What do Kashmir and Hong Kong have in common? The British Empire

The reverberations of the British Empire cannot be ignored as the two territories remain caught between the iron fists of New Delhi and Beijing.

In an era of ascendant authoritarian populism where minorities have become prime targets for disgruntled and whipped up majorities to project collective insecurities and sadisms onto, centralising states are increasingly consolidating power.

Two long-running conflicts that have again resurfaced over the past few months – in Hong Kong and Kashmir – further illustrated this trend.

The world remains transfixed as Hong Kong enters its 17th consecutive week of demonstrations following a controversial extradition bill, as thousands continue to push for greater democratic freedom in a spectacle played out in real-time that Beijing describes as “terrorism.”

Meanwhile, in the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir, nearly 13 million people are under siege after a communications blackout for almost two months now, imposed by New Delhi after it revoked Article 370 on August 5th, a constitutional amendment that had granted autonomy to Kashmir within the Indian union.

While distinct, both sites of agitation share some common ground. The most evident being that both Hong Kong and Kashmir are autonomous regions with special privileges that define their relationship to the nation-states that administer their sovereignty.

It is precisely this autonomy that the Indian and Chinese governments have been chipping away.

The BJP under PM Narendra Modi has taken a brazen approach, in what appears to be a de-facto land grab. President Xi, on the other hand, has so far avoided a heavy-handed approach but has kept the option of confrontation on the table.

Some 4,000 km apart, Hong Kong and Kashmir share a historical affliction: the enduring legacy of British colonialism. This legacy cannot be erased if there is to be a deeper understanding of why these two regions continue to remain restive.

New masters

During colonial rule, almost half of pre-independence India was governed as ‘princely states’ –or vassal states under the authority of a local ruler with intervention from the British Raj.

This included the princely state of Kashmir, in which a Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh ruled over a Muslim-majority, who, at the time of Mountbatten’s scurried partition in 1947, acceded to India against the wishes of his subjects.

The result has been 70 years of divided Kashmir: two-thirds of the state under New Delhi, comprising of Ladakh, Jammu and the valley of Kashmir, while the other third under Islamabad, consisting of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

Meanwhile, in its former colony of Hong Kong, whose retrocession from the British to China took place in 1997, there was also a structural inheritance: an inadequate foundation, a robust yet ultimately flawed legal-administrative framework, and questionable bureaucratic practices bred during colonial rule.

Agreed under article 31 of China’s constitution, ‘Basic Law’ – drafted on the basis of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration – established Hong Kong as a special administrative region that could maintain its capitalist system, protect individual freedoms and retain common law inherited from British rule, until 2047.

However, Hong Kongers often perceive their officials as being compromised by Beijing, bending to the will of the Communist Party of China and not unaccountable to the people.

The latest unrest was triggered over an extradition bill championed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam – seen as an attack to remove Hong Kong’s judicial firewall and undermine the principle of “one country, two systems” that guarantees its sovereignty.

Lam has been labelled a “puppet” by pro-democracy protestors, who see her as a conduit for Beijing’s interests – that which is nothing less than complete control over Hong Kong.

Old techniques

In India, the post-colonial state’s ethos of ‘unity in diversity’ has now degraded under the steady march of democratically-elected reactionary forces into a project of majoritarian-led cultural homogenisation.

Since Narendra Modi and the BJP came to power in 2014, it has been licensed through a virulent Hindu nationalism to ‘Hinduize’ India and subjugate its minorities.

Analogously in Hong Kong, there is a concerted effort to promote Mandarin to supplant native Cantonese gradually.

While this ideological homogenisation differs from British imperial rule, the instruments of power that Modi and his predecessors have employed – militarised occupation strategies to muzzling free speech – are familiar to Kashmiris as tools used by the empire. Only now its been given an Indian hue.

Moreover, instruments of discipline and control were implemented by the British colonial enterprise to administer its subjugated populations: among these were the criminal justice administrative system and the police, which furthered the goals of colonial dominance through its functions of order maintenance, crime control, and surveillance.

These methods were institutionally transferred from a foreign ruling class to a native one, as the independent Indian state sought to govern the imprecise arrangements that the scuttling British left behind. As the world’s most militarised zone, this colonial discipline is vividly on display in Kashmir.

For both Kashmir and Hong Kong, there was supposed to be constitutional continuity between their respective governances in the transition from the colonial to the post-colonial period.

In Kashmir, these protections were enshrined in the Indian Constitution under Article 370, in which Kashmiris were given autonomy over their domestic affairs (apart from defence, foreign policy, and communications), while Article 35A restricted outsiders from purchasing land.

By scrapping both ordinances, the Modi government has signalled a long-held intention: to absorb a region that long resisted integration with the rest of the Indian body politic.

For some 8 million Hong Kongers, their collective memory following British rule is one which is distinct from mainland China. While China has not overtly dismantled the “one country, two systems” framework in Hong Kong, the current episode demonstrates that swift incorporation into the People’s Republic of China remains Beijing’s priority.

Indeed, the legacy of Britain’s empire in Asia is no longer tolerated by states that inherited its colonial vestiges.

The goal is now total dominion over territories that the Indian and Chinese nation-states see as being incomplete without; even if it means using colonial-style techniques of control and violence to attain that desired cohesion.

Amar Diwakar
@indignant_sepoy
Amar Diwakar is an independent writer and researcher. 
He has written for Al Jazeera English, The Boston Globe, 
In These Times, and other publications.

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