Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the nation on Thursday night that he stripped Kashmir of its statehood and special constitutional status in order to free the disputed Himalayan region of “terrorism and separatism.”
Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government imposed an unprecedented security lockdown and a near-total communications blackout in the Muslim-majority region since Sunday night, arresting more than 500 people.
Kashmir is claimed in full by both India and its archrival Pakistan, although each controls only a part of it and rebels have been fighting Indian rule in the portion it administers for decades.
This week, India downgraded the divided region from statehood to a territory, limited its decision-making power and eliminated its right to its own constitution.
In a nationally broadcast speech, Modi described the changes for Jammu and Kashmir, as the region is formally known, as historic.
He assured its residents that the situation will soon “return to normal gradually,” although he gave no specifics.
Modi said the “mainstreaming” of the Kashmiri people with the rest of the nation would expedite development and create new jobs with investment from public and private companies.
He accused neighboring Pakistan of using the past arrangement “as a weapon to incite people of the region against India.”
“I have complete faith under this new system we all will be able to free Jammu and Kashmir of terrorism and separatism,” Modi said.
Pakistan responded to India’s action by saying it would downgrade diplomatic ties with New Delhi, expel the Indian ambassador and suspend trade and a key train service with India.
Prime Minister Imran Khan told Pakistan’s National Security Committee that his government will use all diplomatic channels “to expose the brutal Indian racist regime” and human rights violations in Kashmir, the government’s statement said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said Islamabad is not considering any military action, looking instead at its political and legal options.
State-run All India Radio, which reported on the arrests without details, also said that cross-border firing by Indian and Pakistani troops hit the Rajouri sector of the Indian-controlled Kashmir late Wednesday.
Many people there remain holed up in their homes.
Activist Ali Mohammed told broadcaster New Delhi Television that he has been organizing ambulances to carry sick poor people to hospitals in Srinagar, the main city in India’s portion of Kashmir, since residents can’t even use phones to ask for medical help.
“It’s hell,” a patient told the television channel.
Modi’s national security adviser Ajit Doval visited the region on Wednesday to assess the law and order situation in the country’s only Muslim-majority state where most people oppose Indian rule.
The insurgency that began in 1989 and India’s ensuing crackdown have killed more than 70,000 people.
A petition was filed meanwhile in India’s top court challenging the lockdown.
Opposition Congress party activist Tehseen Poonawalla said he expected the Supreme Court to hear his petition Thursday seeking immediate lifting of curfew and other restrictions, including blocking of phone lines, internet and news channels in Kashmir.
He also sought the immediate release of Kashmiri leaders who have been detained, including Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.
India said it regretted Pakistan’s steps and said in a statement that “the intention behind these measures is obviously to present an alarming picture to the world of our bilateral ties.”
The External Affairs Ministry said it was not surprising that Pakistan has negatively perceived India’s decision to end Kashmir’s special status as Islamabad “has used such sentiments to justify its cross-border terrorism.’”
Describing India’s latest steps in Kashmir as an internal matter, the statement urged Pakistan to review its decision to downgrade ties so that normal channels for diplomatic communications are preserved.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal said authorities were considering a proposal to approach the International Court of Justice against India for its action.
He condemned the imposition of communications blackout and security clampdown, saying “Kashmir has been converted into the world’s biggest jail” by India by forcing people to stay at homes.
“They are taking such actions in a panic,” he said. “They (India) have touched something they don’t know how to get out of it,” Faisal said.
He said actions taken by India in the divided Kashmir region were even being opposed by the Indian opposition and media. He said someone in India challenged the move about change in Kashmir’s status.
Faisal said Pakistan never shut doors for talks with India in the past but India never positively responded to such offers from Islamabad. “Only they can say what they want now,” he said.
He said Pakistan had apprised Washington and many other countries about India’s actions. “We will continue to extend political diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiris people in their struggle” aimed at getting right of self-determination, he said.
An uneasy calm prevailed along the Line of Control in Pakistan’s part of Kashmir, where people living in border villages were awaiting government instruction to migrate to safer places, although some residents had already moved to nearby towns.
India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence over control of Kashmir.
The first war ended in 1948 with a UN-brokered cease-fire that left Kashmir divided and promised its people a UN-sponsored referendum on the region’s future.
Pakistan said it would ask the United Nations to pressure India to reverse its decision.
The government in Islamabad also said it would give diplomatic, political and moral support to people living in Kashmir and their “right of self-determination.”