Content Warning: Descriptions of violence, including sexual violence, and torture.

On August 5, the Indian government, headed by the hard-right Hindu nationalist party BJP, unilaterally revoked Articles 370 of the Indian Constitution, ending the limited autonomy of Kashmir. This move of dubious legality, carried out entirely without consulting Kashmiris, was supported by a majority in the Indian parliament. Anticipating bitter opposition in Kashmir, the Indian government imposed a communications lockdown across the disputed region, shutting down all phone and internet connections. A massive military deployment brought the total number of Indian troops in the area to over one million. Mass arrests of political leaders, lawyers, academics and attacks on journalists attempted to clamp down on the flow of information out of Kashmir.

Reports have nevertheless been trickling out of an unfolding human rights and humanitarian crisis. Escalating the already-existing pattern of massive human rights abuses, Indian forces are carrying out large-scale arrests and detention without charges (including minors), torture of detainees, and attacks on medical personnel and facilities. The internet blockade has effectively disrupted civilian infrastructure, including crucial public services like medical treatment, ambulances and fire brigades and banking as well as economic activity. Food and medical supplies are running low, and daily wage earners face destitution. At the time of writing, the state of total siege had lasted for over four months, as the Himalayan winter sets in.

While the hard right shift in Indian politics is now covered extensively in US media, the emerging narrative contrasts these events with the vision of the founders of independent India, which was supposedly secular, democratic and inclusive. In particular, the figures of Gandhi and Nehru are invoked as exemplars of this vision. However, this is a profoundly ahistorical reading of both Indian history and society, as the Dalits and Nagas would testify. The denial of minority rights and regional autonomy, the basic building blocks of a pluralistic democracy in the Indian polity has made possible systemic state and popular violence against different minority groups over the decades. It has paved the way for the Hindu majoritarian state as it exists today. This process began nearly a hundred years ago, when the independent Indian nation took shape in the process of decolonization. Given this long-term historical trend, those who would try to resuscitate a supposedly liberal “Idea of India” in opposition to the hardcore Hindu nationalist vision of the BJP are indulging in a nostalgia that is as false as it is dangerous.

Empire and nation

From its inception, the “Idea of India” has been shaped by two paradoxical claims: the first, to have fought and triumphed over British colonialism, and second, to be the sole logical inheritor of the lands and territories of the British Raj, regardless of the wishes of the inhabitants of those regions. This meant disregarding the claims of Kashmiris, Nagas, Manipuris, Mizos and all others who wished to chart their own destiny, branding them as stooges of the British and worse. The unilateral annexation of Kashmir by India in 2019 is thus only the latest step in a sorry saga which began in the destruction wrought by Indian forces in counterinsurgency campaigns in Nagaland in the 1950s and 1960s, Mizoram and Manipur in the 1960s and 1970s, Punjab in the 1980s, in Kashmir since the 1990s, and Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand in the 2000s.

The political and constitutional refusal of minority protections and regional autonomy date back to the 1940s and ‘50s, justified by the Indian nationalist movement in the name of maintaining national unity. In fact, these prompted the demand for Pakistan as a separate Muslim state at a very late hour in the process of decolonization (in 1940). The elimination of constitutional protections such as separate electorates, proportional representation and regional autonomy all affected minority groups whether their populations were nationally dispersed like the Muslims and Dalits or regionally concentrated like Sikhs, Nagas, tribals, Mizos, etc.

A second axis of repression emerged early in the 1950s as the Indian state, ignoring the claims of self-determination in Kashmir and Nagaland, sent in the army to take over the territories, claiming these as integral part of the nation. In Kashmir, the elected government of Sheikh Abdullah was overthrown in a coup in 1953, because of his insistence on a plebiscite so the Kashmiris could exercise their right to self-determination. He was replaced by a succession of pliant politicians. They helped to lock down Kashmiri political aspirations through severe political repression until an armed insurgency for independence from India began in 1989. In Nagaland, the army was sent in to crush the movement for independence in 1953, and initiated a scorched-earth campaign of counterinsurgency that created the template for future operations.

Les guerres sans nom

As the current lockdown in Kashmir unfolds as a state of total war against the civilian population, even a brief look at the history of Indian counterinsurgency shows that this is not the first time the Indian state has used this policy. The patterns of state and state-supported violence are repeated across time and space. Sikh widows’ colonies in Delhi parallel the village of widows, Dardpora, high in the mountains of Kashmir; the reports of children being detained and tortured in Kashmir today recall the testimonies from Punjab of young Sikh boys eight to twelve years old killed by police in the 1980s and ‘90s; “village groupings” first used by the Indian army in Nagaland in the 1950s to forcibly resettle rural populations in de facto concentration camps under military surveillance are repeated in Mizoram in the 1960s and Chhattisgarh in central India in the 2000s; the attack on livelihood by burning villages, harvests and granaries in Nagaland and Mizoram is continued in Chhattisgarh and in Kashmir through a digital lockdown.

Other features of Indian state violence include massive human rights abuses — rape torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, desecration of sacred sites — repeated across the regions. These crimes are committed with impunity by military personnel who operate under special laws that protect them from prosecution. National security laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), and the Public Safety Act (PSA) give both the army and civil administration wide powers amounting to a permanent state of emergency lasting for decades.

Indian counterinsurgency has expanded steadily over the years, adding a new region in each decade since the 1950s. Each new operation does not supersede the previous ones; rather, they are cumulative, and the structures of military rule and control initiated in the early decades of independence in the northeast are still in place. These policies have become part of institutional memory for the highly centralized military, police, fiscal and economic institutions and civilian administration. They rest on a political consensus within India that spans the entire political spectrum and accepts the need for massive state violence amounting to genocide to maintain “the territorial integrity of the nation”. While the BJP represents the far right, now become mainstream, there is little dissent within India for these policies.

The ongoing Indian siege of Kashmir is spoken of as a communications blackout, but it is in fact a total war against the civilian population. In 2019, nearly all civilian infrastructure, including medical and emergency facilities, banking, and economic transactions, relies on online transactions. Destroying civilian infrastructure is no longer a matter of bombing dams and bridges as it was in the mid-20th century, or of destroying highways and electrical plants as the US did during the Iraq wars. A few simple clicks and the digital networks supporting essential civilian services for 8 million people are gone. These conditions mean that India is in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention which mandates Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Common Article 3 addresses Conflicts Not of an International Character.

While Nehru is extolled as the great democrat, it was under his leadership that the basic principle of using military force to settle political conflicts in the borderlands was established. It began with the “regrouping” of Naga villages by the Indian army into what were essentially open-air concentration camps. The years from 1955 to ‘63 were a state of total siege. This was Nehru’s war, modeled on colonial counterinsurgency campaigns in Burma, Malaya, Kenya and Algeria. Villages, granaries and crops were burned to force people to come into the camps, under the supervision of the army, though many escaped and hid in the forests. As a matter of policy, those in the camps were kept on “half rations,” to deliberately starve the population. The most vulnerable — children, the sick and the elderly — succumbed.

The abuses of those years are slowly being documented as a new generation finds its voice. Writer Easterine Kire recounts those documented by the International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA). Since 1955,

…as many as 100,000 Nagas were killed in fighting with India…villagers who fled their burnt villages and died of starvation and disease bring the number closer to 200,000.., beginning with the burning of 200 granaries of Mokokchung village. This was accompanied by atrocities like beating a pregnant woman and forcing her to give birth in public, raping of the village women and killing of the menfolk…In 1956 the Indian army began taking prisoners and using them for target practice. Groupings of villagers and tortures of the villagers became routine by 1957…in the army’s inhuman treatment of the Nagas: men were tied to poles and burned; they were buried alive; their genitals were given electrical currents…One of the stories of rape had as its intention the desecration of the village church of Yankeli where four minor girls were raped by the Maratha contingent on 11 July, 1971. The church building was abandoned by the villagers after that incident.

Like the Nagas, the new generation of Sikhs and Kashmiris have taken up the task of preserving their historical memories and seeking justice and accountability, as well as a new political dispensation where these abuses will not be repeated.

Seeing Delhi from Kashmir, at midnight

The comparative perspective allows us to see that in each case it was political repression and the denial of basic rights that led to armed insurgency. It also lets us see the insurgencies as part of larger political movements by regional minorities to exercise their rights to self-determination. In diverse voices and forms, from AN Phizo’s elaboration of the Naga idea of sovereignty as economic independence and equality through the aspirations for social justice expressed in the Naya Kashmir manifesto of 1949 and the Anandpur Sahib Resolution of 1973, to tribal efforts to protect their lands from destruction by multinational mining companies, these constitute efforts to combat the inequalities of caste and capitalism exported by the extractive Indian state from the heartlands.

As the BJP continues to shred the Indian Constitution and its limited guarantees of life and liberty, it is time to rethink the Indian model of statehood. Replacing the highly centralized and violent state with a multinational federation based on voluntary union may be the best chance for a just and peaceful future. With Kashmir now an international issue and the United Nations already engaged, albeit reluctantly, an irreversible process has been set in motion that will result in a political settlement based on self-determination.

The current upsurge of police and military violence against protests within India against the new and profoundly discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act shows that the strategy has come home with a vengeance. Until this legacy of state violence is acknowledged and accounted for in the public discourse both within India and around the world, the authoritarian core of the Indian state and society will remain unchallenged and continue to wreak havoc on all that it controls.

Shubh Mathur writes about nationalism, minorities, borderlands, counterinsurgency, and human rights. She is the author of two books — The Human Toll of the Kashmir Conflict: Grief and Courage in a South Asian Borderland and The Everyday Life of Hindu Nationalism, and is currently working on a comparative history of Indian counterinsurgency since 1947.