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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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