The tortuous thicket of laws, constitutional provisions, presidential orders, political history and legal mystifications surrounding Article 370 and Article 35A make it difficult to navigate through recent debates about its abrogation in an informed way. This series of three essays by Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh, lawyer and legal researcher, aims to be a somewhat eclectic guidebook— at times proffering a no frills step-by-step road map, at others traversing some rather more unfrequented and adventurous legal diversions.
In the first of these essays, Shrimoyee looked at:

  1. What is/was Article 370 and Article 35A?What just happened to them?

In this second essay, Shrimoyee deals with international legal questions. What have the changes to the legal status of Kashmir meant in terms of Internationally recognised rights of the Kashmiri people?


In this essay, we look at what the dismantling of Kashmir’s “special status” means in the realm of the international order: the laws of nations, wars and our shared humanity. The question of Kashmir’s international legal status has been an extremely contentious one, and one on which there has been very little serious academic engagement. In India, most legal experts and opinion makers have seemed content to echo, either by their words or their silences, the position of the Indian state that Kashmir is primarily a constitutional question, in other words an “internal matter”. But in the midst of the legal upheaval wrought by the neutering of Article 370, several previously verboten terms – Occupation’, ‘Annexation’, ‘Colonialism’, ‘Right to Self Determination, drawn from the realms of international law and politics, are now being used in the Indian public sphere to describe, debate, or decry the events of 5 August, 2019. In this essay, I will try to unpack some of these terms and address the question of the implications of the constitutional changes for Kashmir’s disputed legal status in International Law.

Kashmir is personified as a ravaged and helpless young woman, as the turbaned Pashtun invader gloats over his conquest, and a UN official carrying a file full of resolutions wags his finger at her. India viewed the UN’s intervention, treating Kashmir as disputed territory instead of Pakistan as an aggressor, as misguided. Shankar’s Weekly, 22 Aug 1948

Questions about Kashmir’s international legal status inevitably lead to a cascade of further arguments over the nature and meaning of the Instrument of Accession, signed in October 1947 between Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir and Governor General Mountbatten of the Dominion of India. Was this document a treaty, that is, an international agreement creating a binding legal obligation between two sovereigns? Did the Maharaja, as the sovereign head of a princely state formerly under British suzerainty have the legal capacity to enter into such an agreement at the moment of decolonization? What effect did the Instrument have on the legal status of Kashmir, and its sovereignty? What did the UN peace processes that began in 1948 mean, and what did they do to Kashmir’s legal status? What effect did the incorporation of the terms of the Instrument of Accession into the Indian Constitution have on Kashmir’s legal status in International Law? What about other wars fought over the region, and other treaties and agreements over the years? And finally, what has the latest move done to Kashmir’s status?

The imperium of International Law

 Before we tackle this torrent, let us embark on a brief detour, taking in the imperial and colonial origins of International Law, and the implications they may have for our understanding of Kashmiri sovereignty in particular, and for claims to sovereignty in the post colonial world in general. Westphalian models of International Law imagine ‘sovereignty’, ‘territory’ and ‘population’ (or power, land, and people) as neatly coinciding attributes so as to form independent, well defined, bounded, and “natural” nation states, entitled to govern themselves and exert a monopoly of force within their boundaries without external interference. Anomalies or departures from this model were seen as terra nullius, empty, unoccupied lands without sovereigns, legally available like other things without owners—wild beasts, lost slaves and abandoned buildings—for conquest through seizure, by civilized and self governing (i.e. White, European) men and nations. In alignment with this legal tradition, and without any appearance of apparent irony, the boundaries of the post-colonies, through the long century of decolonization (beginning with the decolonization of Spanish America in the early nineteenth century and stretching into the liberation of Asia and Africa in the 1960s), were largely determined by the principle of Uti possidetis juris (you may keep what you posses by law) drawn from the medieval laws of conquest of territory in International Law. Under this principle, upon becoming self-governing territories, postcolonial successor states inherit the boundaries, dependencies, and often the governing frameworks of their colonial predecessors. It was felt by former colonisers and colonies alike that once the self-determination claims of the former colonial possessions were realized, and sovereign, independent nationhood attained, their boundaries solidified in perpetuity, and no further legitimate claims to self determination persisted in order to guard against the instability and contentions to sovereignty that may be wrought by colonial withdrawal and transfers of power. This explains the marked reluctance in International Law and international relations to apply the Right to Self-determination “within” the inherited boundaries of post-colonial nations, as instantiated by India’s reservations to Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 as well as the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 on the Right to Self-determination. In its reservation, India states that the Right to Self–determination applies “only to the peoples under foreign domination and that these words do not apply to sovereign independent States or to a section of a people or nation–which is the essence of national integrity.”


The Accession is seen as a swayamvara marriage freely entered into by the demurely sari-clad Kashmiri bride, who choses to garland Indian Home Minister Vallabh bhai Patel, as the priestly N. Gopalaswami Ayyanger smiles on approvingly, and the international community including British PM Clement Atlee, and Stalin, as well as Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali, and other Pakistani politicians look on in shock. Shankar’s Weekly, 24 Oct 1948

The princely states of British India, which covered 40% of the area of the Indian sub-continent, contained 23% of its population, and exercised vastly differentiated, unequal and splintered modes of sovereignty and statehood under the suzerainty of the British Indian government, posed a challenge to the Westphalian model before, during and after partition and the transfer of power. For instance, in the inter-war years when debates relating to the international trafficking of women and children raged in the League of Nations (in which British India was itself an anomaly as the only non-governing state admitted as member), princely states were treated at certain times as sovereign, ‘foreign’ territories with international borders and at others as part of British India, on par with the provinces. In the precipitate prelude to the Partition of British India and the making of India and Pakistan, the intractability of such contradictions became more apparent. The British exit strategy in 1947 attempted a clumsy rapprochement between the principle of Uti possidetis juris, or the inherited boundaries of successor states, with recognition of the sovereignty of the princely states.

While “accession” in International Law signifies the assent by a state to an already existing treaty, the Instrument of Accession was a sui generis (unlike any other) legal contract, devised and codified under the Government of India Act, 1935 to enable princely states to broadly continue the treaty relationship that formerly existed with the British Indian government, as constituent units within the framework of the new Federation of India, set up under the 1935 Act. The Instrument provided the rulers of the princely states a sphere of sovereign autonomy over the internal affairs of their kingdoms while the federal government retained certain legislative subjects specified in a separate schedule (such as foreign relations and military affairs).

The official British position under the Indian Independence Act, 1947 was that British suzerainty over the princely states would lapse with the transfer of power, and all sovereign powers would be restored to princely states, who then would be free to negotiate the terms of their future relations with either of the successor states—the dominions of India or Pakistan—or choose to remain independent. However, in his dealings with them Governor -General Lord Mountbatten cajoled state after state into signing “Instruments of Accession” as provided for under the Government of India Act, 1935, threatening them with ostracism from the international community, including being excluded from the British Commonwealth, should they chose to remain independent. This was in keeping with the ruling establishment of Indian National Congress, including future Indian Prime Minister Jawharalal Nehru, who adopted the classic terra nullius position of seeing princely states as anomalous, feudal, autocracies without popular sovereignty that were carved out of the territory of the greater Indian nation into which they should be re-incorporated. Going a step further, Nehru declared at a meeting of the All India States Peoples’ Conference in April 1947 that any princely state that refused to join the Indian Constituent Assembly would be treated as a “hostile state”. British, Indian, and Pakistani state actions, including diplomatic communications and policy documents at the time of decolonization showed an acceptance of the belief that the Instruments of Accession were binding sovereign agreements, and thus would form opinio juris (opinions of law), an element of customary International Law that binds nations.

Jammu and Kashmir, the largest of the Princely Kingdoms with a Hindu ruler and a majority Muslim population, which had its own Constitution, a partially-elected legislature, an independent judiciary, and laws that provided its subjects quasi-citizenship rights to domicile, livelihood and property, remained a holdout against the pressures to conform and accede, with the Maharaja Hari Singh and his Prime Minister Ram Chandra Kak favouring further negotiations before making a choice. The Maharaja entered into a Standstill Agreement with the Dominion of Pakistan in August 1947, whereby Pakistan as the successor state would continue with certain contractual obligations, and administer the continued operation of postal, telegraph and railroad services in Kashmir.

However, in late October 1947, faced with an armed rebellion and insurrection in the Western quarter of his kingdom in Poonch, presentiments of genocidal violence against Muslims in the South, stirrings of mutiny in the far North, and an invasion by Pashtun tribesmen from the North-West that had almost reached the city gates, the Maharaja fled from his summer capital Srinagar, and hurriedly signed an Instrument of Accession with India, as a pre-condition to India airlifting troops and coming to the defense of his kingdom. The date of this signing is however disputed, with several historians contending that the Instrument was in fact signed after the landing of Indian troops, on 27 October 1947, or never signed at all, thus making it an entirely illegitimate invasion, with no consent of the reigning sovereign. Pakistan questions the capacity of the Maharaja to enter into such an agreement on behalf of his people having signed a prior Standstill Agreement with Pakistan, and whilst two-fifth of his kingdom (Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas of Gilgit and Baltistan) was no longer under his effective control.

The presence of Indian boots on Kashmiri ground, whether immediately prior to or immediately after the signing of the Instrument of Accession, even if for the protection of the Maharaja’s land and people, also lays open questions of the threat of use of force, and the voluntariness of the Maharaja’s conditional assent to the Instrument of Accession. The Maharaja’s letter of 26 October 1947, viewing the agreement as a condition precedent to receiving military assistance to save his kingdom, adds heft to this argument. Art. 52 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969) states that a treaty is void ‘if its conclusion has been procured by the threat or use of force in violation of the principles of international law embodied in the Charter of the United Nations’ and, thus, rejects the validity of even a treaty-based annexation, though of course given the (Westphalian) state-centric model of International Law, the ‘anomalous’ ‘quasi sovereignty’ of Jammu and Kashmir, as a not quite (and perhaps never to be) sovereign state, makes the Vienna Convention at best a guiding rather than a binding axiom applicable to the situation.


This view that there is no valid legally binding document that governs the India-Kashmir relationship, which is shored up by considerable historical evidence, would mean that the Indian control over Jammu and Kashmir was in effect an illegitimate seizure, or an annexationa unilateral act of assertion of sovereignty by forcible territorial occupation or conquest (whether or not it is met with actual resistance), accompanied by the permanent administrative takeover of a state, or disputed territory, by another. Annexations are seen as acts of aggression violating the UN Charter’s rules on the legitimate use of force, and thus are an outlawed act of war, prohibited under International Law. The unilateral actions of the Indian state in changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir from a federal unit to directly-administered Union Territories, destroying the last residues of its territorial integrity and legal autonomy, arguably only further consolidates and perpetuates the initial illegal act of aggression.

India has however always maintained that the Instrument of Accession is a valid and binding legal instrument, in the nature of a sovereign contract (in other words a treaty) entered into between India and the Maharaja, in his capacity as the absolute ruler of (the entire territory) of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. This position was not only articulated by India in the UN debates about the Kashmir dispute, but also by the Indian Supreme Court in the Premnath Kaul case, which involved a constitutional challenge to Kashmiri land reforms, where the Court held that even after the lapse of British paramountcy on the passing of the Independence Act, 1947, “the Maharaja continued to be the same absolute monarch of the state […] and in the eyes of international law he might conceivably have claimed the status of a sovereign and independent State.

What did the Instrument of Accession say? 

If we accept that the Maharaja was sovereign, and validly entered into a legally binding agreement, we must first wade through the deep waters of the Instrument of Accession, and its accompanying documents, which together are considered a part of the instrument under the laws governing international contracts and agreements. Following this, we must venture further and deeper into the processes through which the United Nations and the Indian and Jammu and Kashmiri Constitutions affected the legal position the Instrument sets out. We then arrive at the clearing of what this might all mean for Kashmir’s legal status. The Instrument of Accession sets out the terms upon which the Maharaja accepted or acceded to the jurisdiction of the Dominion of India. Like in Instruments signed by several of the other larger princely states with ‘internal autonomy’, the ruler consented to give up some of his lawmaking powers—in the domains of foreign affairs, communications and defence to the Dominion of India—while preserving his sovereign and territorial authority. The eminent domain over all land in the State vested in the Maharaja exclusively, and land could only be acquired by India if transferred by him. Under Clause 5, the agreement states that its terms could only be modified by consent of the ruler of the state. Further, it was quite categorical on the continuance of the rights of the Maharaja as a sovereign ruler, and of the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir itself, except in the specified spheres listed in the schedule to the Instrument. Clause 7 of the Instrument states, “Nothing in this Instrument shall be deemed to be a commitment in any way as to acceptance of any future Constitution of India or to fetter my discretion to enter into arrangement with the Governments of India under any such future Constitution.” Clause 8 reiterates, “Nothing in this Instrument affects the continuance of my sovereignty in and over this State, or save as provided by or under this Instrument the exercise of any powers, authority and rights now enjoyed by me as Ruler of this State or the validity of any law at present in force in this State.” In his letter accompanying the Instrument dated 26 October 1947, the Maharaja wrote that Indian military aid was sought in return for the Accession. He also stated that that it was his intention to immediately set up Interim Government. On 30 October 1947 he appointed Sheikh Abdullah, the leader of the National Conference, to head the government as Emergency Administrator alongside his own representative, the then Prime Minister Meher Chand Mahajan.

Governor General Mountbatten in his letter dated 27 October 1947, accompanying his formal acceptance of the Accession, acknowledged the Right to Self-determination, and popular sovereignty of the Kashmiri peoples. He wrote: “[M]y Government has decided to accept the accession of Kashmir State to the Dominion of India. Consistently with their policy that, in the case of any State where the issue of accession has been the subject of dispute, the question of accession should be decided in accordance with the wishes of the people of the State. It is my Government’s wish that as soon as law and order have been restored in Kashmir and its soil cleared of the invader, the question of the question of State’s accession should be settled by a reference to the people.”

The Instrument and its associated documents therefore do not lay out a final and complete arrangement in perpetuity, but are rather in the nature of a provisional and conditional agreement, providing for the continuance of the Maharaja’s sovereign title aided by an emergency administration, and contingent upon the provision of Indian military aid in the immediate future as well as the occurrence of a plebiscite once “law and order had been restored.”

War, and (not quite) Peace

In the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Instrument, war was declared between India and Pakistan. The Indian Cabinet referred the Kashmir dispute to the UN Security Council on 1 January 1948 in order to reach a peaceful settlement, with Pakistan also raising its own issues two weeks later. The UN Security Council through Resolution 39 established the United Nations Commission on India and Pakistan (UNCIP) on 20 January 1948 to investigate the claims and counter-claims about the illegal use of force and occupation of territory made by both Pakistan and India. The Security Council adopted Resolution 47 on 21 April 1948 asking that Indian troops and Pakistani tribesmen withdraw from Jammu and Kashmiri territory, that an interim local authority be established to represent the major Kashmiri political groups from both sides of the cease-fire line, and that a five-member UNCIP delegation go to Kashmir to help restore peace and conduct a plebiscite.

The Ceasefire: “Still on foot, UN Military observers have crossed another river and are now nearing the disputed outpost. The altitude here is more than 10,000 feet and much of the footing is ice. The lead man uses the staff of his UN identification flag as a walking stick.” UN Photos. 01 January 1948

A ceasefire was finally negotiated through the UNCIP and a UN mediated Ceasefire Line demarcated and agreed to by both parties in July 1949 through the Karachi Agreement, to be monitored by a peacekeeping force called the UN Military Observers Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). However, owing to intractable disagreements between India and Pakistan, the truce, demilitarization, and plebiscite stages of the contemplated peace process never took place, despite 17 UN resolutions, and various plans, missions and proposals attempting to bring about a negotiated settlement between 1948 and 1971. Pakistan maintained that any demilitarization on its part needed to be simultaneously reciprocated by India, owing to the fear of Indian aggression in taking over the vacated territory in Azad Kashmir given India’s previous annexation of the princely states of Junagadh and Hyderabad. While Pakistan initially withdrew some its tribesmen and nationals, the reciprocal withdrawal of regular troops became mired in controversy when India refused to match the Pakistani offer for withdrawal of an initial tranche of soldiers instead stating that it would only withdraw its air force. India continued to insist the Pakistan be treated as an aggressor, while the UN tended to treat both states with parity, prioritizing Kashmiri self-determination and imposing conditionalities on both. On March 5, 1948 the Maharaja dissolved the increasingly fractious emergency administration (which had been headed by an Emergency Administrator and a Prime Minister) and Sheikh Abdullah was appointed as Prime Minister, the single head of the Interim Government. Controversy about this also soon arose in the UN as India adopted the position that the Interim Government must be recognized as the sole local authority for the entire territory after demilitarization, including the Northern and Western parts (Gilgit and Baltistan and Poonch) of the region, which had declared their “liberation” and established their own provisional government allied to Pakistan, and over which the Maharaja had lost territorial control prior to the outbreak of war.

To this day India maintains that the UN peace process was scuttled by Pakistan’s refusal to comply with UN resolutions asking it to withdraw its troops first as a pre-condition to plebiscite. However, numerous contemporaneous accounts, including by Owen Dixon, the UN appointed mediator after the failure of the UNCIP, blame the failure of the negotiations on India’s obduracy against allowing a plebiscite under a neutral authority and international supervision. Dixon, who was also scathing about Sheikh Abdullah’s “police state,” wrote in in his report at the end of failed talks in Delhi July 1950, “None of the suggestions [about the several options for partition and/or plebiscite that he had proposed] commended themselves to the Prime Minster of India […] In the end I became convinced that India’s agreement was never to be obtained to demilitarization in any such form or to provisions governing the period of plebiscite of any such character, as would, in my opinion, permit of the plebiscite being conducted in conditions sufficiently against intimidation and other forms of influence and abuse by which the freedom and fairness of the plebiscite might be imperiled.”

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The  Delhi Conference, 20-25  July 1950.  According to Dixon’s report of the talks, Nehru monopolized the  conversation, speaking for almost 10 hours, while Ali spoke for barely half an hour.   In a contemporaneous cartoon, The UN mediator Owen Dixon is eager to officiate at a wedding. The groom, Pakistan Prime Minister Liaquat Ali looks pleased with himself,  while Nehru looks alarmed and befuddled at the proceedings.  Kashmir, the bride tries to draw Nehru away.  Shankar’s Weekly, 3 Sept 1950

Constitution making

Even as the UN negotiations were ongoing through 1949 and 1950, the Constituent Assembly was engaged in drafting the Constitution of India. By mid 1949, it had become increasingly clear that the UN was unprepared to accept India’s position on the finality of the accession, or the legitimacy of the Maharaja-appointed National Conference government as the sole political authority over the entire territory of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Though referred to as a “popular government” Abdullah’s administration was appointed in the immediate aftermath of the signing of Instrument of Accession, as an interim, emergency wartime measure, and at the insistence of Prime Minister Nehru. Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference which had been at the forefront of the anti–colonial and anti-monarchial movement since 1946, had boycotted the previous two elections to the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly. Abdullah himself had only been recently released from prison in September 1947, again at the insistence of Nehru and Gandhi.

On 16 June 1949, four days before the Maharaja announced his abdication, and five months before the Constitutional drafting process came to an end, a four member delegation from Kashmir, headed by the Prime Minister of the Interim Government, Sheikh Abdullah, joined the Indian Constitution drafting process. N. Gopalaswami Ayyangar, member of the drafting committee, and later Minister of State for Kashmir Affairs, had proposed their induction three weeks earlier, stating on the floor of the Constituent Assembly that it would be “unfair to the Government and the People of the State of Jammu & Kashmir to deny them the opportunity of participating in the discussions” on the new Constitution of India. The non-representative character of Prime Minister Abdullah’s (unelected) delegation was opposed by some members, mainly on communal grounds, but it was argued by the Indian government that the partly-elected legislative assembly and the pre-war cabinet had fallen into disarray through the winter of accession, war and partition. (What was left unsaid: many opposition figures and prominent voices opposed to Accession, including former Prime Minister Ram Chandra Kak, had been exiled or externed by the emergency administration, using wartime legislation such as the Enemy Agents Ordinance). On 20 June of 1949, after two months of stormy closed door meetings and agonised bargaining with Indian Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel, the Maharaja made a sudden declaration that he was “temporarily” vacating his throne in favour of his eighteen-year-old son, the Prince Regent Karan Singh, entrusting to him legislative, judicial and executive powers. The Maharaja and his wife Tara Devi were never permitted to return to Kashmir and the Maharaja died in Bombay in 1961. Shortly after his abdication and exile, in October of 1949, Article 306-A, which later took final form as Article 370, was debated in the Constituent Assembly and drafted into the Constitution of India.

The Article violated the terms of the Instrument of Accession, which had explicitly stated that the Instrument would not be deemed to be a commitment to the acceptance of a future constitution of India and any other future agreement must be entered into at the Ruler’s sole and unfettered discretion, conditional upon a reference to the popular will once the war-time emergency had passed. Article 370 incorporated the “Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir” as one of the constituent states in the territory of Indian Union, thus over riding the (by then) deposed Maharaja’s sovereign right and title to his lands. It allowed for the negation of the legislative autonomy and sovereignty of Jammu and Kashmir State and its ruler, beyond that which was contemplated by the instrument through the medium of Presidential Orders passed by the Union executive. On 25 November 1949, the day before the Indian Constitution was adopted, the Prince Regent Yuvraj Karan Singh issued a proclamation declaring that the Constitution of India shall govern the constitutional relationship between the State and the Union of India, and will be enforced in the State by him, his heirs and successors. He also declared that the provisions of the Indian Constitution would supersede and abrogate all other constitutional provisions inconsistent with it, which were then in force in the State (under the old Dogra era Jammu and Kashmir Constitution Act, 1939).

In October 1951, India convened a Constituent Assembly to formulate a Constitution for Jammu & Kashmir—in a thoroughly compromised, violent and widely boycotted electoral process in which National Conference candidates stood with the slogan “One Leader, One Party, One Programme” and were elected unopposed in all seventy five seats. In response, the Security Council passed Resolution 91 of 1951 affirming that the convening of the Constituent Assembly and any action it might attempt to take to determine the “future shape or affiliation of the entire state or part thereof” of Kashmir “would not constitute a disposition of the State in accordance with the principle of a free and impartial plebiscite conducted by the UN.” The Constituent Assembly was formally dissolved by resolution in January 1957 after framing a separate Constitution for Jammu and Kashmir, in defiance of the Security Council Resolutions, declaring that the whole of the former princely State “is and shall be integral part of the Union of India”. Even the Indian Constitution arguably only refers to the territory under Indian control, by referring to the “Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir” (the only state whose description is prefixed by its national allegiance). The Jammu and Kashmir Constitution on the other hand explicitly asserts India’s territorial and political claim to the entire territory of the erstwhile kingdom stating that “[U]ntil the area of the State under the occupation of Pakistan ceases to so occupied and the people residing in that area elect their representatives twenty-five seats in the Legislative Assembly shall remain vacant and shall not be taken into account for reckoning the total member-ship of the Assembly”. UN Security Council in Resolution 122 of 1957 reiterated the action taken by the Constituent Assembly would not satisfy its earlier resolutions calling for a plebiscite.

Over two sessions on 23rd and 24th January 1957, V.K Krishnan Menon, India’s Represenative at the UN, made an unprecedented 8 hour long speech to the Security Council collapsing from exhaustion at the end In a now familiar defence of Indian rule, he asked: “With what voice can either the Security Council or anyone coming before it demand a plebiscite for a people on our side who exercise franchise, who have freedom of speech, who function under a hundred local bodies?” The UNSC remained unconvinced passing a resolution 122 (10 votes in favour, USSR abstaining) which declares that the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent Assembly could not be a substitute plebiscite.

But isn’t Kashmir a bilateral dispute?

While the UN continued to pass resolutions urging the peaceful settlement of Kashmir, over the next decade, including after the seventeen day Second Kashmir war in 1965, the resolution of the Kashmir dispute saw little real progress as the UN became embroiled in Cold War-era veto politics. The next major development occurred at the end of the Bangladesh War, with the signing of the Shimla Agreement in 1972. The Agreement converted the cease-fire line in Jammu and Kashmir (as of the cessation of hostilities in December 1971) into the Line of Control (LOC) between India and Pakistan and it was agreed that “That the two countries are resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them. Pending the final settlement of any of the problems between the two countries, neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation.”

Since the signing of the Shimla Agreement, India vociferously maintains that the Kashmir dispute is exclusively a bilateral issue, and dismisses all international debate or interventions, including by the United Nations, as being legally ruled out by the terms of this agreement. India also claims that the demarcation of the Line of Control has overruled the earlier Karachi Agreement (1949) on the UN-mandated Ceasefire Line and therefore prevents access to the UN Military Observers Group from the LoC on the Indian side, despite the continuously occurring ceasefire violations that have claimed hundreds of Kashmiri lives from both sides of the bloodied dividing line. However, no treaty or agreement can overrule the application of all international laws. No issue is purely domestic—the laws of international custom create obligations on nations to abide by a peremptory and universal honour code. For instance no bilateral or multilateral agreement, or domestic law, court or constitution can permit or legalise colonialism, apartheid, slavery, torture, genocide or acts of unilateral aggression or unlawful use of force. The text of the Shimla Agreement itself acknowledges this when it states “That the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations shall govern the relations between the two countries,” and further that “in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, they will refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of each other.” The purposes of the UN Charter as laid out in Article 1 includes “[T]o develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”


We have taken this rather long historical journey to uncover the terrain of the relationship between India and Kashmir, as set out in the Instrument of Accession and as modified by subsequent events and documents. It is clear that at the time of signing the Instrument of Accession, the Maharaja viewed it as a temporary and provisional arrangement entered into with India in order to protect his kingdom preserve and his own power. Through it the Maharaja asserted his sovereignty and control over his separate and independent territory to the exclusion of any other authority. India was granted law-making powers in three spheres, until the final determination of the political and cartographic shape of the region through a reference to the will of the people. The unilateral change in this treaty, effected in the first instance by deposing and exiling the Maharaja and installing his barely-adult son as the Regent, will be very familiar to any student of British colonial policy towards “native” Indian states through the long nineteenth century. The Prince Regent was never officially recognized as the Ruler of the State, as sovereign powers were only “temporarily” delegated to him by his father prior to his unofficial but eventually permanent abdication and exile. The subsequent involvement of the non-representative Jammu and Kashmir delegation in the drafting process of the Indian Constitution, further violated the terms and conditionalities of Instrument of accession, and granted India sovereign rights over Jammu and Kashmir. The Prince Regent’s declaration on 25 November 1949, that the Constitution of India would henceforth govern the India-Kashmir relationship formally incorporated Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian polity. Finally, the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution, 1957 declared a unilateral territorial integration of the region. Taken as a whole these maneouvres granted India effective political, legal and territorial control over Jammu and Kashmir, in violation of the International Law recognition of its disputed status.

International Humanitarian laws define Occupation as the effective control of a foreign territory by hostile armed forces. In my view, when India breached the Instrument of Accession and effected the coercive albeit “temporary” integration of Kashmir into its constitutional framework superseding the holding of a plebiscite, its military forces lost the right to remain on Kashmiri soil and became hostile to the sovereign will and the right of the people of Jammu and Kashmir to determining their own political future. In effect and in that moment India legally became an occupying power. In this regard it is important to emphasize that pinpointing the exact temporal beginning of an Occupation is not necessary under the Laws of Occupation, as an occupation can begin through a series of events and hostilities that effectuate a gradual transition from invasion to effective administrative control. This is exemplified by the difficulties that experts have experienced in identifying the precise date at which the occupation of Iraq began in 2003.

Under International Law, an occupation is a question of fact. International Humanitarian law (IHL), the body of laws which deals with the humane regulation of wars, armed conflicts and occupations, is described as jus in bello (laws in war) as opposed to jus ad bellum (laws of war). IHL, of which the four Geneva Conventions form the core, is not concerned with the justness, lawfulness or causes of belligerency—who started it, or why—but only that wars be waged as humanely as possible, with the least possible suffering and devastation to civilian lives, land, and infrastructure. It specifically protects the most vulnerable—prisoners, the ship wrecked, the war wounded, the sick, and the civilian population of an occupied territory, amongst others—and lays down the principles of proportionality, military necessity and distinction (between combatants and non combatants) to help soldiers and their generals decipher what is and what is not a legitimate target.

This being the case, under the laws of occupation it does not matter if the occupying power denies the nature of its relationship to the territories it administers and controls, or sees them as an “integral part.” The existence of an occupation does not depend on a declaration by the occupying power that it is in occupation or any recognition of the occupation. The intention of the occupying power also does not matter, that is, whether it aims to exploit the occupied territory or liberate the population by its actions does not have any effect on the classification of the situation. Article 47 of the Fourth Geneva Convention expressly states that persons in the occupied area shall not be deprived of the benefits of the convention by any agreement between the authorities of the occupied territory and the occupying authority. Nor does it matter whether the occupying power meets with any armed resistance. Occupation differs from annexation in that it is a temporary sovereign takeover of a territory, where the inherent sovereignty of the occupied territories is not erased but is held in suspension until the occupation ends and the area is liberated or otherwise returned to its sovereign status. The only legal test to determine if a territory is occupied is that the prevailing situation meets the defined factual criteria set out under the laws of occupation. It bears repeating that the IHL regime is not concerned with the moral rightness or wrongness of the acts of invading and establishing temporary political authority over a foreign territory; what it is concerned with is the conduct of the occupying power thereafter to best protect the sovereignty, the population and the continued territorial existence of the occupied territory. It is a breach of these rules of conduct that renders an occupation unlawful, rather than the existence of a set of facts (however reprehensible) that meet the requirements of an occupation.

The definition and obligations under the law of occupation are found in two main international humanitarian instruments: The 1907 Hague Regulations ‘Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land’ and the Fourth Geneva Convention, 1949 ‘Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War’. India is not a party to the Fourth Hague Convention, 1907 to which the Hague Regulations are annexed. However, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its advisory opinion, Concerning the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, held that the rules laid down in the Hague Regulations are part of international custom, which means that they apply to all states irrespective of whether they are party to a specific treaty or not. Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations states that a “[T]erritory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.” The definition therefore requires three things to exist (i) a territory, (ii) a hostile army, (iii) and actual establishment and exercise of authority. Let us disentangle each of these strands to discover if the factual situation in Jammu and Kashmir can help determine whether it is an occupation.


While the Hague Regulations do not mention that the occupied territory must necessarily be a state or a part of a state, Common Article 2 of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 (which India acceded to in 1950) states that the Geneva Conventions “shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance.” Israel and other occupying powers have argued that this means that the article, and therefore the Geneva Conventions, apply only when the occupied territory belongs to a High Contracting Party, i.e. another state that has signed on to the Conventions. Under such an interpretation the Indian control over Jammu and Kashmir would not be an occupation, since prior to the Accession the independent kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir was neither itself a High Contracting Party nor did its territory belong to one. However, the International Court of Justice has categorically ruled that the Geneva Conventions will apply even when the status of the territory is contested. The Eritrea-Ethiopia Claims Commission award, another International Law ruling, also supports the view that the law of occupation must be applied to contested territory. The Commission stated, referring to the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Hague Regulations 1907, that “neither text suggests that only territory the title to which is clear and uncontested can be occupied territory.” The International Red Cross whose commentaries and interpretations of IHL are considered authoritative, states that “Occupation exists as soon as a territory is under the effective control of a State that is not the recognized sovereign of the territory. It does not matter who the territory was taken from. The occupied population may not be denied the protection afforded to it because of disputes between belligerents regarding sovereignty over the territory concerned.” It goes on to explain why this is necessarily the case: “Any other interpretation would lead to a result that is unreasonable as the applicability of the law of occupation would depend on the invading State’s subjective considerations. It would suffice for that State to invoke the controversial international status of the territory in question in order to deny that the areas in question are occupied territory and thus evade its responsibilities under the law of occupation.” This is precisely what India seeks to do when it simultaneously invokes the Maharaja’s right as a sovereign to sign the Instrument of Accession, but denies Jammu and Kashmir’s disputed legal status as recognized in International Law.

Hostile army

The second requirement of occupations, that of belligerency, or outright enmity and war or invasion between the occupying power and the occupied territory, has undergone a broadening in light of the changing character and technologies of twenty–first century wars and the foreign administration of territories. Scholars and lawyers have argued for the applicability of the law of occupations to a range of situations which do not fit into the classical definition of an enemy territory being physically occupied for a temporary period through war and invasion. Situations where effective control was exercised through proxies (for instance in parts of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s), through multinational agencies (the United Nations administration set up post war Iraq in 2003) in post-conflict circumstances for “humanitarian” reasons, or which are so prolonged as to be almost permanent, are now seen as falling within the ambit of occupation law. Several states, for instance Nazi Germany in the case of Quisling’s Norway administration, or Vichy France, or Japan in the case of Manchukuo, have historically invoked or even celebrated the consent of the sovereign and the local administrative surrogate to deny the applicability of occupation law, as India does through its reliance upon the finality of the Maharaja’s signing of the Instrument of Accession and the constitutional creation of the Jammu and Kashmir state administration. However, as the International Court of Justice ruled in the case of the Namibia, after the UN General Assembly renounced the South African mandate over it, consent may be withdrawn at any time, transforming a continuing foreign military presence into an occupation. Even if the coercive abdication and exile of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir did not vitiate his consent to Indian military presence and to the establishment of the Sheikh Abdullah-led emergency administration, the continuing failure to carry out the promised plebiscite, the outbreak of an armed resistance movement against Indian rule in 1989, and the ever escalating deployment of Indian armed forceson counter–insurgency duties against the civilian population, will undoubtedly weigh against India in any objective factual evaluation of the nature of its relationship with Jammu and Kashmir.

Legal scholar Eyal Benvenesti notes that there are “ample reasons” to apply the law of occupation to situations not encompassed by the “foreignness” or “enmity” of rival sovereign of states, arguing instead that the modern standard is one based on relationships and conflicts of interest between the administrations and the populations subject to their rule. Thus he argues any “exceptional regime” where one territory is subject to the control of another, no matter how “friendly” or “consensual,” creates a potential hostile environment and a vulnerable population, because it involves a departure from the universal human right of self-determination. Such a situation therefore warrants international scrutiny and is subject to the basic constraints of occupation law.

Effective Control

The idea of effective control or actual exercise of authority is at the heart of occupation law. The International Criminal Tribunal of Yugoslavia provided a useful checklist of the factual circumstances to determine the existence of ‘authority’ in the case of Naletilić & Martinović. According to the Court, (i) The occupying power must be in a position to substitute its own authority for that of the occupied authorities, which must have been rendered incapable of functioning publicly; (ii) The enemy’s forces have surrendered, been defeated or withdrawn. In this respect, battle areas may not be considered as occupied territory. However, sporadic local resistance, even successful, does not affect the reality of occupation; (iii)
The occupying power has a sufficient force present, or the capacity to send troops within a reasonable time to make the authority of the occupying power felt; (iv) A temporary administration has been established over the territory; (v) The occupying power has issued and enforced directions to the civilian population.

The Jammu and Kashmir Prince Regent Karan Singh’s royal declaration on 25 November 1949 that the Indian Constitution would henceforth govern the relationship between Jammu and Kashmir and India, was a public substitution of the authority of the lawful sovereign of Jammu and Kashmir with that of the Dominion of India. From the terms of the Instrument of Accession, which handed over legislative power over military affairs to India; to Article 370, that expanded the reach of the Indian state in breach of the terms of Instrument of Accession; to the subsequent tranche of Constitutional Orders that virtually overturned the original relationship enshrined in Article 370, and the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution, 1957 that accepted India’s territorial and political authority; it is clear that the India-Kashmir relationship is governed by a legal regime where effective control over Jammu and Kashmir—military, political and administrative—vests in New Delhi. All of the other elements, except (ii) (since the Maharaja’s forces were eventually subsumed within that of the Indian Army), have been quite clearly satisfied in the Jammu and Kashmir case.


As I have suggested above all occupations are not unlawful. The purpose of occupation law is to ensure that the temporary authority of the occupying power is exercised in a way so as to protect the interests and rights of the ousted authority, and the people who live in the occupied territories. The law of occupation thus recognises that the occupying power is the temporary administrator or “trustee” of a territory and establishes a series of positive obligations towards the occupied population, its resources, and its institutions to ensure their survival for whenever sovereignty is eventually returned to them. The duties of the occupying power are spelled out primarily in the 1907 Hague Regulations (Articles 42-56) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (Articles 27-34 and 47-78)

Besides the usual prohibitions under the Geneva Conventions against torture, collective punishment, extra–judicial killings and other war crimes, these rules state that the occupying power must respect, as far as possible, the existing laws and institutions of the occupied territory. It is however authorized to make changes where necessary to ensure its own security and to uphold the obligation to restore and maintain public order and safety and to ensure orderly government. The occupying power cannot annex the occupied territory or change its political status; instead it must respect and maintain the political, legal and other institutions which exist in that territory for the entirety of the occupation. Through the years, India has been in violation of occupation law with regard to Kashmir in many respects. To name just a few: it has instituted fundamental legal and political changes in the region’s governing structures, it has acquired vast swathes of land through militarization and permanently altered such lands and other natural resources, and it has carried out widespread and systemic human rights abuses, including torture enforced disappearances, extra–judicial killings, collective punishment, and sexual violence which are absolutely prohibited under international law and which amount to war crimes when they occur in the context of an armed conflict.

What do the new changes mean?

A wise Kashmiri journalist once quipped to me that when it is before the UN and international forums, India claims Kashmir is a “bilateral dispute”, when it is speaking to Pakistan it says Kashmir is an “internal matter,” and when it talks to Indians it claims Kashmir is not a dispute at all. The growing “internationalisation” of Kashmir, in the wake of the humanitarian and human rights crisis in the region since 5 August 2019, has been noted with shrill alarm from all quarters of the Indian political and media establishment. In the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) hearing on the constitutionality of the abrogation of Article 370 both judge and petitioner agreed that it was the internationalisation of Kashmir that was the real problem, rather than the suspension of civil liberties. But as this history demonstrates Jammu and Kashmir was and continues to be a matter of international law—a challenge to the laws of war, of nations, and our shared humanity. The permanent war and illegal ceasefire violations across the Line of Control that enacts an unending and unresolved Partition of the region, is not separable from the histories of coercive state formation and constitutionalism that deny the Jammu and Kashmiri people the right to self determination and/ or unification, and the brutal ‘internal’ repression of this sentiment over the last seven decades.

The territorial dissolution of Jammu and Kashmir state and the dismantling of the legal scaffolding of the India–Kashmir relationship is the attempted defacement of a stubborn legal trace of Kashmir’s refusal to remain domesticated. By its very existence and in its tenuous provisionality, Article 370 archived other histories, and foretold of other political possibilities, even as it foreclosed them. The changes in Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status and the annihilation of its territorial integrity through the J&K Reorganisation Act of 2019, have transformed the occupation, characterized by the de jure (in law) “temporary” suspension of Kashmiri sovereignty, into a permanent and irreversible annexation of its territory in law and fact. The legal fiction of special status is now legal history. While the nuts and bolts of everyday legalities may take time to work out, in the palaces of justice and the corridors of power, where the law lives out its sovereign lives, where peace and war are brokered and broken, there can be no mistaking the immanent violence of this unilateral change.

Read Part 1




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Shrimoyee is a lawyer and legal researcher currently based in Delhi . She lived and worked in Srinagar from 2012-2018, researching and writing on issues of militarisation, state violence and emergency laws

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