Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 10 December 2019

Sporadic protests as Indian Kashmir seethes under clampdown

Telephone and internet services were still unavailable after India dropped a constitutional provision for the state of Jammu and Kashmir,

Thousands of Indian security forces kept a lid on protests in disputed Kashmir on Wednesday, helped by the continued suspension of telephone and internet services after the Himalayan region's special status was scrapped this week.

A protester died after being chased by police during a curfew in Kashmir's main city, Srinagar, left in turmoil by an Indian government move to tighten control over the restive region. The death was confirmed by police.

In reaction to New Delhi’s move to strip its portion of Kashmir of autonomy, Pakistan is also looking to downgrade its relations with India, raise its alert status and is considering more retaliatory measures.

On Monday, India dropped a constitutional provision for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has long been a flashpoint in ties with Pakistan, to make its own laws.

Neighbours and nuclear arch-rivals India and Pakistan claim Muslim-majority Kashmir in full but rule it in part.

Neighbours China and Pakistan, which both claim parts of the region, have voiced fierce opposition to India's move dropping a constitutional provision that had allowed the country's only Muslim-majority state to make its own laws.

Streets in the region's main city of Srinagar were deserted for a third day, with almost all shops shut, barring some chemists. Armed federal police manned mobile checkpoints across the city, limiting people's movement.

Most people stocked up with supplies of food in the days ahead of the curfew as rumours mounted that the New Delhi government was about to make its constitutional move, stripping Kashmir of its special privileges. Knots of young protesters threw stones at soldiers, police and a witness said, amid anger over the telecoms clampdown that began on Sunday.

On Tuesday, Pakistan's political and military leaders warned India that they would challenge the Hindu-majority nation's move to strip its portion of disputed Kashmir of its special status at "every forum".

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government submitted the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Bill for a vote by the lower house of Parliament a day after the surprise measure was introduced alongside a presidential order.

That order dissolved a constitutional provision, known as Article 370, which gave Kashmiris exclusive hereditary rights and a separate constitution.

“After five years, seeing development in Jammu and Kashmir under the leadership of PM Modi, people of the valley will understand drawbacks of Article 370,” Indian Home Minister Amit Shah said just before the bill was passed.

Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir since their independence from British rule.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told Parliament on Tuesday night that he feared the Kashmiri people, angered over India’s decision to strip the region of its special status, could attack Indian security forces and that New Delhi could blame Pakistan for it.

“If India attacks us, we will respond,” Mr Khan said. “We will fight until the last drop of blood.”

Local authorities have not declared a curfew, but instead clamped down on non-essential travel and gatherings of four or more, effectively keeping restive people in their homes.

Officials of emergency services, such as hospitals and the fire department, said their staff were also frequently stopped at checkpoints, with access sometimes blocked.

The principal of Srinagar's Government Medical College, which runs the states largest hospital network, comprising about 3,500 beds, has to personally visit district officials to coordinate services or seek approvals, a hospital official said.

"The principal doesn't have any means of communication," added the official, who asked not to be identified. "Police stations have been given satellite phones but not him. That shows their (governments) priority."

Members of the Communist Party of India are detained by police at a protest in Hyderabad on August 7, 2019. AFP
Members of the Communist Party of India are detained by police at a protest in Hyderabad on August 7, 2019. AFP

An armed rebellion against Indian rule has raged in the valley since 1989, claiming more than 70,000 lives, mostly civilians.

But Indian police insist that Kashmir has been mainly peaceful since the curfew was imposed at midnight on Sunday.

New Delhi rushed tens of thousands of fresh troops to the conflict-ridden valley earlier this month in anticipation of unrest over the decision.

The Pakistani military was on high alert on Wednesday as New Delhi continued to send additional troops to its portion of Kashmir. Pakistan's top military commanders met in the garrison city of Rawalpindi a day earlier to discuss the changes in Kashmir.

The bill passed in India's Parliament changes Jammu and Kashmir from a state to a union territory with a legislature, and carves out Buddhist-majority Ladakh, a pristine, sparsely populated area that stretches from the Siachen Glacier to the Himalayas, as a separate union territory without a legislature.

The lower house approved the bill Tuesday, a day after upper house approved it by a two-thirds majority, with many opposition politicians voting with the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Long a semi-autonomous state where only local residents could buy land or take government jobs, Kashmir's new status is as a territory directly ruled by New Delhi.

Updated: August 7, 2019 03:22 PM

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