- - Monday, May 18, 2020

In August 2019, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party tried to annex the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. With the stroke of a pen, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government made a mockery of international law, undid decades of international diplomacy, violated its own constitutional commitments and pulled the rug out from underneath the Kashmiri people.

Kashmir is no stranger to Indian state repression. Since 1947, successive Indian governments have brutalized Kashmiris and denied them their right to self-determination. Yet the level of violence, torture and human rights violations being committed by Indian security forces under the Modi government now is unprecedented — even for Kashmir.

Kashmir had already been under a state of continuous siege for the past nine months. Now, the novel coronavirus pandemic has given India another excuse to impose a lockdown within a lockdown. Kashmir is, in effect, under a “double lockdown.” At a time when other countries are facilitating the free flow, exchange and sharing of information to fight the pandemic, India has imprisoned Kashmiris in an information black hole. As if this was not enough, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sneakily introduced a new ordinance to effect demographic change in Kashmir, believing that the world would be too distracted to notice.

To understand what is happening in Kashmir as well as the alarming rise in anti-Muslim violence across India, one must go back to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization that gave birth to the BJP. Enough has already been said about the unsavory origins of the RSS. Suffice it to say that India’s imprisonment of 8 million Kashmiris, and the recent surge in lynchings and violence against Muslims across India are no accidents. They are the deliberate outcome of the RSS’s racist, Hindutva ideology.

Communal violence is not new to India or South Asia in general. But Mr. Modi’s party has mastered the art of using dog-whistle rhetoric and incitement of religious hatred as an instrument for getting out the vote. Whether it was the Gujarat pogrom in 2002 or the anti-Muslim riots in New Delhi this February, the BJP starts to whip up hatred against Indian Muslims and Pakistan whenever it espies an election on the horizon. It is a tactic that worked like a charm for Mr. Modi in the May 2019 elections. 

Flush with electoral success, the BJP is now emboldened to the point where it no longer feels the need to dissemble its real agenda: the transformation of India into a Hindu Rashtra, where all religious minorities — Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Dalits — are relegated to second-class citizens. In fact, the BJP would like to disenfranchise Indian Muslims entirely. In December, it passed a new law that would allow the government to strip Indian Muslims of their citizenship, and dispatch them to detention camps, which incidentally are already under construction.

The demonization of Muslims in India since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, therefore, is no surprise. The BJP has leapt at the opportunity to further stigmatize India’s already marginalized Muslim community by running campaigns on social media with inflammatory hashtags like #CoronaJihad. The result — predictably — is that Muslims are being denied treatment in hospitals and assaulted on the streets.

The world is finally waking up to what is happening in India. The U.N. Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed concern about the new citizenship law, calling it “fundamentally discriminatory.” In April, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom criticized India for instituting “national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims.” Such statements are welcome but fall short of conveying the full extent of the dangers confronting South Asia today.

Last year, Mr. Modi recklessly engaged in months-long brinkmanship with Pakistan that nearly led to war between the two nuclear powers. We only stepped back from the brink after Pakistan unconditionally returned an Indian pilot, who had been shot down after he intruded into Pakistani airspace, as a gesture of goodwill. Soon after his own election in July 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan had promised India he would take two steps toward peace if India took one. Here he was, a few months later, living up to that pledge.

Mr. Modi, however, not only disregarded Pakistan’s peace overture — just as he has snubbed all previous offers of dialogue by Pakistan — but continued to scare up the prospect of war with Pakistan until he had won his re-election.

The world should, therefore, be more concerned that, having failed to break the will of the people in Kashmir and facing a faltering economy at home, Mr. Modi and the BJP may blunder — and bluster — their way into another confrontation with Pakistan. The telltale signs — India’s resuscitation of the tired old canards about “cross border terrorism” and the increasing adventurism of its military along the Line of Control — are all there, if the world would heed them.

Pakistan, India and the people of Kashmir face a common and deadly threat in COVID-19. This is not the time for warmongering. The international community needs to recognize that the Modi government has created an explosive environment in South Asia, just as Pakistan had warned.

Above all, there is need for U.S. leadership. Since he was a presidential candidate, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly offered to mediate between Pakistan and India on Kashmir. He rightly sees resolution of the Kashmir dispute as key to achieving lasting peace and stability in South Asia and unleashing the region’s enormous economic potential. Anyone who shares that vision for South Asia would welcome the president’s offer.

• Asad Majeed Khan is Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States.

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