As security ramped up in Kashmir ahead of India’s 73rd Independence Day, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended his government’s controversial measure to strip the disputed region of its statehood and special constitutional provisions.
- The unprecedented lockdown in Kashmir has affected some four million people
- Narendra Modi said stripping Kashmir of its statehood would restore it to its “past glory”
- Imran Khan accused India of planning military action in the disputed region
In a national address from the Mughal-era Red Fort in New Delhi on Thursday, Mr Modi said the snap August 5 decision, which he hailed as a “major achievement”, would help unify the country and restore the region to its “past glory”.
He said Article 370, the constitutional provision that granted Kashmir special status had only fuelled a movement for separatism and was unjust for women, adding that the region would play an “important role” in India’s development.
The unprecedented security lockdown and a near-complete communications blackout affecting about four million residents of the Kashmir Valley have been in place since August 4, just before the presidential order to subsume the Muslim-majority region into India’s federal government by downgrading it from a state to a union territory.
Just a day earlier, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan used his own address celebrating Pakistan’s August 14 Independence Day to accuse India of planning military action in Kashmir, a disputed region that has long been a flashpoint between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
He threatened to “teach Delhi a lesson” and said the army was preparing to respond to anticipated Indian aggression in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
“The Pakistani army has solid information that [India] are planning to do something in Pakistani Kashmir, and they are ready and will give a solid response,” Mr Khan said.
Islamabad retaliated to the August 5 decision by suspending bilateral trade and all public transport links with India, as well as expelling New Delhi’s ambassador to Islamabad.
On Wednesday, Mr Khan travelled to Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, marking his first visit to the region since becoming Pakistan’s leader in 2018.
In a speech he told the region’s Parliament that India planned more extensive action than that in February, when its fighter jets struck inside Pakistan following a dramatic escalation in tension between the rivals.
“They have made a more horrendous plan to divert world attention from their move in Kashmir; they plan action in Azad Kashmir,” Khan said, referring to the portion held by Pakistan.
“The Pakistani army is fully aware that [India] have made a plan of taking action in Azad Kashmir.”
Mr Khan also repeated comments comparing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, to the German Nazi Party.
Mr Modi did not respond to Mr Khan’s remarks but used his address to announce the establishment of a new Chief of Defence with authority over all three of the country’s armed forces, the first such post in the history of independent India.
The new chief would also have control over funding for the military, which is struggling to modernise its Soviet-era equipment.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist ruling group has long promoted national security as a top priority to face the challenge from Pakistan and China, with which it shares disputed borders.
India rules the populous Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city, while Pakistan controls Azad Kashmir, a wedge of territory in the west.
China holds a thinly populated high-altitude area in the north.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir since gaining independence from colonial power Great Britain in 1947.
They came close to a third in February after a deadly attack on Indian police by a Pakistan-based militant group resulted in air strikes by both countries.
India’s revocation of special status for Jammu and Kashmir blocks the state’s right to frame its own laws and allows non-residents to buy property there.
In Islamabad, posters urged residents to express solidarity with Kashmiris and roadside vendors sold Azad Kashmir flags as well as the Pakistan flag commonly displayed on August 14.
Pakistan has also said it will observe India’s Independence Day on August 15 as a “black day” this year, with flags flown at half mast on government buildings in protest at India’s decision.
Life under lockdown in Kashmir ‘grim’
A team of activists and scholars released a report this week painting a bleak picture of Indian-administered Kashmir, challenging official government accounts that life is returning to normal amid an indefinite curfew and communications blackout.
The report, presented in New Delhi, found that people living under the security lockdown expressed “enormous anger and anguish” in response to the surprise move by Mr Modi.
It said protests had occurred daily, though the constraints on movement and communication mean that the response had been largely subdued.
The report’s authors, including economist Jean Dreze, described the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir as “grim” and said the clampdown had “crippled economic life” there. The team said it travelled to towns and villages the length of the Kashmir Valley between August 9 and 13, including southern areas that had been recent hotbeds of rebel activity.
Maimoona Mollah, an activist on the fact-finding team, likened the situation in the region to Israel’s security protocol in the Palestinian territories.
“Kashmir is like an open jail,” said Vimal Bhai, another activist on the team.
Although the four million residents of the Kashmir Valley, where an insurgency has simmered for decades, are used to blockades, residents said that what they were experiencing was unprecedented.
In one of several videos and photos the activists showed reporters, a boy can be heard saying he was released from police custody one day before Eid, the Muslim holiday that was celebrated on Monday.
In the video, which doesn’t show his face, the boy, who says on camera that he is 11 years old, describes being held in custody and beaten up.
Other people in the activists’ videos who were filmed with the camera pointed away from their faces said the region witnessed sporadic protests, some of which were met with force by Indian paramilitary forces.
A spokesman for India’s Home Ministry tweeted on Wednesday that law enforcement in the portion of Kashmir controlled by India had “showed restraint,” and that no bullets had been fired in the region.