Modi clamps down on Kashmir, and India loves him for it

The achingly beautiful Himalayan valley was flooded with soldiers and roadblocks of razor wire. Phone lines were cut, internet connections switched off, politicians arrested. Public gatherings were banned.

The prime minister of the world’s largest democracy had clamped down on Kashmir to near-totalitarian levels. And Narendra Modi’s country reacted with roaring approval: As he had Kashmir stripped of statehood and its special constitutional status, even some of his political opponents were calling out support.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist by the time he was 10 years old, had upended life in India’s only Muslim-majority state, flexing those nationalist muscles for his millions of followers.

They loved him for it.

“All of Kashmir is ours!” a jubilant middle-aged demonstrator, draped in the saffron-colored scarf of a Hindu, shouted during a New Delhi street celebration just before Parliament voted to end Kashmir’s decades of semi-autonomy.

“Modi has fulfilled another promise,” said a more quiet-spoken supporter, Sushanto Sen, a retired senior manager with an aerospace and defense company, who lives in the crowded north Indian city of Lucknow. “Kashmir is part of India, and whatever rules apply to us should apply to others too.”

To his critics, Modi is an authoritarian manipulator who wants to turn India into an avowedly Hindu nation. But to his supporters, Modi is an incorruptible ascetic unafraid to tell the truth — a man who understands what it means to be poor but, like so many of his supporters, wants India to be treated with respect by the rest of the world.

Indian prime ministers have long been expected to be unapproachable and intellectual. They were people like Indira Gandhi, scion of India’s most powerful family, and Manmohan Singh, with his expressionless face, blue turban and Ph.D. in economics.

Not Modi, who has carefully crafted a different public image. Even as he avoids unscripted moments — he rarely talks to reporters, and most of his appearances are in TV speeches or political rallies — he is still seen by many as an Indian everyman.

Born in 1950 to a poor family in a small town in the western state of Gujarat, Modi proudly talks of his humble beginnings, growing up without running water or electric lights.

He has been separated from his wife, to whom he was engaged as a child in an arranged marriage, for decades. He has no children. Unlike most Indian politicians, he has no circle of relatives hovering around him in search of powerful contacts or lucrative government contracts. He has his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the cause of Hindu nationalism. That is all.

Modi, who first became prime minister in 2014, has reinforced his power with nearly every election since then.

These days, Modi is seen around the world as a pivotal Asian leader. He’s known for welcoming foreign heads of state with bear hugs. He has addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress. He clearly enjoys seeing himself as the embodiment of an increasingly muscular India.

Modi has faced fierce criticism in recent years. It came amid growing attacks by Hindu mobs that attacked Muslims and Dalits, the low-caste people once known as Untouchables, saying they had killed cows, which devout Hindus see as sacred. Some of these self-styled “gau rakshaks” — cow protectors — have ties to the BJP or other Hindu nationalist groups.

Most often, Modi meets the attacks with silence.

Modi first made a name for himself as a roving organizer for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a Hindu nationalist group with millions of followers that eventually gave rise to the BJP.

Many of Modi’s early beliefs were shaped in the RSS, with its heavy emphasis on paramilitary drills, Hindu prayers and personal sacrifice. The current head of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, turned heads last year when he said Muslims were welcome in India, but also insisted that everyone living in India was a Hindu.

Today, Modi’s Hinduism often goes unspoken but is regularly on display. While things like yoga and vegetarianism have little religious connotation in the West, their Hindu connections are clear to Indian voters — especially when practiced by a politician. So when Modi sits in the lotus position in front of TV crews on International Yoga Day, or talks about the benefits of vegetarianism, or names a state water program after the Hindu concept of divine energy, all of India understands the message: Finally, a leader who is openly and proudly Hindu.

Shah, his closest aide, is widely seen as the architect of the government’s Hindu agenda. Both men have long argued for the revocation of special status for Kashmir, a mountainous Muslim state of pine forests, clear streams and highly fertile lowland soil.

Its tortured modern history reaches back to partition in 1947, when British India was divided into largely Hindu India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan. In the wake of the India-Pakistan war that followed partition, when Pakistan seized control of part of Kashmir, the Indian constitution was amended to give special rights to the state, including limited decision-making powers and laws forbidding non-Kashmiris from settling there.

The state, divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both, has been wracked by cycles of separatist violence and brutal crackdowns since the late 1980s, when New Delhi rigged local elections and Pakistani weapons and militants began filtering across the border. Some 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.

Over the decades, most special rights had been whittled away. But they remained symbolically powerful across Indian-controlled Kashmir, where most people want independence from India or a merger with Pakistan. The restrictions on the sale of land to non-Kashmiris were particularly important, seen as a way to keep outsiders from swamping the state and changing its makeup.

But why bother to take away protections that, for the most part, now mean little? Enter Modi, who said he wanted to bring Kashmir more fully into India, ending the insurgency and jump-starting development.

“A new age has begun,” he said in a nationally televised speech last week, saying the old system had created “secessionism, terrorism, nepotism and widespread corruption.”

To some Modi critics, the timing of the Kashmir vote was about deflecting attention from India’s stumbling economy, with its record levels of unemployment and falling foreign investment. But it could also simply be about power.

More than a week after the clampdown began, the region’s main city, Srinagar, is a maze of roadblocks and razor wire. Most communications are still shut off. Sporadic protests have flared.

“I think this place is going to erupt,” said Shah Faesal, a young Kashmiri politician. “It’s a volcano in the making.”

Hours after speaking to The Associated Press, Press Trust of India reported that he had been detained by security forces.


Associated Press writers Ashok Sharma, Vineeta Deepak, Emily Schmall and Rishabh R. Jain contributed to this report from New Delhi.

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