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India scraps Kashmir's long-held autonomy, escalating tensions

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Security personnel question motorists on a street in Jammu on Aug 5. India revoked the special constitutional status of Kashmir in a move that risks worsening its already tense relationship with Pakistan in the region.

New Delhi

INDIA has revoked the special constitutional status of Kashmir in a move that has drawn protests in parliament and risks worsening its already fraught security relationship with rival Pakistan in the disputed region.

It took Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government just a couple of hours to erase seven decades of autonomous state government in Kashmir in a move analysts say is aimed at integrating a region that has been at the centre of its acrimonious relationship with Pakistan.

President Ram Nath Kovind signed the law and Minister for Home Affairs Amit Shah announced the government's plan in parliament soon after. Lawmakers are now debating a proposal to split the state in two - Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.

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Under Article 370 of the constitution, the state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed complete autonomy and the state legislature was free to draft its own laws except in the areas of communications, defence, finance, and foreign affairs, while Indian citizens were prohibited from purchasing land in the state.

It was especially drafted in the 1950s after the kingdom of Kashmir agreed to join the Indian republic. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had pledged to scrap the article in its electoral manifestos of 2014 and 2019.

"Article 370 should have been revoked much earlier," Mr Shah told the parliament. "But it needed political will. And the Modi government has the political will to do it."

In the lead up to the controversial move, prominent political leaders in Indian-administered Kashmir were placed under house arrest and the Indian paramilitary forces deployed thousands of extra troops across the valley in one of the most widespread security crackdowns in recent years.

India also evacuated thousands of tourists, students and pilgrims - citing terrorist threats - and has reportedly restricted phone and Internet services over the last 48 hours.

The move goes beyond the right to buy land or live in Kashmir, Khalid Shah, Delhi-based fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, said by phone. "It shows that from now on, the opinion of people won't matter. People's opinion about their own land doesn't matter," he said. "That's a scary situation for any democracy. My sense is that this will lead to long- term political consequences and will prolong the conflict."

India's rupee slid the most since December.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan warned in a tweet on Sunday that India's "new aggressive actions" had "the potential to blow up into a regional crisis".

In a statement released on Monday, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry issued a strong condemnation of India's actions and pledged to exercise all possible options to counter what it described as New Delhi's "illegal steps". India-controlled Kashmir is an internationally-recognised disputed territory, Pakistan said, and no unilateral step by India can change this.

The Indian Army said on Sunday evening it had responded to an increase in ceasefire violations and infiltration attempts along the line that divides Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

Meanwhile, the move to place two of Kashmir's former chief ministers, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, under house arrest at midnight further added to a sense of crisis in the state. "I believe I'm being placed under house arrest from midnight tonight and the process has already started for other mainstream leaders," Mr Abdullah tweeted.

India's arrest of political leaders without an explanation is "unprecedented", Akhil Bery, South Asia analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said in an e-mail.

"It has the potential to embolden Pakistan-based terrorists to begin ramping up attacks again," said Mr Bery. "This also fits into Imran Khan's narrative that India is the one responsible for escalating the tensions - he managed to convince President Trump of that and this is only going to support his message further."

The Ministry of External Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the political crackdown. BLOOMBERG