Authoritarianism marches on in South Asia


India acted similarly to Russia, as the hegemon of South Asia, doing what it wanted to because it could, writes William Milam

by William Milam August 25, 2019

I promised friends that I would write more this week about the contradictions and trade-offs involved in governing countries which revere free speech but face internal extremist threats. But the sudden annexation of Kashmir by India has stopped me cold from thinking about anything else. There are many other reasons to be concerned about India’s action last week, but for me it was the signal it sent to the world of the blatant and unapologetic authoritarian nature of the present Indian government—which has been growing steadily in India—that alerted me to a new and dangerous situation.

What else can you call India’s action vis a vis Kashmir but an annexation? It flaunted democratic norms as well as international agreements. In a sense, India copied Russia which annexed Crimea in March 2014 despite Western governments crying foul loudly. But the West did no more than levy sanctions on Russia for its blatant action. The Russians acted like what they are, the hegemon of Eastern Europe, and the major powers of the West, while making lots of noise and using their favourite non-lethal weapon, economic sanctions, were not interested in directly challenging Russia militarily over a territory that Russia could argue it gave to Ukraine in 1954, and that also after the Russian invasion of 2014.had voted (in a clearly rigged plebiscite) for rejoining the Russian Federation. Nor do I think that the West will even sanction India, which masquerades still as “the world’s largest democracy.”

India acted similarly to Russia, as the hegemon of South Asia, doing what it wanted to because it could. Perhaps it acted more brutally because unlike Crimeans, many of whom surely wanted to join Russia, very few of the Mulsim majority of the Kashmir valley, wanted Kashmir to be incorporated into the Indian State. Given the history of the past 70 years when it has enjoyed “special status,” which was supposed to mean semi-autonomy, this has been the thin reed the Muslim Kashmiris have held onto as their lifeline to real autonomy, even independence. In fact, the autonomy so dearly held, began to slip away in 1954,when the head of the government was removed by fiat and replaced by a politician more amenable to Indian guidance. It has totally disappeared in the years since. Autonomy was a word for many years in Kashmir, though there was little or none, and India has ruled Kashmir directly and openly, with the help of many thousands of troops, since the late 1980s.

Let me make my position clear at this point, as I do not want to be seen as unbalanced and partisan on this issue. The issue is so fraught with emotion that no matter what one writes, it is sure to attract much calumny from many who are wrapped up emotionally in it. I don’t think I am much different than many others; my sympathy has always been for the Kashmiri people, who I think have been the innocent pawns, for the most part, of a power struggle between 2 cynical powerful governments, India and Pakistan, one of which held most of the cards and the other desperate (but unable) to punch at same level and have a chance to even the struggle, both of which thought mainly of their strategic and political interests, and almost never of the welfare of the Kashmiri people.

Which of the two is more to blame for their Kashmiri suffering and sorrow? Both bear great responsibility; coming from an imperial country in denial, one which took half of a continent by force of one sort or another, I felt very sorry for the loss that motivated Pakistan to fight on in a hopeless cause. But its use, for the most part, of proxies in that fight left a bad taste in the mouth, and certainly increased the danger of war between the two, as well as prolonged the suffering of the Kashmiris. Had Pakistan thrown in the towel two or three decades ago, I suspect, there would have been a propitious moment when an autonomous state with open borders might have been created. But, fundamentally, it was India that went back on the 1947 pledge made to the ruler of Kashmir to make it a semi-autonomous state, and which in later years rigged the 1987 election causing the uprising, and which garrisoned the state with thousands of it troops to put down that uprising and maintain order and control. India has continued to believe that people who didn’t want to be Indian could be assimilated by lack of an alternative; Pakistan has continued to believe that just because Kashmiris of the valley are Muslim, they wanted to join Pakistan, while really what they wanted was independence from both.

Until recently, I believed both sides shared almost equal blame. However, the almost Nazi-like (or Putin-like, if you consider the Nazis out of fashion as trademark authoritarians) actions of the Modi government took in effecting the annexation—shutting down the state, blacking out communications so Kashmiris and other Indians knew nothing about what was happening in Kashmir except through government spokespersons, arresting first many who might object before announcing their action—is so reminiscent of how the Fascists operated to override all opposition to their seizure of others’ territory that it announces an authoritarian arrogance that must be called out for what it is. India unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the constitution that provided for autonomy without reference to the international understandings that established it, or to international comity which has hitherto guided discussions of the issue, and without reference to the Kashmiris’ preferences—in other words it ignored the UN resolution which sets Kashmiri preferences as the baseline of efforts to solve the issue. If such doesn’t remind us of Hitler’s takeover of, say, Czechoslovakia, or Mussolini’s takeover of Libya or Ethiopia, or Putin’s takeover of Crimea, I don’t know what does. I think it is clear that the latest arrival on the authoritarian stage is India, and the so-called world’s largest democracy is just a cover for a new authoritarian state. Whether the Indian media can hold the government accountable is doubtful, so who or what will hold it accountable. It looks to me as if there will be no accountability, not even the international sanctions that penalize Russia for its annexation of Crimea. How tempting an example for other aspiring autocrats.

As if democracy wasn’t in bad enough shape in South Asia, India now comes out of the closet. We read scare stories that democracy is in retreat everywhere, but until now, Indian democracy seemed to be a bulwark in South Asia. There seems nowhere we can look now? Pakistan, for example, under the Imran khan government in tandem with its military support, has cracked down on free speech, restricting and harassing the media even more than previous governments did. I find it remarkable that the Pakistani government and the Army have not seen how similar Indian treatment of Kashmiris looked to the enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and the extrajudicial killings that were visited on Pashtuns in the Tribal areas  a year or two ago. It was not possible for some time to bring this situation to general public attention through the media. There is no accountability without an active and free media, and without accountability, Pakistan continues to move toward more authoritarian governance.

I need not repeat my conclusions about Bangladesh’s authoritarian future. For the foreseeable future, Bangladesh is locked into an Orwellian nightmare of pervasive surveillance, no rule of law, unaccountable and arbitrary police and judicial power, and mythic glorification of the Awami League and its founders and leaders. Where we used to look to Bangladesh for democratic inspiration, we now look to it as a model of South Asia’s political future, at least for the coming decade.

The writer is an American diplomat and Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. 

The article appeared in the Friday Times on 23 August 2019


  1. Ambassador Milam:
    I am an ardent fan of your work. I enjoyed reading the book you wrote, "Bangladesh and Pakistan – Flirting with Failure in South Asia, and have incorporated it into my scholarly research on South Asia. In your analysis of the current Modi government based on it strategy in regards to Kashmir, I had question to ask you. I have read various narratives on the issue. You mention in your piece about the UN resolutions that India has failed to oblige by, giving the right to Kashmiris for a plebscite. From my understanding of the UN Graham Commission work, that was conditional upon Pakistan withdrawing troops from the region, which did not occur. So why is India obligated to do so. What was done with Kashmir was done by all of the other princely states, with the signing of the Instrument of Ascension, so if India were not to go by it…what would that mean for the rest of the princely states that did? As far as India current behavior, while I see where you are coming from, Sir. Personally, I believe that the status quo for Kashmir, (i.e.) giving it up will never occur, primarily for the secularism argument that was used to retain it as being a Muslim majority state in a "Hindu majority country" that can co-exist… I welcome your thoughts. Warm regards, Rajit

    • You are partially correct. In the plebiscite resolution, India could retain its troops while PK was to quit completely. If that were to happen, then what happened now would have happened in 1948. By the way PK tribals backed by the troops came into Kashmir AFTER the massacre of Muslims in Jammu where at least 20,000 and at most 237000 Muslims were blatantly murdered by maharaja troops whose Prime Minister Mahajan gave the orders, and RSS cadres as well as the Sikhs. Please check it out. And if I am wrong pls let me know. My em is [email protected].

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