As tensions continued high between India and Pakistan over the disputed region of Kashmir, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Thursday that his government's decision to revoke Kashmir's special status marked "a new era" that would free the region of "terrorism and separatism."
"I fully believe that the people of Jammu and Kashmir will move forward with fresh hopes, dreams and motivations," Modi said, using the full name of the Indian state, which is being converted into a union territory to be ruled directly from New Delhi.
His address to the nation on Thursday was Modi's first public statement since the government revoked Kashmir's constitutionally guaranteed special status on Monday, sparking outcry and unrest over the divided Himalayan territory, which both India and Pakistan claim in its entirety. It came amid news of hundreds of arrests in the Muslim-majority region, which is now in its fourth day of a communications blackout.
The constitutional change, revoking Article 370 of India's constitution, strips Kashmiris of exclusive rights to buy property and hold certain government positions, allowing outsiders to influence laws and own a part of the contested land. Indian-administered Kashmir can no longer fly its own flag, and residents fear the measures could upend their customs and culture.
In his speech, Modi blamed Article 370 for what he described as widespread corruption and nepotism in Kashmir. He said it prevented application of other Indian laws, including ones that protect minorities and establish minimum wages.
"Surprisingly, no one could tell you what the benefit of Article 370 was to the people of Jammu and Kashmir," Modi said.
His Hindu nationalist government has deployed tens of thousands of troops, and authorities have arrested more than 500 people, including local politicians. Schools and shops have closed.
To try to prevent unrest, the government also stopped the flow of information in Kashmir, shutting down the Internet and cutting off phones and cable TV. Local news websites are frozen in time since late Sunday or Monday morning — right before the Indian government locked everything down. No permission has been granted this week for international reporters to visit the region.
The government has shut off Kashmiris' Internet 53 times already this year, according to a tally by the Software Freedom Law Centre, an Internet rights group in New Delhi. But stopping access to phones, cable television and Internet altogether is unprecedented, says the group's director, Sundar Krishnan. He says this isn't just about surfing the Web. It's about allowing society to function.
"Nowadays, everybody is using Internet for anything and everything," he says. "Normal life comes to a halt. It's like a basic fundamental right."
In his address, Modi called this shutdown an "inconvenience" that was done "as a precaution."
"I assure the people of Kashmir that, slowly, conditions will return to normal," Modi said.
In a subsequent tweet, he promised to deliver "developmental opportunities ... denied for decades! This includes access to better education, laws to protect the marginalised sections of society, a life of greater dignity for women."
In his speech, Modi also reminisced about how Kashmir used to be a setting for many Bollywood films. He predicted those days would return. "I am confident that in the future, even international films will be shot there," he said.
Products manufactured in Kashmir, such as shawls, also need to be promoted all over the world, he said.
On Wednesday, Pakistan downgraded its diplomatic ties with India and said it would expel India's ambassador. Islamabad suspended bilateral trade and said it was reviewing other bilateral agreements with India. On Thursday, Pakistan also suspended a train service to India and banned Indian films.
India's Ministry of External Affairs urged Pakistan to reconsider its decision to downgrade diplomatic ties and suspend trade, accusing its neighbor of presenting an "alarmist vision of the region."
A United Nations spokesperson expressed the U.N.'s deep concern that India's actions would "exacerbate the human rights situation." Residents have crowded hospitals, the only places where they can access Wi-Fi. And at airports, people have sought out strangers to carry letters to loved ones.
Kashmir's fate may lie in the Indian courts, where the change in status is likely to be challenged. For now, an opposition activist has filed a petition in India's Supreme Court to challenge the information blackout.
Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated earlier this year after a suicide attack in February killed at least 40 Indian security forces in Indian-controlled Kashmir. India struck a Pakistani village in retaliation, heightening fears about the nuclear-armed neighbors' relations. A Pakistani-based militant group claimed responsibility for the attack, for which Pakistan denied any responsibility.
Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict over Kashmir, which started after India and Pakistan gained independence from British rule in 1947.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said in a tweet that she hoped tensions could be resolved peacefully. "There is no need for us to continue to suffer and hurt each other," Yousafzai said. "Today I am worried about the safety of the Kashmiri children and women, the most vulnerable to violence and the most likely to suffer loses in conflict."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Indian part of Kashmir went silent this week, meaning no phones, no TV, no Internet. The central government cut them to prevent unrest over its decision to remove Kashmir's autonomy. Move by India's Hindu nationalist government is deeply unpopular with the majority-Muslim residents in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the blackout has forced Kashmiris to come up with creative ways to communicate with the rest of India, as NPR's Delhi producer Furkan Latif Khan reports.
FURKAN LATIF KHAN, BYLINE: Kashmiris are crowding into hospital lobbies because they're some of the only places still allowed to have Wi-Fi. From there, they can post voice messages on social media.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I barely managed to reach the hospital. It's just utter desolation here.
KHAN: They don't give their names but hope loved ones will recognize their voices. Hundreds of people have been arrested, including local politicians. Tens of thousands of troops line the streets. Schools and shops are shut. The only civilians allowed to be out on the streets are travelers heading to the airport, and they have to show a boarding pass.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Complete clampdown, complete curfew, huge army presence.
KHAN: Local news websites haven't been updated since Monday, when the Indian government locked everything down. International reporters are required to apply for permission to visit Kashmir even in the best of times. No such permission has been granted this week. So these voice messages are one of the few sources of news out of Kashmir.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).
KHAN: "Rumors are flying," this man says. He talks about protesters coming under fire, but he doesn't know where. Some of the news is routine - even happy. Babies are being born, but people are struggling to share the joy with their families. At the main airport in Srinagar, outbound travelers are approached by strangers asking them to ferry messages to people outside Kashmir. The government has shut off Kashmiris' Internet 53 times already this year. But this time, it's phones and cable TV, too.
That is unprecedented, says Sundar Krishnan at the Software Freedom Law Center in New Delhi. He says this isn't just about surfing the Web. It's about allowing society to function.
SUNDAR KRISHNAN: Nowadays, everybody is using Internet for anything and everything. So if you look at education, financial communication, normal life comes to a halt. So it's like a basic fundamental right.
KHAN: The United Nations warns a shutdown could exacerbate the human rights situation in Kashmir.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NARENDRA MODI: (Foreign language spoken).
KHAN: In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the shutdown an inconvenience that was done as a precaution. He promised things would soon return to normal.
It can't happen soon enough for Faakirah Irfan, who got stuck in Delhi on a work trip when the shutdown happened.
FAAKIRAH IRFAN: I'm a lawyer based out of Srinagar, Kashmir.
KHAN: So how are you doing, Faakirah?
IRFAN: Not really good.
KHAN: Not good because she's lovesick.
IRFAN: I've not been able to communicate with my partner, my fiance. His voice means the entire world to me right now, and I don't have it. It's stupid, but it's love, you know? It's like...
KHAN: Irfan is supposed to get married in October, but those plans are now up in the air. With no end in sight to this blackout, the daily lives of millions of other Kashmiris are also on hold.
For NPR News, I'm Furkan Latif Khan in New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.