NEW DELHI — India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed the nation Thursday night for the first time about his government’s unilateral decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy, speaking against a backdrop of rising protests, mass arrests, and escalating tensions with Pakistan.
Modi defended the action, arguing that it would make the restive territory more secure.
“A new era has begun,” he said.
But in Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, protests were exploding as Indian security forces, which had already cut off Internet service, mobile phone calls and even landlines, clamped down harder.
More than 500 people were detained in nighttime raids across Kashmir and taken to makeshift detention centers, rights activists said. In several areas, Kashmiris pelted security officers with stones and the officers fired back, with reports that some demonstrators had been killed.
Modi, who seldom makes national addresses, made no mention of the protests. He said that revoking the statehood of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and turning it into a federally controlled territory would bring a cleaner, less corrupt government, more security, and a stronger local economy.
Modi’s government announced Monday that it was eliminating the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the restive Kashmir valley. The move instantly exacerbated tensions with Pakistan.
Pakistan, which claims part of Kashmir and has already fought two major wars with India over it, responded Wednesday by halting trade with India and expelling the Indian ambassador.
On Thursday, it followed that up by shutting down a cross-border train, the Samjhauta Express, which has been running for more than 40 years but is often suspended when relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors turn icy.
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the Pakistani minister responsible for railroads, said he expected tensions to remain high for at least a year.
“There can even be war,” he said. “I am not saying that we want war, but we should be prepared for it.”
Most analysts dismissed that possibility. Pakistan’s economy is on the skids and it has become something of a pariah state.
The locus of resistance is expected to be in the Kashmir valley, home to about 7 million people, where a small but dogged insurgency and a lot of resentment exist. Despite the tight security lockdown, protesters managed to mobilize.
Police officials reached by telephone said that crowds in Kargil, a mountain town, had hurled rocks at members of the security forces, wounding several, including the district’s top official. Residents of Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city, said that at least three men had been killed during demonstrations there, but their report could not be immediately confirmed.
At times, Modi’s speech Thursday seemed willfully disconnected from reality. While he spoke about improving Kashmir’s connectivity and its digital communication, his security forces had rendered it incommunicado.
In addition to the communications blockade, India has flooded the streets with soldiers and imposed a strict curfew. Already, some Indian news outlets have reported, some families are beginning to run out of food.
Modi did not directly address any of this in his speech, saying only that, “Some people are in favor of this decision and some will have a different opinion.”
Instead, he spoke affectionately of Kashmir’s fabled alpine scenery, saying, “If the situation normalizes, people will come from all over the world to shoot films in Jammu and Kashmir.”
And, without elaborating, he implied the region could be returned to statehood at some point. “If things improve, Jammu and Kashmir doesn’t have to be a union territory always,” he said.
That was cold comfort for Kashmiris and most human rights activists, who have called the move one of the most undemocratic, unconstitutional, and authoritarian steps any Indian government has ever taken.
Critics have pinned their hopes on the Indian Supreme Court, which has emerged in recent years as the main counterweight to Modi and Hindu nationalism and as a defender of Indian secularism. Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which was incorporated more than 50 years ago and revoked by the Modi administration Monday, had guaranteed Kashmir a fair degree of autonomy from the central government and allowed it to pass its own laws on land and criminal activity.
The article says that any changes to Kashmir’s status must be made in consultation with the region’s Constituent Assembly. Though that assembly disbanded in the 1950s, not long after the article was passed, several legal scholars said the clear spirit of the law was to allow Kashmiris a say in how they were governed. The Modi administration’s unilateral action violates that spirit, they say.