Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses to the nation on the country's Independence Day from the ramparts of the historical Red Fort in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019. Modi said that stripping the disputed Kashmir region of its statehood and special constitutional provisions has helped unify the country. Modi gave the annual Independence Day address from the historic Red Fort in New Delhi as an unprecedented security lockdown kept people in Indian-administered Kashmir indoors for an eleventh day. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

India's Modi defends Kashmir policy amid clash with Pakistan

August 15, 2019 - 8:29 am

NEW DELHI (AP) — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday used an Independence Day speech to defend his decision to strip Kashmir of its special status as about 7 million residents of the disputed region endured an unprecedented security lockdown and communications blackout for an 11th day.

Pakistan's security forces, meanwhile, said "unprovoked firing" by India along the militarized Line of Control in the region killed three Pakistani soldiers and two civilians in separate incidents. Pakistan said it returned fire, killing five Indian soldiers.

They were the first reported clashes between the nuclear-armed rivals since New Delhi changed the status of Kashmir, escalating regional tensions. The two countries have fought two wars over the territory.

Modi said Kashmir's previous status — some political autonomy and a ban on outsiders buying land and taking public sector jobs — had fueled a movement for separatism in the Muslim-majority Himalayan region that is claimed by both India and Pakistan.

He also said it was unjust for Kashmiri women because the law said they lost their inheritance rights if marrying a person from outside the region.

"The old arrangement in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh encouraged corruption, nepotism but there was injustice when it came to rights of women, children, Dalits, tribal communities," Modi said, speaking from New Delhi's Mughal-era Red Fort to mark 72 years of India's independence from British rule.

Modi's Hindu-led nationalist government imposed a lockdown in Indian-administered Kashmir on Aug. 4. That came just before a presidential order was announced to subsume the region into India's federal government by revoking Article 370 of the constitution and downgrading the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two federal territories.

A new law allows anyone to buy land there, which some Kashmiris fear could change the region's culture and demographics. Critics have likened it to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.

Indian foreign ministry officials have said Kashmir is returning to normal, but The Associated Press and other news organizations in the region describe severe constraints, including the suspension of internet, cellphone and landline services and steel and barbed-wire street blockades.

On Monday, the streets of Srinigar, Kashmir's main city, were eerily quiet when they should have been bustling with people going to mosques to pray and to stores to shop for the holiday of Eid al-Adha. With an ongoing ban on public assembly, security forces only allowed the faithful to enter mosques alone or in pairs. Several main mosques were closed.

On the first Independence Day since the revocation of Kashmir's special status, security restrictions in the city were even more stringent. More than a dozen Hindu activists were detained as they tried to march to central Srinagar to celebrate, according to police who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to reporters.

It was unclear how long the lockdown would last.

India's top diplomat, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, said Monday the restrictions on daily life in Kashmir were "primarily precautionary in nature" and would be lifted gradually. Some have already been lifted in the Hindu-majority area of Jammu, where celebrations broke out after India's Parliament signed off on the changes on Aug. 6, and in Ladakh, a rugged and pristine area with cultural ties to Tibet that Parliament divided off from Jammu and Kashmir and made into its own federal territory. Residents there have been demanding such a change for years.

In the shooting incidents, Pakistan's police and military said three Pakistani soldiers were killed when Indian troops targeted their post in the town of Leepa along the heavily militarized Line of Control, and two civilians died when mortars fired by India hit a village in the town of Poonch.

The military statement said Pakistani troops returned fire, killing five Indian soldiers and damaging Indian bunkers. Both sides continued exchanging fire, prompting villagers to move to safer places, the statement added.

India's foreign ministry didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

There was no way to independently confirm the claims. Pakistan and India routinely accuse each other of unprovoked firing in the disputed region.

Earlier, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi described Modi as a key hurdle to peace and dialogue.

The U.N. Security Council scheduled a rare meeting on Kashmir on Friday in response to requests by China and Pakistan, U.N. officials said, adding that the closed consultations could be the first council session on Kashmir since the late 1990s, if not earlier.

Pakistanis and residents of Pakistani-administered Kashmir on Thursday observed what they called "the Black Day" in solidarity with Kashmiris in the Indian-controlled portion.

Cross-border exchanges along the Line of Control are common, but Pakistani defense analyst and retired air marshal Shahid Latid said "any misadventure by India can escalate tension."

He said that if the Modi government responds to the skirmish by striking within Pakistan, as it did in February when a Kashmiri suicide bomber killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops on the Indian-administered side, it would be met with a "befitting response" by Pakistan.

While daily protests have erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir, Modi has received widespread public support in other parts of India.

"Article 370 should have been removed a long time ago, but better late than never," New Delhi businessman Amarjeet Singh said Wednesday outside the Red Fort.

"It is good. Everyone will be benefited by this, because every common man will be able to work there and start a business there," Singh said.

In his speech, Modi said the changes in Kashmir will help the region contribute more to India's development.

"In the last 70 years, we became a $2 trillion economy, but in the last five years, we added $1 trillion to the economy. This gives me the confidence of becoming a $5 trillion economy in the coming years," Modi said.

The prime minister, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide election victory in May, also announced the creation of a new chief of defense staff to coordinate security operations.

He also made a pitch for restructuring India's electoral system so that state and lower house of Parliament elections are held simultaneously rather than on separate timetables.

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Associated Press writers Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, Mariya Amrayeva in New Delhi and Ahmed Munir in Islamabad contributed.

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