As Modi addresses India, protests flare in Kashmir
Published : Friday, 9 August, 2019 at 11:33 AM Count : 237
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed the nation Thursday night for the first time about his government’s unilateral decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy, speaking against a backdrop of rising protests, mass arrests and escalating tensions with Pakistan.
Modi defended the action, arguing that it would make the restive territory more secure.
“A new era has begun,” he said.
But in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, protests were exploding as Indian security forces, which had already cut off internet service, mobile phone calls and even landlines, clamped down harder.
More than 500 people were detained in nighttime raids across Kashmir and taken to makeshift detention centers, rights activists said. In several areas, Kashmiris pelted security officers with stones and the officers fired back, with reports that some demonstrators had been killed.
Modi, who seldom makes national addresses, made no mention of the protests. He said that revoking the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and turning it into a federally controlled territory would bring a cleaner, less corrupt government, more security and a stronger local economy.
Modi’s government announced Monday that it was eliminating the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the restive Kashmir valley. The move ratcheted up tensions with Pakistan instantly.
Pakistan, which claims part of Kashmir and has already fought two major wars with India over it, responded Wednesday by halting trade with India and expelling the Indian ambassador.
On Thursday, it followed that up by shutting down a cross-border train, the Samjhauta Express, which has been running for more than 40 years but is often suspended when relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors turn icy.
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the Pakistani minister responsible for railroads, said he expected tensions to remain high for at least a year.
“There can even be war,” he said. “I am not saying that we want war, but we should be prepared for it.”
Most analysts dismissed that possibility. Pakistan’s economy is on the skids and it has become something of a pariah state.
The locus of resistance is expected to be the Kashmir valley, home to about 7 million people, to a small but dogged insurgency and to a lot of resentment. Despite the very tight security lockdown, protesters managed to mobilize.
Police officials reached by telephone said that crowds in Kargil, a mountain town, had hurled rocks at members of the security forces, wounding several, including the district’s top official. Residents of Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city, said that at least three men had been killed during demonstrations there, but their report could not be immediately confirmed.
At times, Modi’s speech Thursday seemed willfully disconnected from reality. While he spoke about improving Kashmir’s connectivity and its digital communication, his security forces had rendered it incommunicado.
In addition to the communications blockade, India has flooded the streets with soldiers and imposed a strict curfew. Already, some Indian news outlets have reported, some families are beginning to run out of food.
Modi did not directly address any of this in his speech, saying only that, “Some people are in favor of this decision and some will have a different opinion.”
Instead, he spoke affectionately of Kashmir’s fabled alpine scenery, saying, “If the situation normalizes, people will come from all over the world to shoot films in Jammu and Kashmir.”
And without elaborating, he implied that the region could be returned to statehood at some point.
“If things improve, Jammu and Kashmir doesn’t have to be a union territory always,” he said.
That was cold comfort for Kashmiris and most human rights activists, who have called the move one of the most undemocratic, unconstitutional and authoritarian steps any Indian government has ever taken.
Many say they suspect it was at least partly driven by the right-wing, Hindu nationalist agenda of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which has a long history of sowing division between India’s Hindu-majority and Muslim-minority.
The move has proved to be quite popular in the rest of India. People just about everywhere outside of Kashmir have celebrated, as most Indians consider Kashmir an integral part of the country. Even progressive politicians who usually clash with Modi, like Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, have backed him on the issue.
Critics have pinned their hopes on the Indian Supreme Court, which has emerged in recent years as the main counterweight to Modi and Hindu nationalism, and as a defender of Indian secularism. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which was incorporated more than 50 years ago and revoked by the Modi administration Monday, had guaranteed Kashmir a fair degree of autonomy from the central government and allowed it to pass its own laws on land ownership and criminal activity.
The article says that any changes to Kashmir’s status must be made in consultation with the region’s Constituent Assembly. Though that assembly disbanded in the 1950s, not long after the article was passed, several legal scholars said the clear spirit of the law was to allow Kashmiris a say in how they were governed.
A legal challenge has already been filed in front of the Supreme Court by one veteran lawyer, ML Sharma, who called the government’s shutdown of Kashmir, “not only undemocratic, but cruel.”
In an interview, Sharma said Article 370 was enacted to protect and enforce Kashmir’s original agreement of entry into India.
In 1947, the last maharajah of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir signed a treaty called the Instrument of Accession that made it clear that Kashmir would join India only with a guarantee of autonomy.
Sharma argued that dismantling Article 370 violated this treaty and meant Kashmir was now independent — again.
He expects the Supreme Court to hear his petition next week; it will probably not be the only one.
On Thursday, Tehseen Poonawalla, a political commentator, filed a separate petition saying the government had violated the constitutional rights of people in Kashmir by imposing a curfew, making arbitrary arrests and restricting almost all communication.
But such arguments have yet to gain widespread support, in India or internationally. Western countries have been careful about criticizing India.
The United States and others are hoping to turn India into a close ally to help check China’s rising influence. The US State Department has not addressed the legality of the move.
And while Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, and Rep Eliot L Engel, D-NY, who both serve on foreign affairs committees, urged India on Wednesday to protect “equal rights,” their statement stopped short of condemning India’s actions.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights took one of the strongest positions.
“We are deeply concerned that the latest restrictions in Indian administered Kashmir will exacerbate the human rights situation,” said Rupert Colville, a UN spokesman. “The fact that hardly any information at all is currently coming out from Indian-administered Kashmir is of great concern in itself.”
In remarks Tuesday, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, said “China is seriously concerned about the current situation in Jammu Kashmir.” She described it as “an issue left from the past between India and Pakistan,” adding that “the relevant sides need to exercise restraint and act prudently.”
Raveesh Kumar, spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, criticized that statement, saying decisions made on Jammu and Kashmir were “an internal matter concerning the territory of India.”
“India does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries and similarly expects other countries to do likewise,” he said.
The New York Times/TF