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India celebrates Independence Day; Modi hails Kashmir move

SRINAGAR: Indian Border Security Force (BSF) personnel stand in a formation during a ceremony to celebrate India’s 73rd Independence Day, which marks the end of British colonial rule. – AFP

MUMBAI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered an Independence Day speech yesterday that spotlighted a decision to remove the special rights of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir among the bold moves of the first 10 weeks of his second term. Modi talked about his aim to turn India into a $5-trillion economy within five years, by spurring wealth creation, boosting exports and tourism, and spending 100 trillion rupees ($1.4 trillion) on infrastructure.

But he did not touch on sagging demand that has hit parts of the economy in recent months, especially the auto sector. Modi said special constitutional status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir had encouraged corruption and nepotism, while creating injustice for women, children and minority communities in India’s only majority-Muslim region. “Today every Indian can proudly say ‘One Nation, One Constitution’,” Modi, speaking from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, said of the decision.

Critics of the policy say it will bring a backlash from Kashmiri Muslims, who had valued the previous ban on non-residents buying property in the state, part of which is claimed by Pakistan, and benefited from the reservation of state government jobs for residents. In a clampdown in the region since the Aug 5 decision, authorities have cut internet and phone links, restricted movement with police roadblocks, and detained more than 500 leaders and activists.

Key new military post

Wearing a flowing bright saffron-colored turban, Modi, who won a landslide election victory in May, also highlighted his government’s ban on some Muslim communities’ practice of allowing a husband to instantly divorce his wife. Perhaps his most controversial announcement was the creation of a new post of chief of defense staff to ensure better coordination of India’s army, navy and air force, along the lines of Western military forces.

Defense experts have long called for such a post, recommended by a government panel in 1999, after India came close to war with Pakistan over Kashmir. “To further sharpen coordination between the forces, I want to announce a major decision … India will have a chief of defense staff,” Modi said.

However, he did not address the weakening economy and calls from industry for swift government measures to spur demand. India’s growth rate has fallen to 5.8% for the three months ended March 2019, its lowest in 17 quarters, while research group CMIE estimates the jobless rate rose to 7.51 percent in July from 5.66 percent a year earlier. Modi said he would invest 3.6 trillion rupees to improve water infrastructure and pipe clean water to every home.

Standing below a fluttering Indian flag, Modi urged a halt to use of single-use plastics, suggesting a phase-out date of Oct 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, regarded as the father of the nation. During the last five years, Modi’s government has made it much easier to do business in India, he added, vowing to further streamline government procedure. More small vendors should accept digital payments, Modi said, returning to a theme first spotlighted in 2016, when his government ordered an overnight ban of high-value banknotes.

‘Black Day’ over Kashmir

Meanwhile, Pakistan observed a ‘Black Day’ yesterday to coincide with India’s Independence Day celebrations, as one of the main militant groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir led a protest through Pakistan’s part of the disputed region. India’s decision this month to revoke special status for its portion of Kashmir, along with a communications blackout and curbs on movement, caused fury in Pakistan, which cut trade and transport links and expelled India’s envoy in retaliation.

Supporters of the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group were among more than 1,000 people who marched through Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan’s region of Azad Kashmir, holding black flags and shouting anti-India slogans. “As long as India continues its occupation of Kashmir, we will fight within the occupied territory, with full force,” Hizbul Mujahideen’s deputy commander, Saifullah Khalid, told the crowd. “Until the eviction of the last Indian soldier, our armed struggle will go on.”

India has banned Hizbul Mujahideen as a terrorist outfit, which it has long said Pakistan funds, along with similar groups. Islamabad denies this, though it does not ban the group. Newspaper issues carried black borders and politicians, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, replaced their social media pictures with black squares. Flags on government buildings flew at half-mast. Pakistan’s largely symbolic ‘Black Day’ comes amid growing frustration in Islamabad at the lack of international response over the Kashmir dispute.

Pakistan was isolated diplomatically and faced “a world in denial” over the situation in Kashmir, Dawn, the country’s most influential English-language newspaper, said in an editorial. The 15-member United Nations Security Council could discuss the dispute as soon as today, but Pakistan says it only has guaranteed support from China, which also claims part of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state.

Permanent security council member Russia said on Wednesday it supported India’s stance that the dispute should be resolved through bilateral means, while the United States has called India’s decision an internal matter for New Delhi. In his Independence Day speech in the Indian capital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the decision to strip the Muslim-majority region of its special rights among the bold moves of his second term, following an election victory in May. – Agencies

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