For two weeks, Kashmir, India’s sole Muslim-majority state, has existed in a surreal state of nonexistence. Since a presidential decree abolished the state, revoked its autonomy and partitioned it into two federally administered territories, the Internet has been shut down, cellular networks have been disabled, and even landlines went dead. Public assembly is banned, and citizens are under curfew. A soldier has been stationedoutside every house in some villages. Eight million people have been cut off from the world — and from one another. Pharmacies are running out of medicine, households are low on food, and hospitals are clogging upwith injured protesters. Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, insists that all this is for the good of the Kashmiris. India’s grip on Kashmir has seldom been stronger. Its hold on Kashmiris, however, has never been more threadbare.
Modi’s sudden takeover in Kashmir is the fulfillment of a long ideological yearning to make a predominantly Muslim population surrender to his vision of a homogeneous Hindu nation. It is also a way of conveying to the rest of India — a union of dizzyingly diverse states — that no one is exempt from the Hindu-power paradise he wants to build on the subcontinent. Kashmir is both a warning and a template: Any state that deviates from this vision can be brought under Delhi’s thumb in the name of “unity.”
Those who believe that such a day will never come — that India’s democratic institutions and minority protections will assert themselves — also never thought that someone like Modi would one day lead the country. Modi once seemed destined to disappear into history as a fanatical curio. As the newly appointed chief minister of Gujarat, he presided over the worst communal bloodletting in India’s recent history in 2002, when 1,000 Muslims, by a conservative estimate, were slaughtered by sword-wielding Hindus in his state over several weeks. Some accused Modi of abetting the mobs; others said he turned a blind eye to them. The carnage made Modi a pariah: Liberal Indians likened him to Hitler, the United States denied him a visa, and Britain and the European Union boycotted him.
[How it felt to be Pakistani in India during the triumph of Hindu nationalism]
But Modi expanded and solidified his appeal among India’s Hindus, a religious majority whose resentment at being invaded and ruled for centuries by Muslims had been papered over for decades with platitudes from India’s secular elites. He used three powerful tools to propel his ascent. The first was sadism, the hint that, under him, Hindu radicals could indulge a dormant bloodlust: After the killing of a Muslim man in police custody, for instance, Modi mused at a 2007 rally, “If AK-57 [sic] rifles are found at the residence of a person … should I not kill them?” (The crowd roared back: “Kill them! Kill them!”) The second was schadenfreude, an exultation in the torment of defenseless minorities: At an earlier rally in 2002, Modi had ruminated on the fate of the Muslims displaced by the recent Gujarat riots, asking: “What should we do? Run relief camps for them? Do we want to open baby-producing centers?” His audience erupted with laughter. “We have to teach a lesson to those who are increasing population at an alarming rate,” he said. The final affect was self-pity, a license for Hindus to regard themselves as the real victims. He told Parliament that India had been a slave nation for more than 1,000 years and claimed that there were forces out to kill him.
Since his 2014 election to the premiership, bigotry has been ennobled as a healthy form of self-assertion. Lynchings of Muslims — breathlessly demonized as jihadists devoted to seducing and converting Hindu women — by aggrieved Hindu mobs have become such a common sport that dozens of videos of grisly murders circulate on WhatsApp groups run by Hindu nationalists. Last summer, a minister in Modi’s cabinet garlanded eight men who had been convicted of lynching a Muslim man. In this universe, Kashmir could never remain autonomous, a place impervious to the desires of a majority happy to see its will done by violence.