NEW DELHI — In a speech Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised new opportunity and prosperity to the people of Jammu and Kashmir as he addressed his government’s contentious actions in Kashmir — a region his country has fought two wars over with neighboring Pakistan.
Modi said the whole nation took a historic decision, liberating “our brothers” from Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. He added that the dreams of India’s forefathers had been fulfilled and that this is a new beginning.
Modi promised scholarships, new railways, airports and a reduction of the region’s debt. “We will take Jammu and Kashmir to new heights,” he promised.
In India “all children have the right to education,” but not in Jammu and Kashmir, Modi said. He added that girls in the region did not have the same rights as girls in other parts of the country.
The prime minister also said there were be elections held for the local assembly. Calling it the dawn of a new political system in Jammu and Kashmir, he said the regions will still have democratic elections and locally-elected leaders.
On Monday, India revoked the autonomy previously held by the disputed region, a move that provoked the alarm of human rights organizations and inflamed tensions with Pakistan.
Kashmir has for decades been at the center of a violent tug-of-war between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed neighbors partitioned by the British and given independence in 1947.
Both countries claim all of Kashmir but each only governs part of it after fighting wars and countless skirmishes over the decades.
The part that India controls, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, has since the 1980s grappled with a violent insurgency. The separatists in this Muslim-majority region see the control by Hindu-majority India as an illegitimate occupation.
Until now, Article 370 of the Indian Constitution gave Kashmir its own flag, constitution and lawmaking powers, affording it some degree of autonomy on matters except foreign affairs and defense.
But Modi’s government has revoked almost all of this clause, downgrading Jammu and Kashmir from statehood to territory and splitting it into two regions closer controlled by New Delhi.
The government says this was necessary to integrate the region fully into India and give it “opportunities for development that were earlier denied,” as the country’s foreign ministry put it Thursday. “It is also expected to result in an upswing of economic activity and improvement in the livelihood prospects of all people of Jammu and Kashmir,” the ministry said in a statement.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is among the Indian Hindu nationalists who have long opposed Kashmir’s autonomy. The party made revoking it part of its manifesto in elections in May, a platform that secured it a thumping majority in parliament.
On Sunday, a day before the decision was announced, security forces tightened their grip on the region, imposing curfew-like conditions and a telecommunications blackout. India says the crackdown was a precaution to contain any potential violence.
“One thing they have learned, the government, from past experiences, is to control communication,” Siddhartha Dubey, a journalism professor at India’s Ashoka University, said.
The government has been “remarkably successful,” Dubey said. “This is a remarkable exercise.”
“The minute you’re ‘inside Kashmir’ you’re on an island, you are cut off,” he added. “There’s no phone call out, there’s no WhatsApp out, there’s no email out. What we’re getting from there is virtually nothing.”
On Thursday, tens of thousands of government forces in riot gear were on patrol, with deserted streets lined with shuttered shops and steel barricades and razor wire cutting off neighborhoods, The Associated Press reported.
At the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital in the regional capital of Srinagar, doctors told the AP that at least 50 people had come in with wounds from pellet guns and rubber-coated bullets, the ammunition security forces often use to disperse protests.
At least 500 people have been arrested including local separatist activists and politicians, Reuters said citing local officials and media.
Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, said in a series of tweets that Modi’s move was “an utter betrayal of trust.”
“By dismembering the state and fraudulently taking away what is rightfully and legally ours, they have further complicated the Kashmir dispute,” she said.
Pakistan has reacted angrily to the decision, calling it illegal, suspending bilateral trade, suspending the train line between the two countries and saying it would expel India’s ambassador in Islamabad.
India’s plan is to split Kashmir into two states. The other would be Ladakh, the mostly Buddhist region whose territory is partly contested by China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called the move “unacceptable,” and said that “India’s unilateral amendment to its domestic law continues to damage China’s territorial sovereignty.”
Nidhi Dutt reported from New Delhi, and Alexander Smith reported from London.
Reuters and Associated Press contributed.