From Hong Kong to Kashmir, a new authoritarianism is on the rise

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

17 August 2019

9:00 AM

Frank Johnson, editor of The Spectator until cruelly sacked to make way for Boris Johnson, never wasted ideas. He liked to reuse them. Often. Every summer he would write the same column attacking the silly season.

August, Mr Johnson maintained, was not silly at all. The first world war started in August. The Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in August. Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland in August. Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait also in the horror month of August. Once again August has vindicated Mr Johnson — and not only because of Brexit. Darkness has descended on the former princely state of (British-controlled) Kashmir. Meanwhile freedom is dying in the former British colony of Hong Kong.

These two events are reported as if unconnected. Yet they are part of a global pattern: centralising states crushing minorities while liberals impotently wring their hands. Narendra Modi’s India is following the model of authoritarian populism pioneered by Putin’s Russia, Netanyahu’s Israel (West Bank, Gaza), Erdogan’s Turkey, Trump’s America, Duterte’s Philippines and Xi’s China (Tibet, East Turkestan, now Hong Kong).

While the Hong Kong tragedy is played out on live television, 14 million under-siege Kashmiris suffer a communications blackout. Well over half a million Indian troops are on their streets. Armoured cars and jeeps are outside every row of shops and at the end of every road. Researching this article I made repeated attempts to contact Kashmiri friends. One of them is a poet, the other a local journalist. It was as if they had vanished off the face of the earth.

Finally one of my friends escaped from Kashmir to send me this email: ‘Nearly eight million Kashmiris are literally the prisoners in their own land. More than 3,000 Kashmiris have been arrested, detained or kept in preventive custody. Many moved to various Indian jails, mostly political workers, civil society members, and traders.

‘I wasn’t able to greet my father on Eid and he lives only 11km from my place in Srinagar. All colleges, schools and government offices shut since 4 August. Eid prayers were disallowed at all major mosques on 12 August. There is total breakdown of communication channels. Information blockade of unprecedented proportions which we, in Kashmir, have never witnessed in the past three decades.

‘Today I am able to connect with the rest of the world as I got outside, and was able to see your mail as well. Hitler’s Nazi regime is back in a new avatar in India. We in Kashmir are in a concentration camp.’

The problem dates back to Mountbatten’s partition of India. In 1947 the Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, opted for India in defiance of the wishes of his largely Muslim population. War broke out within months (the first of three wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir).

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder, ordered his commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Gracey (a British officer who stayed on after Independence to run the Pakistan army) to defend the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar against advancing Indian forces. But Gracey refused, insisting that he owed his loyalty to Field Marshal Auchinleck in Delhi. Rather than having Gracey shot for disobeying orders, Jinnah caved in. India agreed to a plebiscite, which has not taken place.

The result: more than 70 years of divided Kashmir. For many years it was possible to argue that this was not such a bad thing. In India, Congress laid claim to be a progressive manifestation of Asian liberal democracy which treated minorities well and respected the rule of law. Meanwhile Pakistan succumbed to a succession of military dictatorships, often in alliance with right-wing religious parties which terrorised Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, as well as the Ahmadiyya and Shi’a Muslim communities.

This has changed. Pakistan’s new prime minister, Imran Khan, has become a champion of minority rights, giving the Hindu religious sites of Panj Tirath national heritage status while allowing visa-free travel for Indian Sikhs to sacred shrines in Pakistan. Terrorism is still a problem, but it’s receding.

By contrast, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP party have licensed a murderous new Hindu nationalism which has turned its back on the profound tolerance of Gandhi and Nehru, founding fathers of modern India. In 2005 Modi was banned from travelling to the United States because of his role in fomenting violence against Muslims while he was chief minister of Gujarat. On Monday 5 August, the government unexpectedly removed the near-autonomous status of the Jammu and Kashmir territory. This gives New Delhi far more control over the region and also means people outside the state can now buy property in the Muslim majority area. Some critics warn this may turn Kashmir into something like the occupied West Bank with settler movements permitted to take over land in defiance of the wishes of the local population.

Others point out it’s part of a long campaign waged against Muslims since Modi became Prime Minister in 2014. Imran Khan warned that the move was an attempt ‘to change the demography of Kashmir through ethnic cleansing’. He then asked: ‘Will the world watch and appease as they did Hitler at Munich?’ Khan’s moral case would be stronger if he wasn’t relying on the support of Xi’s China, which is doing much the same in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

The parallels with the attack on the Hong Kong Chinese, most of whom do not regard themselves as part of mainland China, are undeniable. When Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, the locals were granted important freedoms of speech and assembly. Much of this independence has been stolen. China, for example, routinely kidnaps political activists from Hong Kong’s streets and takes them to mainland China.

History has gone into reverse. Ever since Nixon went to Beijing in 1972, China and India had seemed to go down two divergent routes of economic and political development. The Communist party has continued to run economically buoyant China through a new model of authoritarian capitalism in contrast with India’s tolerance and pluralism. Now China and India look like manifestations of the same terrifying phenomenon.

Meanwhile Brexit Britain has little to say about this. The inexperienced new Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has managed a few empty phrases of condemnation of China. But neither Raab nor Sir Dominic Asquith, Britain’s High Commissioner in New Delhi, has breathed a word of criticism of India’s power grab in Kashmir. Approximately one million Britons can trace their origins there. They will feel angered by what looks more and more like British complicity in Modi’s latest attack on India’s Muslim minority.

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