Kashmir and the Rise of Ethno-Nationalism

Aug 29 · 5 min read

By Congressman Andy Levin

I first visited India in 1978, fresh out of high school. I traveled widely with my dad, who was then Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. We visited, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Agra, in addition to the neighboring countries of Nepal and Bangladesh.

The impact on me was immediate, overwhelming, and literally life-changing. I fell in love with India. When I went to college, I became a religion major with a focus on the Buddhist philosophy of India and Tibet. I went back again and again, spending a year in Utter Pradesh during college and a summer in Karnataka and traveling around — including in Kashmir and Ladakh — during graduate school.

In a beautiful country where there is so much to experience, I was struck most of all by its religious pluralism and raucous democratic culture. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists — different peoples living together under one democracy. Imperfect, to be sure, but still a remarkable example of overwhelmingly peaceful coexistence amidst superrich diversity.

The India of Narendra Modi is not the India I fell in love with.

Prime Minister Modi, a Hindu nationalist, earlier this month made good on a campaign promise to strip Muslim-majority Kashmir of the privileged status it has held under India’s constitution for 70 years. In revoking the contested region’s autonomy, Prime Minister Modi may have broken Indian law. He has trampled democratic norms and fundamental human rights. And he has heightened long-simmering tensions between India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed powers.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has hinted that this could have dire consequences, warning, “if the world does not act today…(if) the developed world does not uphold its own laws, then things will go to a place that we will not be responsible for.” The threat of renewed violence between India and Pakistan is, of course, deeply troubling. And Pakistan’s human rights violations also demand attention.

But Modi’s actions speak to a broader, global concern: the increased acceptance of anti-Muslim bigotry and the dangers posed by ethnonationalists like Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump.

Modi’s moves with respect to Kashmir, while alarming, do not come out of left field. After all, in 2005, the Bush Administration denied Modi entry into the United States on account of his failure, as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, to intervene during a 2002 outbreak of horrific violence against Muslims. Approximately 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. A New York Times report published that year noted that Modi “offered no consolation to the state’s Muslims and expressed satisfaction with his government’s performance. His only regret, he said, was that he did not handle the news media better.”

Modi’s record on violence against Muslims hasn’t improved with time.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch published a report detailing “a violent vigilante campaign against beef consumption and those deemed linked to it” in India, where many Hindus consider the cow sacred. Nearly 50 people, mostly Muslims, were killed as part of this campaign between May 2015 and December 2018. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hasn’t helped matters; according to the report, “police often stalled prosecutions of the attackers, while several BJP politicians publicly justified the attacks.” Perpetrators are so secure in their belief that they’ll face no consequences that they post videos of beatings on social media. Sadly, their certainty has proven justified.

All of this brings us to this month, when Modi revoked Article 370 of India’s constitution that granted Kashmir its autonomy. He also plunged the region into darkness, blocking the Internet and telecommunications and imposing a strict curfew. While his government claims that everything in Kashmir is “returning to normal,” recent reporting and video show an ongoing lockdown, thousands of people imprisoned, official violence against civilians, and growing unrest.

The United States must make clear that these actions are not befitting of the world’s largest democracy — not only because it is the right thing to do but because, if we don’t, what will we allow to happen next? We are learning the hard way what happens when America doesn’t lead on the global stage to protect human rights and democracy.

Prime Minister Modi’s second term has only just begun. Brazil’s right-wing leader, Jair Bolsonaro, is trampling indigenous rights as he allows frightening amounts of the Amazon rainforest to go up in flames. Next month, Israel will decide whether to give another term as prime minister to Netanyahu, who’s promised to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, further jeopardizing the decades-long hope for a peaceful, two-state solution that respects the rights and dignity of the Israeli and Palestinian people.

And all of this plays out under the specter of an American president who has stoked bigotry and violence in our own nation and globally, preferring the company of dictators and human rights violators to democrats and allies.

Donald Trump’s nightmarish presidency has forced us, as Americans, to consider what kind of country we want to be. Do we want to mimic those who ignore the human dignity of people not like them and prey on the most vulnerable? Or will we stand up for liberty and justice for all? It should not be a tough decision, but it will take courage — courage to call not just on our adversaries, but on our allies and ourselves, to live up to democracy’s ideals.

The India that I love can still be saved, but Prime Minister Modi puts it in grave danger with moves like revoking Article 370. Rather than unilateral action, this decades-old, immensely complex issue will require thoughtful solutions crafted by the parties and global community working together. We must not let actions like those taken by India become a global trend, even as our President fans the flames and shuns the very ideals of multilateralism and collaboration.

Clearly, it’s up to us in Congress to speak for America.

The United States House of Representatives must stand up for human rights in Kashmir and around the world, ideally on a bipartisan basis, and with the Senate at our side. That is what I came to Congress to do.

Andy Levin represents Michigan’s 9th District in Congress. He is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and its Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Nonproliferation.

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