India independence day celebration takes place under strict security in Kashmir

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Drones and helicopters fly above heavily fortified cricket stadium as Indian flag unfurled

A paramilitary police officer stands guard outside  the Sher-i-Kashmir cricket stadium in Srinagar
A paramilitary police officer stands guard outside the Sher-i-Kashmir cricket stadium in Srinagar. Photograph: Farooq Khan/EPA

A ceremony in Kashmir to mark India’s independence day had been held under strict security inside a heavily fortified cricket stadium while residents remained under curfew.

Drones and helicopters flew overhead as Satya Pal Malik, the Jammu and Kashmir governor, unfurled an Indian flag on Thursday. The ceremony is usually watched by Kashmiri politicians, but many are reportedly under house arrest.

Hundreds of people are believed to have been arrested since the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s special status last week.

Hasina, the mother of Irfan Amin Malik, a 26-year-old journalist, confirmed he had been detained. The Kashmiri politician Shah Faesal was also arrested in Delhi on Wednesday. Faesal had said before being detained that Kashmir faced an existential battle.

Curfew rules affecting millions of residents were strengthened on Thursday for fear of protests, which are common in Kashmir on India’s independence day. The internet and phone lines were blocked for an 11th day.

The restrictions are placing increasing strain on the most vulnerable residents in Kashmir, where there are already shortages of medicines in local pharmacies and workers are struggling to survive.

A young man from southern Qazigund town, who works in Srinagar, said he had no money left to feed his family.

The Jammu and Kashmir governor, Satya Pal Malik, left, salutes after hoisting the Indian national flag during the celebrations for India’s independence day.
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The Jammu and Kashmir governor, Satya Pal Malik, left, at the celebration of India’s independence day. Photograph: Farooq Khan/EPA

“I have not been able to find any work for the last 10 days. I don’t have any money left to buy milk for my children. Don’t think I am a beggar, I have a post-graduate degree,” he said, struggling to hold back his tears.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, claimed in his independence day address in Delhi that Kashmir’s previous status had allowed corruption and separatism to fester. The action taken by his government would bring justice to the territory, he said.

“The old arrangement in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh encouraged corruption, nepotism” and “injustice when it came to rights of women, children, Dalits, tribal communities,” Modi said in the speech marking 72 years since India achieved independence from British rule.

Daily protests have erupted in Kashmir, but the move to assert control over the territory 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,” Amarjeet Singh, a businessman from Delhi, said. “It is good. Everyone will be benefited by this, because every common man will be able to work there and start business there.”

Delhi’s decision strips the disputed state of Kashmir and Jammu of any elements of autonomy, removing its constitution and flag, and scrapping laws that prevented outsiders from buying land. The state will also be split in two. Many Kashmiris fear it will alter the demography of the country’s only Muslim-majority state.

India’s foreign ministry officials have said the territory is returning to normality, but there was little indication of that on the streets of Srinagar, which remain under lockdown.

Hasina said that armed uniformed personnel climbed the walls of the family home in southern town of Tral at 11.30 pm on Wednesday and asked for Malik. “It was as if they came to arrest a militant,” she said. “They said they wanted to take Irfan along with them. I tried to resist but they did not relent and took him away.”

Quick guide

Kashmir

Who controls Kashmir?

The region in the foothills of the Himalayas has been under dispute since India and Pakistan came into being in 1947.

Both claim it in full, but each controls a section of the territory, separated by one of the world's most heavily militarised borders: the ‘line of control’ based on a ceasefire border established after a 1947-48 war. China controls another part in the east.

India and Pakistan have gone to war a further two times over Kashmir, most recently in 1999. Artillery, mortar and small arms fire are still frequently exchanged.

How did the dispute start?

After the partition of colonial India in 1947, small, semi-autonomous ‘princely states’ across the subcontinent were being folded into India or Pakistan. The ruler of Kashmir dithered over which to join until tribal fighters entered from Pakistan intent on taking the region for Islamabad.

Kashmir asked Delhi for assistance, signing a treaty of accession in exchange for the intervention of Indian troops, who fought the Pakistanis to the modern-day line of control.

In 1948, the UN security council called for a referendum in Kashmir to determine which country the region would join or whether it would become an independent state. The referendum has never been held.

In its 1950 constitution, India granted Kashmir a large measure of independence. But since then it has eroded some of that autonomy and repeatedly intervened to rig elections and dismiss and jail democratically elected leaders.

What was Kashmir’s special status?

Kashmir’s special status, given in exchange for joining the Indian union, had been in place since 14 May 1954. Under article 370, the state was given a separate constitution, a flag, and autonomy over all matters except for foreign affairs and defence. 

An additional provision, article 35a, prevented people from outside the state buying land in the territory. Many Kashmiris believed this was crucial to protecting the demography of the Muslim-majority state and its way of life.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata party repeatedly promised to scrap such rules, a long-term demand of its Hindu nationalist support base. But analysts warned doing so would almost certainly ignite unrest.

On Wednesday 31 October 2019, the government formally revoked Kashmir’s special status. The government argued that the provision had  only ever intended to be temporary and that scrapping it would boost investment in Kashmir. Critics, however, said the move would escalate tensions with Pakistan – which quickly called India’s actions illegal – and fuel resentment in Kashmir, where there is an insurgency against Indian rule.

What do the militants want?

There has been an armed insurgency against Indian rule over its section of Kashmir for the past three decades. Indian soldiers and Pakistan-backed guerrillas fought a war rife with accusations of torture, forced disappearances and extra-judicial killing.

Until 2004, the militancy was made up largely of Pakistani and Afghan fighters. Since then, especially after protests were quashed with extreme force in 2016, locals have made up a growing share of the anti-India fighters.

For Indians, control of Kashmir – part of the country’s only Muslim-majority state – has been proof of its commitment to religious pluralism. For Pakistan, a state founded as a homeland for south Asian Muslims, it is the last occupied home of its co-religionists.

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She has since met him at a police station. “He was very nervous and he feared that they could take him to jail outside Kashmir and no one would know,” she said.

Other politicians and activists have reportedly been held in temporary detention centres.

The Indian government’s announcement has led to an escalation in tensions with Pakistan, which also claims Kashmir and has fought two wars with India over the region. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, threatened on Wednesday to “teach Delhi a lesson” and vowed to fight until the end against any Indian violations.

The country’s army was preparing to respond to anticipated Indian aggression, he said. He has previously compared the Indian government to Nazis and suggested they might carry out ethnic cleansing.

Associated Press contributed to this report