Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed on Thursday his “path-breaking” move to strip the restive region of Kashmir of its autonomy, in a tub-thumping speech on India’s Independence Day.

Parts of Kashmir that India controls – it is split with arch-rival Pakistan – have been under lockdown since August 4, with freedom of movement restricted and phones and the internet cut.

A day later New Delhi scrapped Article 370 in the Indian constitution that had granted Kashmir special status, splitting the state of Jammu and Kashmir in two and downgrading them to union territories.

Modi, in a speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi, said on Thursday that the decision was one of several “path-breaking” moves by his newly re-elected administration.

He said “fresh thinking” was needed after seven decades of failure to ensure harmony in the region.

“We do not believe in creating problems or prolonging them. In less than 70 days of the new government, Article 370 has become history. And in both houses of parliament, two-thirds of the members supported this step,” said Modi, 68.

“Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh will become a big inspiration for India’s growth journey, comfort, progress and peace,” he said. Ladakh is the newly carved-out union territory.

“The old arrangement in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh encouraged corruption and nepotism, as well as injustice when it came to rights of women, children, (low-caste) Dalits, tribal communities. Their dreams get new wings,” he said.

Extra troops

Pakistan has launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at reversing the order and formally asked the United Nations Security Council late on Tuesday to hold an emergency session to address India’s “illegal actions”.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has compared Modi’s government to Nazi Germany, said on Wednesday that time had come to teach Delhi a lesson and promised to “fight until the end” against any Indian aggression.

“The Pakistani army has solid information that they [India] are planning to do something in Pakistani Kashmir, and they are ready and will give a solid response,” Khan said in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947, and has been the spark for two major wars and countless clashes between the two nuclear-armed arch-rivals.

Fearing protests and unrest over India’s latest move, tens of thousands of extra Indian troops have been deployed to Kashmir – joining 500,000 already there – turning parts of the main city of Srinagar into a fortress of roadblocks and barbed wire.

An Indian soldier stands guard in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, on Sunday. Photo: AFP

Hundreds arrested

University professors, business leaders and activists are among more than 500 people taken into custody in the region, some of them spirited away to other locations around India, according to press reports.

Restrictions have been lifted in the Jammu region, where Hindus are in a majority, according to the government, but remain in place in the Kashmir Valley, the main hotbed of resistance to Indian rule over decades.

“Restrictions imposed in Jammu have been completely removed and schools and other establishments there are functioning,” local police official Munir Khan told Indian media. “Restrictions will continue in some places of Kashmir for some time,” he said.

The lockdown has not completely prevented anger bursting out into the open, however. According to residents around 8,000 people protested after prayers last Friday, with security forces firing tear gas and pellet-firing shotguns to break up the rally.

Only on Tuesday did the Indian government confirm that clashes, blaming them on stone-throwing “miscreants” and saying its forces reacted with “restraint”.

Footage filmed on Monday showed hundreds of people protesting in the Soura area of Srinagar, shouting slogans such as “We want freedom” and “India go back” as helicopters buzzed overhead.

Modi’s 90-minute speech ended with the prime minister leading chants of “Jai Hind” (“Long live India”) with schoolchildren dressed in the saffron, white and green of the Indian flag, before a rendition of the national anthem.

Ever the showman: Modi speaks at an event to celebrate India’s 73rd Independence Day, marking the end of British colonial rule, in New Delhi on August 15. Photo: Prakash Singh / AFP

‘Population explosion’

Modi also warned on Thursday of the risks of an “unchecked population explosion” in the nation of 1.3 billion people – the first time he has raised the issue – and called for family planning measures.

India is the world’s second-most populous country behind China with 1.4 billion, and its population is set to surpass its East Asian neighbor by 2024, according to the United Nations.

“It is time to accept the challenges upfront … population explosion. It will bring a lot of challenges for the future generations of this country,” Modi said in an Independence Day speech in the capital New Delhi.

“We have to think if we can do justice to the aspirations of our children. There is a need to have greater discussion and awareness on population explosion.”

The prime minister hailed an “informed section” of Indians who were already having smaller families as “playing a big role in doing good for the country”.

India introduced forced sterilizations for men in the 1970s to limit its population growth, but was forced to abandon them due to widespread anger. The government stopped setting official targets for sterilizations in 1996, but rights activists say the practice persists at a local level.

More than 1.9 million people, mostly women, were sterilized across India in 2017 and 2018, according to the government’s National Health Mission.

Goal: $5 trillion economy

Even as India battles stuttering growth and high unemployment, Modi said the “fundamentals of our economy are strong” and he was confident the South Asian giant would become a $5 trillion economy in five years.

“Today, the government in India is stable, policy regime is predictable… the world is eager to explore trade with India. We are working to keep prices under check and increase development,” he added.

“It took us 70 years to become a $2 trillion economy. From 2014 to 2019, we became a $3 trillion economy. We added $1 trillion in just five years. Now we are looking forward to making the nation a $5 trillion economy.”

He pledged to spend $1.4 trillion on infrastructure and $49 billion on a massive project to provide potable water to millions of Indians who lack access.

“India doesn’t want just incremental progress,” the Indian leader added. “A high jump is needed, our thought process has to be expanded. We have to keep in mind global best practices and build good systems.”

AFP