Hindu Nationalists Head Off a Cliff in Kashmir

(Bloomberg Opinion) — Long on a roll, right-wing nationalists finally seem to be overreaching. Evidence came from two different sources this week: India and Britain. 

Brexit, advocated and promoted by mostly English nationalists, always threatened the breakup of Great Britain. With new Prime Minister Boris Johnson now vowing to leave the European Union on Oct. 31 without a deal and regardless of the destructive consequences, Brexit has been clearly exposed as a reckless bet by nationalists against their own country.

Support for independence has achieved a majority in Scotland, according to an opinion poll this week. In Northern Ireland, the excesses of Tory Brexiteers have helped make the previously unthinkable prospect of a united Ireland mainstream. More people than ever — an estimated 41% — back independence even in Wales, which actually voted to leave the EU. 

The nationalists’ more dramatic own-goal, however, occurred in India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government moved to repeal Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which sets out the special terms on which the independent princely state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India rather than Pakistan after the end of British rule. 

Some other Indian states enjoy similar privileges of federalism. The reason why Modi’s government drastically demoted Kashmir to colonial-style vassalage as a “Union Territory” is primarily, even exclusively, ideological.

India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir has hosted a long and relatively popular anti-India insurgency supported by Pakistan. Hindu nationalists have long campaigned to repeal Article 370 as part of a revanchist fantasy of “Akhand Bharat,” or Undivided India — a vision which includes reclaiming the part of Kashmir ruled by Pakistan.  

Modi seems to have calculated that his successful electoral strategy of social-religious polarization can continue to curry favor from those who voted for him — and distract from his failure to turbocharge the economy or create jobs. Predictably, supporters loudly cheered his government’s apparent resolve to bring Kashmir to heel and to show the state’s Muslims their place.

This mode of politics can keep the base energized in the short run, as elected demagogues in Western democracies such as U.S. President Donald Trump have proved. As with Brexit, however, any radical expression of nationalism cannot but have radical long-term consequences which, ultimately, undermine its own cherished ends: consolidating territorial unity and sovereign power. Right-wing nationalism, in this sense, is its own nemesis.  

The Brexiteers ignored unfavorable opinion in Scotland and Ireland until it was too late and the Pandora’s box of independence had opened. The Hindu nationalists are not so oblivious to the desires of Kashmiri Muslims. But they deliberately ignore Kashmiri opinion because they believe in full-spectrum dominance and in imposing it by awesome displays of force.

The government prepared for its bombshell on Monday with a massive infusion of security forces into Kashmir, which is already one the most militarized places on earth. It ordered the arrests of opposition leaders and evacuation of Indian students and tourists, an indefinite curfew, and the shutdown of all modes of communications, including telephone landlines.

Clearly, the Hindu nationalists are hardly detained by scruples about procedure in a context where they either control or influence all of India’s major institutions, including the Supreme Court. However, a ruling class that can so cavalierly dismiss the prospect of a permanently humiliated and resentful Muslim minority that numbers over 170 million citizens is in danger of being misled by its own culture of impunity.

Hindu nationalists have clearly not thought through the long-term consequences of repealing Article 370. These will, of course, be manifest in Kashmir itself, where Modi’s government has presided over a spike in militant disaffection. As the aerial skirmishes between India and Pakistan this February showed, the authorities’ failure to check terrorist violence in the state, and compensatory saber-rattling and blustering, can easily make an already volatile situation spiral out of control. 

The other grave consequences of the Hindu nationalist assault on India’s federal principles are less perceptible now. They will nevertheless be played out in some of India’s richest states, where an assortment of sub-nationalisms have been simmering for years. The undreamed-of scenes witnessed in Hong Kong lately — of young professionals resisting the diktats of remote-controlling authoritarian nationalists — could one day become commonplace in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai.

Drunk on power, the Hindu nationalists resemble the English Brexiteers as they blithely smash up fragile constitutional arrangements. History may record their actions now as another lesson in how nationalists so often overplay their hand — and self-destruct.

To contact the author of this story: Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. His books include “Age of Anger: A History of the Present,” “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” and “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.”

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