In an Independence Day speech, Narendra Modi defended his government’s controversial measure to strip India-administered Kashmir of its statehood and constitutional autonomy. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during Independence Day celebrations at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, India. August 15, 2019. (Reuters) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi used his Independence Day speech in New Delhi on Thursday to announce a major change in India's defence set up.
And as about 4 million Kashmiris were forced indoors for an 11th straight day by India's unprecedented security lockdown and communications blackout, Modi outlined how pulling the disputed region's autonomy was in its best interests.
The prime minister announced the establishment of the post of chief of defence staff for better coordination between the army, air force and navy along the lines of Western military forces.
Defence experts have long called for such a post. A government committee recommended such a position in 1999, after India came close to war with Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir, to ensure the three defence arms operate together.
“Our forces are India's pride. To further sharpen coordination between the forces, I want to announce a major decision … India will have a chief of defence staff,” Modi said.
India had organised its military into three different services, each led by its own chief, since independence from Britain in 1947. Such an arrangement was thought necessary to ensure too much power was not concentrated in the hands of a single commander.
However, with military operations now involving close integration, many countries have moved to a single chief of defence staff who directs the military and often reports directly to the political executive for faster decision-making.
Modi said the establishment of a chief of defence staff was an important step towards military reform. The new chief would also have control over funding for the military, which is struggling to modernise its Soviet-era equipment.
Modi's Hindu nationalist ruling group has long promoted national security as a top priority to face the challenge from Pakistan and China, with which it shares disputed borders.
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.
Defending Kashmir changes
Modi defended his government's controversial measure to strip the disputed Kashmir region of its autonomy by splitting it into three territories and removing its ability to legislate its own laws.
A lockdown in Indian-administered Kashmir has been in place since August 4, just before the presidential decree to subsume the Muslim-majority region into India's federal government by revoking Article 370 of the constitution and downgrading the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories.
On Wednesday, Kashmir's governor said some restrictions of movement might be lifted, but the communication blackout will continue.
Tens of thousands of troop reinforcements have been deployed to the disputed region's main city of Srinagar and other towns and villages, turning the picturesque city into a deserted warren of barbed wire and barricades.
The reinforcement was sent to beef up the strength of half a million Indian troops that have been stationed in the region for several decades.
The lockdown has not completely prevented protests, however. Reports of Kashmiris with pellet injuries after Friday's protest was dispersed by Indian forces circulated online and on social media, days before the state acknowledged the incident.
Another settlement project?
India-administered Kashmir's new status allows anyone to buy land in the disputed region, which according to Kashmiris would change the region's culture and demographics.
Critics have likened the move to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.
Under Article 370, outsiders could not buy land or take public sector jobs in the country's only Muslim-majority region.
In his live address from New Delhi's Mughal-era Red Fort, Modi said that Kashmir's previous status fueled a movement for separatism and was unjust for Kashmiri women because the article said that they lost their inheritance rights when 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 on a day which marked 72 years since India achieved independence from British rule.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan likened the situation in India-administered Kashmir to Nazi ideology and the “Srebenica massacre.”
Islamabad “downgraded” diplomatic relations and suspended bilateral trade with India in the aftermath of New Delhi's move to scrap laws that were key to the accession treaty with Kashmir.
Pakistan has also called for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council over New Delhi's move.
India's foreign ministry officials have said Kashmir is returning to normalcy, contrary to The Associated Press and other news organisations operating in the region who describe the severe constraints, including the suspension of internet, cellphone and landline services and steel and barbed-wire street blockades.
While daily protests have erupted in 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,” Amarjeet Singh, a businessman from New Delhi, said outside the Red Fort as India finalised preparations on Wednesday.
“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.
India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947 when British colonialists left the subcontinent. The next year, they fought the first of two wars over control of Kashmir.
It ended with the region divided between them, though both claim it entirely, and also resulted in the unfulfilled promise of a UN-sponsored referendum on the future of the disputed region.
Most Kashmiris want either independence or a merger with Pakistan.
Rebels have been fighting Indian rule for decades.
Some 70,000 people have died in clashes between militants and civilian protesters and Indian security forces since 1989.