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Supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrate in Ahmedabad after the government scrapped the special status of Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5.   © Reuters
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Empowered by reelection, Modi moves to absorb disputed Kashmir

Tensions leap but Islamabad lacks means to retaliate, says expert

MUMBAI -- In the early hours of Aug. 5, telecommunications in the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir went dark. Troops were deployed on the streets, and vocal opponents of Indian rule were placed under house arrest in preparation for the announcement that Narendra Modi's government was to end the region's autonomy and to bring it under direct rule from New Delhi.

Campaigning ahead of India's general election in April and May, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party had promised to revoke Article 370 -- the constitutional provision that gives Jammu and Kashmir special status, allowing it to make many of its own laws and preventing people from the rest of India from owning property there.

Last week it followed through with that promise, passing two bills: one which revoked Article 370, and another that divided the state into two. It was a move guaranteed to inflame tensions with India's Muslim population, and with neighboring Pakistan, which also claims sovereignty over Kashmir.

Analysts said that the timing of the announcement was in part because the BJP, which was reelected with a landslide, now has a stronger hand to push through policies that play well with the Hindu nationalists in its supporter base. However, New Delhi also has an eye on a weakened Pakistan, which has been hurt by a failing economy and by a strained relationship with the U.S. under President Donald Trump.

"Basically, India knows what exactly the status of Pakistan is at the international level," said Pankaj Jha, associate professor at India's O.P. Jindal Global University.

Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have fought three major wars since their partition at the end of British rule in 1947, including two over Kashmir, which remains a key flashpoint in the countries' bilateral ties. India and Pakistan clashed over the territory in February, with both sides flying sorties across the border.

A large-scale conflict is unlikely at this point, not least because Pakistan could not afford one. "Pakistan is in a very bad economic position. They can't go for [another] war with India," said A.K. Dhar, a New Delhi-based independent defense expert. "But there could be serious border skirmishes -- you can't rule that out."

There could also be an increase in terrorist attacks by groups based in Pakistan, "to keep the pot boiling," Jha said. India accuses Pakistan of harboring terrorists who have attacked Indian soldiers and police officers. In February, 40 Indian paramilitary police officers were killed in a suicide bombing by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based militant group.

Pakistan has downgraded its diplomatic ties with India and suspended all bilateral trade. In a tweet, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan equated India's policy with Nazism, calling the imposition of direct rule "ethnic cleansing" and adding, "Will the world watch [and] appease as they did Hitler at Munich?"

Concerns over Jammu and Kashmir's demography have been a major driver of opposition to Indian rule in the region, which is majority-Muslim and sees itself as culturally distinct from the rest of the country. Some local groups fear that economic integration with the rest of India would mean large-scale migration and the transfer of property to Hindus, to the detriment of the Muslim population.

Voicing those fears hours before she was placed under house arrest, former state chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said in a tweet that the Indian government's intent was "clear and sinister. They want to change the demography of the only Muslim-majority state in India [and] disempower Muslims to the extent where they become second-class citizens in their own state."

The separation of the state into two federally-governed regions -- Jammu and Kashmir, which will have a legislative assembly, and Ladakh, which will not -- has done little to reassure opponents that this is not the case, and that the central government is now preparing to exert its will entirely over the region.

The move will give New Delhi much greater control over the territories' governance, security, internal policing and intelligence gathering, Ashok Malik, distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation wrote in a report after last week's announcement. "The Union government's involvement in these domains in Kashmir was always high; now it will be absolute."

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