Troops lock down Kashmir as India votes to strip its status

(Washington Post) – Indian lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday that strips statehood from the Indian-administered portion of Muslim-majority Kashmir, which remains under an indefinite security lockdown, actions that archrival Pakistan warned could lead to war.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government submitted the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization 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 J&K (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.

Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan and divided between them. Two of the three wars the nuclear-armed neighbors have fought since their independence from British rule were over Kashmir.

How the 7 million people in the Kashmir Valley were reacting was unclear, because the Indian government shut off most communication with it, including internet, cellphone and landline networks. Thousands of additional troops were deployed to the already heavily militarized region out of fear the government’s steps could spark unrest. Kashmir is India’s only Muslim-majority state and most people there oppose Indian rule.

Indian TV news channels in Srinagar, the main city in India’s portion of Kashmir, showed security personnel including armed soldiers in camouflage standing near barbed wire barricades in the otherwise empty streets.

Jammu and Kashmir Director General of Police Dilbagh Singh said Srinagar was “totally peaceful,” the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Hundreds of people around Pakistan and the portion of Kashmir it controls rallied against Modi, burning him in effigy and torching Indian flags to condemn India’s moves.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an address to Parliament on Tuesday night that he feared the Kashmiri people could attack Indian security forces out of anger and New Delhi could blame Pakistan for it.

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

In February, a bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed 40 Indian troops. India responded with an airstrike inside Pakistan, blaming a Pakistani group for the attack.

The Pakistani military was on high alert Tuesday following reports that New Delhi was continuing to send additional troops to its portion of Kashmir. Pakistan’s top military commanders met in the garrison city of Rawalpindi to discuss the changes in Kashmir.

China, which also lays claim to a portion of Kashmir, is “seriously concerned” about the situation, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

“The relevant sides need to exercise restraint and act prudently. In particular, they should refrain from taking actions that will unilaterally change the status quo and escalate tensions,” she said.

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 lawmakers voting with the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

It was unclear when the security measures would be eased in Kashmir, but an outpouring of condemnation by Kashmiris living outside the region or who were able to access the internet despite the government blocks suggest the population will resist the New Delhi government’s actions.

Ordinary Kashmiris have feared the measures would be a prelude to intensifying an ongoing crackdown against anti-India dissenters. Rebels have been fighting Indian control for decades, and most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that all of Kashmir be united under Pakistani rule or become independent.

Security lockdowns, general strikes and civilian street demonstrations against Indian control are routine. About 70,000 people have been killed in the rebel uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown.

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