Kashmir, One Year On
Welcome to South Asia Brief. This week: Aug. 5 marks the anniversary of Kashmir’s abrogation, a cease-fire in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka holds parliamentary elections, and deadly landslides hit Nepal.
Next Wednesday, Aug. 5, marks exactly one year since New Delhi revoked Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status, splitting the state into two union territories- Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. At the time, India’s surprise announcement turned into a global controversy. Pakistan opposed it, with Prime Minister Imran Khan calling Kashmir’s abrogation “brazen and egregious.” But Islamabad’s attempts to internationalize the issue were largely rebuffed, with Washington and other world powers toeing New Delhi’s familiar line that Kashmir was an internal domestic issue.
One year on, where do things stand?
While New Delhi’s move remains popular among an increasingly nationalistic Indian citizenry, a dispassionate assessment of the decision will show that few of its objectives have been achieved. Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, who argued last year that the old status quo “denied economic opportunities and social gains for the masses,” would struggle to make the case today that things have gotten better. A promised summit to encourage investment in Kashmir still hasn’t taken place. The coronavirus pandemic has made any reforms difficult to implement, but even before the nationwide shutdown in March, there had been little progress.
India’s government says the security situation in Kashmir has improved, pointing to a 36 percent decline in militancy-related incidents between January and July compared with the same period last year. Once again, it’s unclear how much those improvements are connected to pandemic-related shutdowns.
In any case, information has been difficult to come by. Local media are often harassed by the police, and international reporters have struggled to get inside. Authorities barred internet access for several months after Aug. 5. While it returned in March, mostly at lowered speeds, the Jammu and Kashmir government has once again banned high-speed internet for the next few weeks, ostensibly to curb protests and reporting from the region. A survey of Kashmiri college students found 90 percent were in favor of a complete withdrawal of Indian troops.
Kashmiri leaders who have expressed anger over the abrogation remain under house arrest, including former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. Another former chief minister, Omar Abdullah, was only released on March 24. In an interview this week with the Hindu, Abdullah said, “The polity of the rest of India effectively forgot about us,” referring to his and his father’s jailing. “It is shortsighted to believe that Kashmiris have quietly accepted what happened. … If Kashmiris have accepted the decision, why is the government still banning 4G internet?”
Abdullah has a point. For Indian-administered Kashmir to realize any of the economic goals New Delhi has promised, it first needs to open up—with a free and fair media and consistent internet access—and build confidence among businesses and institutions. But doing so would increase the likelihood of protests and potentially violence.
What to expect this week. India is planning what media outlets are calling “mega functions” to mark the anniversary, with a 15-day program of ceremonies starting on Aug. 5. Pakistan, meanwhile, is expected to ramp up its media outreach and will likely lean on Turkey and China to support its moves to draw attention to the plight of Muslims in Kashmir.
Pandemic update. Our weekly coronavirus chart shows few surprises. New cases of the virus continue to rise across the region, but especially in India, which has now recorded more cases in the last seven days than Brazil. Only the United States has recorded more cases since last week, but it has tested 15 times as many citizens per capita as India. Pakistan is rapidly closing in on the top 10 countries in the world with the most cases.
Afghan cease-fire. The Taliban has announced it will mark a three-day cease-fire starting on Friday to observe the Muslim festival of Eid. “In order that our compatriots may spend the days and nights of Eid-ul-Adha in even more security and joy, all Mujahideen are instructed to halt offensive operations,” read a statement from the group. “However, if the opposition carries out an attack, they must be met with a strong response.”
The announcement came as the United Nations said on Monday that 1,282 Afghan civilians had been killed and 2,176 injured in violence between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the first six months of 2020. While the casualties represent a 13 percent drop from the same period last year, Afghanistan remains among the world’s deadliest conflict zones.
Nepal landslides. At least nine people died in Nepal this week in landslides caused by heavy rains. According to a government spokesperson, 160 people have died in floods and landslides in the country since May. Many more have been injured or suffered damage to their homes and livelihoods. As this newsletter has reported, mass flooding has also led to fatalities in neighboring Bangladesh and India, in the eastern states of Bihar and Assam.
Sri Lanka elections. The island nation of Sri Lanka will hold elections on Aug. 5, a vote that was initially scheduled for April 25 but was delayed due to the pandemic. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna (SLPP) party is widely expected to win this election. The SLPP is currently a minority in parliament, but if it wins a two-thirds majority, experts predict Rajapaksa will try to reverse a constitutional amendment limiting the powers of the presidency- all in a bid to expand his family’s hold on power.
India-China app wars. New Delhi announced on Monday that it would ban 47 Chinese apps on national security grounds—in addition to the 59 apps that it blocked last month. The moves come in the wake of a deadly skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops along their shared border last month. A Chinese spokesperson told CNN that India should “create a fair, just, and nondiscriminatory environment for economic and trade cooperation between China and India.”
Indian media, meanwhile, reports that New Delhi is considering the status of other Chinese apps such as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), a popular mobile game.
India’s jet fighter purchase. On Wednesday, India received five Rafale fighter jets, the first delivery in an order of 36 combat aircraft from France. Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh says the deal “marks the beginning of a new era in [India’s] military history.” Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the Rafale aircraft, says the jets can fly on autopilot, including in rough weather conditions.
While New Delhi ordered the jets in 2016, Singh alluded to the recent skirmish with China. “If it is anyone who should be worried about or critical about this new capability of the Indian Air Force, it should be those who want to threaten our territorial integrity,” he tweeted.
ODDS & ENDS
Good genes. Some rare good news: A 103-year-old Pakistani man has recovered from the coronavirus. Aziz Abdul Alim tested positive for COVID-19 in July and was released last week from hospital after responding well to treatment. Alim has outlived three wives and nine sons and daughters; he divorced a fourth wife and is now on his fifth marriage. Alim worked as a carpenter into his 70s and continues to live in the district of Chitral.
That’s it for this week.