon Denyer wrote, “Han Chinese made up less than 7 percent of Xinjiang’s population in 1949. Today, that number stands at 40 percent. Uighurs, at 43 percent, are today a minority in the region, with other, mainly Muslim ethnic groups making up the remainder”.

With recent events unfolding in Kashmir and all over India, India appears to be playing catch-up learning from some of China’s worst draconian measures.

Hindu nationalist parties led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP party swept to power in May 2014. It has since been laying the brickwork for virulent nationalism in India. It culminated recently with the passing of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) in late 2019, that ignited huge protests across India.

This led to US’s Federal Commission for International Religious Freedom to call for sanctions against India’s powerful home minister, Mr Amit Shah and other top leaders for “creating a religious test for Indian citizenship that would strip citizenship from millions of Muslims”.

Earlier in the year, prior to winning a second term in office in April 2019, Modi and Shah jointly announced plans in their re-election manifesto to abrogate Article 370 of the constitution and scrap Article 35A and rebuild an enlarged Ram temple in Ayodhya over the ruins of the Babri Mosque. It was however viewed at the time by many as little more than yet another attempt to polarise the Hindu vote in its favour.

Behind the scenes however, big plans were afoot.

In 2015, the High Court in Kashmir had passed a landmark judgment stating the Article 370 was “permanent” while the Indian Supreme Court declared that only the parliament could remove the article. To circumvent the stumbling blocks and stealthily lay the foundation of what was to come next, the BJP-led government via its President Ram Nath Kovind imposed Governor’s rule in June 2018 in Kashmir by suspending the powers of the state government and its parliament and transferring all state power to its BJP ally, Satya Pal Malik, the Governor of the state.

In one fell swoop with the constitutional powers firmly in the grasp of Kovid and Malik, the Modi government in early August 2019 abrogated Article 370 and scrapped Article 35A, removing the special status of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, that had been in place since the 1947 partition.

Like Xinjiang, curfew was declared, tens of thousands of armed soldiers were brought in overnight and harsh curbs on civil rights imposed, including a six-month internet blackout shutting down phones and cable news. Schools too, were suspended for almost seven months, with nearly a million students in Indian-administered Kashmir affected by the severe disruption.

In fact, the suspension of internet services has occurred all over the country more than 365 times since Modi’s government came to power in 2014, according to the global digital rights group Access Now, with more than thirty percent of the bans imposed in Kashmir alone, some lasting months, severely affecting hospitals, schools, public institutions and businesses.

Over 500,000 jobs have also been lost, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry during the current period of upheaval. Repeated calls on the Indian government to end the curbs by legislators in the United States and Europe have been ignored while foreign journalists and independent monitors are barred from entry.

Since 1991, the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act has also become a key cornerstone strategy in controlling the restive region with over 600,000 Indian troops, although estimates vary. Nevertheless, the soldier civilian ratio of 1:8 makes Kashmir one of the most militarised zones in the world, on par with North Korea.

Modi’s government is however able to do what it does because BJP today controls the lower house with a majority while BJP and its NDA (National Democratic Alliance) allies can comfortably breach the 125 mark, enabling the ruling party to pass any bill in the upper house, just as easily, explaining how the recent spate of controversial bills in India have passed unhindered.

Most worryingly, Modi and his senior administration reach extends beyond the legislative assemblies.

In September, 2018, Mukut Bihari Verma, a BJP minister spoke on the contentious matter of whether Ram temple would be built in Ayodhya. He let slip, “The matter is in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court is ours.”, publicly confirming the writing on the wall. Earlier that year in January, four of India’s most senior Supreme Court judges had warned that “democracy is under threat because of the way the court is being run”. In fact, numerous news reports and think tank research have pointed out how Modi continues to stymie the judiciary’s independence.

With Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status repealed, people from the rest of India now have the right to acquire property in Jammu and Kashmir and settle in the region permanently, which brings us back to the innovative geographic manipulation China pioneered seventy years ago in Xinjiang province.

Like the carefully planned  migration of Han Chinese and other Muslim ethnic groups into Xinjiang for the last seven decades, the threat and unease of an influx of Hindu migrants that would change the Muslim-majority demography of Jammu and Kashmir in India’s favour is real for over eight million, mostly Muslim Kashmiris. 

Having suffered decades of injustice, nobody else has a greater vested interest in peace and development than the average Kashmiri.

However if Nelson Mandela, Liu Xiaobo, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, or Rosa Parks had not revolted against unjust laws to change the world, we’d all be living in a very different world today.

This is why protests have a key role to play in India, before the world’s largest democracy that increasingly behaves like an autocratic state actually becomes one.