NEW DELHI — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the nation Aug. 8 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 government imposed an unprecedented security lockdown and a near-total communications blackout in the Muslim-majority region since Aug. 4, arresting more than 500 people.

Kashmir is claimed in full by both India and its arch-rival 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.

“This heaven on earth, our Jammu and Kashmir, will once again reach new heights of development and attract the whole world toward it Ease of living will increase for our citizens. Citizens will receive all the benefits they deserve without any obstacles or challenges,” he added.

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 Aug. 7. 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 Aug. 7 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 Aug. 8 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.’”

IANS adds from New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi Aug. 8 outlined his vision for a new, developed and prosperous Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh even as he hit out at "a handful" of people and separatists for attempting to play into Pakistan's hands to spoil the situation in the wake of the revocation of Article 370 granting special status to J&K.

Addressing the nation for the first time after the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of J&K into two Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh – Modi promised free, fair and transparent elections to the J&K Assembly.

The prime minister also said that Kashmir was the crown of India and the new moves on Kashmir signified the dawn of a new era.

Modi said that revoking Article 370 was a very well thought out move aimed to bring development to J&K and undo the decades of neglect.

Choosing to ignore Islamabad's retaliatory moves such as expelling the Indian envoy, Modi did not mention the neighboring country except for referring to it as a source of fomenting trouble and encouraging separatism through Article 370.

He promised that with the creation of two UTs of J&K and Ladakh, all vacant posts in government jobs would be filled up, which would create employment opportunities for the youth in the region.

"We have taken a historic decision on Jammu and Kashmir," the prime minister said, adding that Article 370 and Article 35-A "did not give anything" to the state and its people except separatism, terrorism, family rule and large scale corruption.

He said they were being used as anti-India weapons by Pakistan to foment people's emotions due to which 42,000 innocent people lost their lives and J&K and Ladakh could not progress at the desired pace. 

"Now with the obstacle being removed, the future of J&K and Ladakh will improve and become secure," Modi said.

He said that Article 370 had deprived the people of J&K of the benefits of well-argued and well thought out central legislations meant for the entire country. "No one can imagine that the Parliament brings out so many legislations, but they are just not applicable to one part of the country," he said.

Taking pot shots at the Congress over the RTI and RTE, he said that earlier a government would make legislations and "roll in self-praise" but could not ensure that these legislations would be applicable to the over 1.5 crore residents of J&K.

The prime minister appealed to all the deprived sections in the former state, like the SC and ST, the Safai Karamcharis and the minority communities who were kept out of the ambit of Central legislations.

Talking of the Right To Education Act, he asked why were the children of the state deprived of its benefits. The people were deprived of the benefits of the Safai Karmachari Act as well as the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The Minority Act was also not applicable as well as the Minimum Wages act, he said.

He said that Article 370 also prevented the SC and ST communities from reaping the benefits of reservation in jobs and education.

"With Article 370 becoming history, I have full confidence that J&K will come out of its negative effects too," he said.

The prime minister said that over the decades, no one could justify how Article 370 and Article 35-A benefited the people of the state.

Modi also said that state government employees, including the police, would soon get benefits on par with employees of other Union Territories such as LTA and house rent allowance, among others.

The prime minister said that while he respected the opinions of those who objected the Kashmir move, he requested that they should keep the national interest supreme.

Promising elections in J&K, he said: "We all want that in future J&K Assembly elections take place, a new government is formed, new energetic youth become MLAs, ministers and chief minister. I assure the people of J&K that with all honesty and in a transparent atmosphere, you will get an opportunity to elect your representatives soon," Modi said.

Modi also said that the dreams of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, B.R. Ambedkar, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajapyee have been fulfilled with the abrogation of Article 370.

He said that some things in society life get so mixed up with time that many a times they are considered permanent.

"There was a similar sentiment with Article 370. There was no discussion about the loss of our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Surprisingly, if we talked to anyone, no one could even tell what was the benefit of Article 370 in the lives of the people of Jammu and Kashmir," Modi said.

The prime minister also promised to boost tourism, make Kashmir an international film shooting destination, make its apples, shawls, kahwa and saffron globally famous and promote adventure tourism.

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