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Editorials After Kashmir, is India becoming an illiberal democracy?

A paramiltary soldier patrols the streets of Srinigar in Indian-controlled Kashmir, enforcing a curfew on Aug. 9, 2019.

Dar Yasin/The Associated Press

India’s Hindu nationalists have long desired greater control over the disputed northern region of Kashmir, and last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his move. India’s Parliament scrapped the semi-autonomous legal status assigned to Jammu and Kashmir, which provided a measure of independence from New Delhi. The federal government has also moved to aggressively enforce the new reality: Thousands of additional soldiers were dispatched, lines of communication were severed and public gatherings were banned. Local leaders were placed under house arrest.

Mr. Modi last Thursday, in a national address, declared this marks a new era for Kashmir, one that will free it from years of strife. It is more likely to propel the region, India’s only Muslim-majority area, into a new cycle of conflict and violence.

The scene from Srinagar, the biggest city in Kashmir, remained grim on Tuesday. The Associated Press described a maze of razor wire coils and steel barricades. Drones and helicopters prowled above. Soldiers wore riot gear.

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India is the world’s most populous democracy, and it stands as something of a liberal beacon compared with its neighbours China and Pakistan. But Mr. Modi has parlayed democratic success into the fist of a strongman. In May, he won a decisive re-election for his Bharatiya Janata Party, giving it a second term in government. Together with his Home Minister Amit Shah, Mr. Modi has put a priority on quickly exerting the central government’s control over Kashmir.

The mountainous region has been in dispute since 1947, when British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan. The countries have fought several wars over its status and the Indian side has for years been marked by both violence and government repression. China also claims a portion of the area.

The territory governed by India has long had a distinct legal status, like that of a Canadian province. It was designed to give the region some degree of autonomy and self-government within the Indian federation. This was outlined in article 370 of the Indian constitution. A related article restricted the purchase of land in Kashmir by outsiders.

The BJP has eyed article 370 for some time. Two years ago, Mr. Shah told the magazine India Today that the removal of the article was the answer to the question of Kashmir. Mr. Shah described such a move as “one bitter dose.” He became Home Minister in May and, not long after, helped administer the medicine. It will have painful side effects.

The area was already largely under de facto rule from New Delhi, but the latest moves officially downgrade Jammu and Kashmir from a state to a territory, removing the last pretense of local autonomy.

India is a multiethnic parliamentary federation, just like Canada. Imagine if, beginning 50 years ago, Ottawa had responded to the rise of Quebec separatism by stripping the government in Quebec City of most of its powers, running the province by force and then, in a final act, unilaterally rewriting the Constitution to end Quebec’s provincial status. Imagine how well that might have worked out.

Since last week, voices from Kashmir have been silenced. Mehbooba Mufti, a former regional chief minister, is under house arrest, but before her ability to speak out was cut off, she said on Twitter that Mr. Modi’s actions marked “the darkest day in Indian democracy.” She called the scrapping of article 370 “illegal and unconstitutional” and described India’s soldiers as “an occupational force.”

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None of this bodes well for the future.

In Kashmir, it appears Mr. Modi has taken a cue from China, which has over the years exerted greater control in Xinjiang, a large western region of that country. As part of its campaign, China has remade the demographics of Xinjiang. The former Uyghur Muslim majority, alongside continuing persecution, is now a minority in many cities as more Chinese migrate to Xinjiang.

Opening up the purchase of land in Kashmir could be the key to a demographic transformation more to New Delhi’s liking. The population in Kashmir is about 7 million. The population of India is more than 1.3 billion.

Mr. Modi’s aggression against his own people does little to assure the world that his version of Hindu nationalism leaves room in India for its minorities. He has taken a big step away from liberal democracy, and toward illiberal democracy. It is indeed a new era. It is unlikely to be a peaceful one.

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