The world is concerned about China’s violation of Hong Kong’s autonomy – but such moves are not limited to authoritarian regimes. India, the world’s largest democracy, has recently abolished autonomy for the region of Jammu and Kashmir.
No state has a uniform population. Individuals are different, and regions also have their own varying characteristics. That is why democracies can only last if they are based on the principle of subsidiarity – delegating a significant amount of power and self-determination to regional and local political and administrative structures.
In cases where a region might be attached to a larger one for geopolitical reasons, it is sometimes necessary to go one step further, granting it autonomy. In such cases, the autonomous zone has the right to maintain systems different from those in the rest of the country.
When sovereignty over Hong Kong was restored to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, the city was granted a special autonomous status. Unsurprisingly, the government in Beijing started chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomy, undermining the “one state, two systems” arrangement. Recently, the people of Hong Kong have come out in large demonstrations against Beijing’s restrictions on their autonomy.
These developments have made major headlines and the Chinese government’s actions are, rightfully, decried. Frequently, Beijing’s moves are labeled as typical behavior for a nondemocratic government.
Another violation of autonomy is taking place in Jammu and Kashmir. Though it has not garnered nearly the same media attention as the situation in Hong Kong, what is taking place in this northern Indian region is, geopolitically speaking, more dangerous. When the Indian subcontinent was divided during the decolonization of the 1940s, Kashmir was split between India and Pakistan, though both countries claim the whole region. They have fought wars over these competing claims, and bitter tensions remain. Making the situation even more dangerous is China’s significant strategic interest in the area.
When the eastern part of Kashmir was allotted to India, New Delhi had to guarantee the region some autonomy. Among other measures, it set regulations limiting non-Kashmiris’ ability to acquire property in Kashmir. (Here it is important to note that India and Pakistan were separated from each other with the aim of creating a majority Hindu state and a majority Muslim state.) This put a de facto cap on immigration – a logical move since the population in Kashmir (more than 12 million in the Indian part) is nearly 70 percent Muslim. Also, most administrative positions were reserved for locals.
On August 5, 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unilaterally revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy. To curb unrest, the internet and some media outlets were shut down, while the police and military violently put down demonstrations. This is the government of the world’s largest democracy engaging in the oppression of an autonomous region.
Moreover, the geopolitical risk associated with this case is far greater than with the situation in Hong Kong. Of course, that does not mean that Hong Kong should be ignored, or that one should not sympathize with the brave people demonstrating to protect their autonomy there.
A new conflict between India and Pakistan could arise out of the Jammu and Kashmir crisis, and is likely to involve China, which already has major disputes with India. Even more important is that India has a Muslim population of some 190 million, not much less than Pakistan’s mostly Muslim population of slightly more than 200 million. Prime Minister Modi’s policies are already biased toward Hindus, and India’s Muslim population had already been concerned about possible discrimination before Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy was rescinded. In 2002, then as governor of the state of Gujarat, Mr. Modi took, at best, a passive role when Muslims were massacred in riots by radical Hindus. That history only exacerbates Indian Muslims’ worries.
New Delhi’s pretext for terminating Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy is that doing so will enable it to improve the area’s development and strengthen India’s unity.
The sad fact is that large powers tend to have no real respect for autonomy in regions that were entrusted to them under certain conditions of self-government. This shameful behavior occurs both in democracies and in authoritarian systems. Yet autonomy is often crucial for a peaceful coexistence and cooperation. It is therefore important to acknowledge that when autonomy is violated, it is as bad when committed by a democracy as by an authoritarian regime.
Today, China is illegitimately trying to erode Hong Kong’s capacity for self-administration, while India, in a brutal, unilateral decision, abolished Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and rescinded its right to self-determination.