NEW DELHI (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended his government’s move to strip the disputed Kashmir region of its statehood and special constitutional provisions in an Independence Day speech Thursday, as about 7 million Kashmiris stayed indoors for the 11th day of an unprecedented security lockdown and communications blackout.
In an address from the capital’s Mughal-era Red Fort, Modi said Kashmir’s previous status — some political autonomy and a ban on outsiders buying land and taking public sector jobs in the Muslim-majority Himalayan region — had fueled a movement for separatism and was unjust for Kashmiri women, because the law said they lost their inheritance rights if they marry a person from outside the region.
“The old arrangement in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh encouraged corruption, nepotism but there was injustice when it came to rights of women, children, Dalits, tribal communities,” Modi said in the speech marking 72 years since India achieved independence from British rule.
A lockdown in Indian-administered Kashmir has been in place since Aug. 4, just before a presidential order to subsume the Muslim-majority region into India’s federal government by revoking Article 370 of the constitution and downgrading the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two federal territories. A new law allows anyone to buy land there, which some Kashmiris fear could change the region’s culture and demographics. Critics have likened it to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.
Indian foreign ministry officials have said Kashmir is returning to normalcy, but The Associated Press and other news organizations operating in the region describe severe constraints, including the suspension of internet, cellphone and landline services and steel and barbed-wire street blockades.
On Monday, the streets of Srinigar, Kashmir’s main city, should have been bustling with people going to mosques to pray and to stores to shop for the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. But the streets were eerily quiet. With an ongoing ban on public assembly, security forces only allowed the faithful to enter mosques alone or in pairs. Several of the city’s main mosques were closed.
On the first Independence Day since the revocation of Kashmir’s special status, security restrictions in Srinagar were even more stringent. More than a dozen Hindu activists were detained as they tried to march to the city center to celebrate, according to police officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to reporters.
It was unclear how long the lockdown would last.
India’s top diplomat, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, told reporters on Monday that the restrictions on daily life in Kashmir were “primarily precautionary in nature” and would be lifted gradually. Some have already been lifted in the Hindu-majority area of Jammu, where celebrations broke out after India’s Parliament signed off on the changes on Aug. 6, and in Ladakh, a rugged and pristine area with cultural ties to Tibet that Parliament divided off from Jammu and Kashmir and made into its own federal territory, a change people there had been demanding for years.
In Pakistan, which shares divided Kashmir and has fought two wars with India over the region, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi described Modi as a key hurdle to peace and dialogue between the rivals.
Asked whether the U.N. Security Council will be meet on Friday to discuss Kashmir, Qureshi told Geo News TV station that according to his information, New Delhi was using diplomatic channels to oppose any such session.
Pakistanis and residents of Pakistani-administered Kashmir on Thursday observed “the Black Day” in solidarity with Kashmiris in the Indian-controlled portion of the region.
While daily protests have erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir, Modi has received widespread public support in other parts of the country.
“Article 370 should have been removed a long time ago, but better late than never,” Amarjeet Singh, a businessman from New Delhi, said outside the Red Fort as India finalized preparations on Wednesday for Independence Day.
“It is good. Everyone will be benefited by this, because every common man will be able to work there and start a business there,” Singh said.
On Thursday, turning to his agenda to make India a $5 trillion economy in the next five years, Modi said the changes in Kashmir will help the region contribute more to India’s development.
“In the last 70 years we became a 2 trillion dollar economy, but in the last five years, we added 1 trillion dollars to the economy. This gives me the confidence of becoming a $5 trillion economy in the coming years,” Modi said.
The prime minister, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide victory in general elections in May, also announced the creation of a new chief of defense staff to coordinate the country’s security operations.
He also made a pitch for restructuring India’s electoral system so that state and lower house of Parliament elections are held simultaneously rather than on separate timetables.
Associated Press writers Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, Mariya Amrayeva in New Delhi and Ahmed Munir in Islamabad contributed to this report.