It is tempting, as many have attempted, to compare the ongoing uprising in Hong Kong and the siege-like situation in Kashmir after the removal of special status. At most, there are points of similarities and elements that tempt comparison, but they are dwarfed by the many differences between the two.
By comparing or equating Hong Kong and Kashmir, there is a risk of doing a disservice to both. Kashmir has been in dispute between two countries, India and Pakistan, since 1947. The territory is divided between the two and until now, has dictated the nature of relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. In fact, Kashmir has often been described as one of the world’s hotspots which could spark off a nuclear conflict.
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Though Kashmir was accorded a special status under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, the federal government in New Delhi on August 5 this year all but scrapped that privilege. The special status came about by an agreement between the framers of the Constitution and a section of Kashmir’s leadership led by Sheikh Abdullah during the fractious period of British India’s partition into independent India and Pakistan 72 years ago.
Hong Kong was a British colony which it exited in 1997 after handing it over to China. The transfer was guaranteed by an explicit 50-year agreement that enabled Hong Kong to retain some its rights and autonomy while Beijing took over defence and foreign affairs completely.
Called the “One Nation Two Systems” agreement, the unrest since June this year is because of a perceived attempt by the central government in Beijing to dilute the island territory’s autonomy. It was triggered when the Hong Kong local government tried to amend the law to make it possible for accused in criminal cases to be extradited and tried in mainland China.
The dilution, if not removal, of autonomy by Delhi and Beijing without an open and public discussion with the local people is possibly a key strand of commonality in the two situations.
This has led to an ironical situation turning commonly-understood terms like democracy and totalitarianism on its head. In the case of Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist government in Beijing has tolerated the protests, like a textbook democratic government would, and let it run its course.
The government has even withdrawn its move on the extradition issue, removing the original reason for the unrest. But the uprising has not ended. Protesters are now demanding more democratic reform and the uprising continues.
However, until now, there has been no open call to secede from China and to that extent, the central government does not perceive a threat to its sovereignty. But that cannot be ruled out, going by President Xi Jinping’s recent warning that he will not allow a breakup of his country.
In the case of Kashmir, the situation is unprecedented. The government in Delhi, in a move that took everyone by surprise, cleared the territory of visitors, locked down the state and then in a questionable move, removed the special status to Kashmir under Article 370 by an act of Parliament.
The state has been divided into two Union territories, which means they come under Delhi’s direct rule. The government’s action, incidentally, has been challenged by a slew of petitions in the Supreme Court alleging that the move is unconstitutional.
In a totalitarian-like move by a democratic state, the central government on August 5 cut off the state from communication links of all kind, arrested leaders of all mainstream pro-India political parties, leading to a total shut down — of a kind never seen before. It is only now, after over two months that there appears to be a gradual move to lift the siege.
The risk in comparing Hong Kong and Kashmir is it will prevent examining each issue on its own merit and may cause distortions in understanding both. For instance, there is no simple solution to the Kashmir dispute. It is not yet clear how removal of special status will pave the way for a resolution though the Modi government claims it will.
On the contrary, there is a risk of the move backfiring. Kashmir has in the past been witness to periods of intense violence as the one between 1989 and 2001. Despite the presence of troops, direct control from Delhi and treating it like a law and order situation, the outcome is unpredictable.
With the state alienating mainstream local politicians by detaining them, the cushion they provided the Indian state in dealing with the Kashmiri separatists is now bound to have frayed. Amidst this, Pakistan is watching from across the border and if past instances are anything to go by, will find more fertile ground to instigate the locals.
In the case of Hong Kong, the Chinese government is probably not keen on using its massive muscle power to stifle the protests. The negative global publicity the government received in the manner it violently put down the non-violent student uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989 is something that it may want to avoid now.
From all indications, Beijing may well be allowing the unrest to subside on its own with minimal usage of state forces. It would seem that Hong Kong is a simpler issue to resolve than Kashmir is, for the issue is not about territory but on administrative differences. Comparing the two therefore does no credit to either.