Pakistan says three soldiers killed in Kashmir cross-border clashes, as Modi vows to restore territory’s ‘former glory’

Skirmishes across Line of Control come as Modi gives Independence Day address from ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort

Adam Withnall
Delhi
Thursday 15 August 2019 11:48 BST
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Prime Minister Modi defends Kashmir measures during Independence Day 2019

Pakistan’s army has said three of its soldiers were killed in cross-border shelling by India on Thursday, in the first major skirmishes since Narendra Modi’s government moved to strip Kashmir of its special constitutional status.

An Indian army spokesperson confirmed that exchanges of fire across the Line of Control in disputed Kashmir began early in the day, but denied Pakistan’s claims that five Indian soldiers were also killed.

“Intermittent exchange of fire continues,” wrote Major General Asif Ghafoor, the chief spokesperson of Pakistan’s armed forces, on Twitter.

Though “ceasefire violations” occur regularly between the two nuclear-armed nations, the flare-up comes at a time of heightened tensions and amid intense criticism from Pakistan over India’s decision to revoke the autonomy of the portion of Kashmir under its control.

Pakistan accused India of starting the skirmishes to divert attention from the “precarious situation” in Kashmir Valley. India said in a statement that it was Pakistan who started firing first.

India celebrated its Independence Day on Thursday, and in an earlier address from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort Mr Modi said his government’s move to revoke Kashmir’s status was a piece of “fresh thinking” that would return the restive region to its “former glory”.

Wearing a flowing, saffron-coloured turban, Mr Modi made no reference to the security and communications lockdown that has brought Kashmir to its knees for 11 days.

He also did not respond to Pakistan’s Imran Khan, who had criticised India over Kashmir in his own Independence Day speech a day earlier, and on Thursday tweeted that the world could see “another Srebrenica-type massacre and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in IOK [India-occupied Kashmir]”.

Mr Modi told the audience that the revocation of Article 370, the constitutional clause that allowed Kashmir to make its own laws and prevent outsiders settling in the valley, would see the region contribute to India as a whole becoming a $5-trillion economy “in the coming years”.

He said Kashmir’s special status had fuelled separatism, encouraged corruption and discriminated against women and non-Muslims.

“The old arrangement in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh encouraged corruption, nepotism and there was injustice when it came to rights of women, children, Dalits, tribal communities,” he said.

“Today every Indian can proudly say ‘One Nation, One Constitution’.”

Kashmiri locals and politicians fear that the unilateral move to strip the region of statehood and special protections is designed to result in demographic change, flooding the picturesque, fertile valley with Hindu settlers. Critics have likened it to the policy of Israeli settlement in Palestinian territories.

But Mr Modi accused the domestic opposition raising such concerns of “playing politics”, and claimed that previous heads of government had not dared to act on Kashmir because they feared for their own careers.

“I don’t care about my political future. For me, the country’s future comes first,” he said.

In the rest of his 90-minute address, Mr Modi used the backdrop of the Mughal-era fortress to announce a significant step for India’s armed forces – the creation of a US-style chief of defence staff (CDS).

The role, to be filled by a four-star general from either the army, navy or air force, will see one person coordinate all three branches of India’s military and become the sole point of contact with the prime minister.

Such a move was recommended back in 1999 by a government panel, after perceived military failures allowed Pakistani forces to occupy parts of the Himalayan range near Kargil and led to an 11-week conflict that could have spilled over into all-out war.

Mr Modi said the new CDS would “further sharpen coordination between the forces”.

Members of the audience for Mr Modi’s address, which came on a national holiday as India celebrates 72 years since it won independence from Britain, were unsurprisingly supportive of his move regarding Kashmir.

“Article 370 should have been removed a long time ago, but better late than never,” said Amarjeet Singh, a businessman from Delhi.

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

A complete shutdown of all mobile phone, landline and internet connections, meant there was little word from Kashmir itself on how Mr Modi’s speech was received. The Indian government finally admitted on Tuesday that there had been some protests and clashes, but said security forces acted with “restraint”.

The government said on Wednesday that the restrictions have now been eased in the Hindu-majority Jammu region of the state.

Additional reporting by agencies

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