India's lower house passes bill to strip Kashmir of statehood

India's lower house of parliament has ratified a bill downgrading the governance of the Indian-administered portion of Muslim-majority Kashmir, which lost its semi-autonomous status Monday.

Kashmir is India's only Muslim-majority state

Supporters of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party light firecrackers and celebrate the government revoking Kashmir's special status, in Lucknow, India on Tuesday. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/The Associated Press)

Indian lawmakers passed a bill Tuesday that strips the statehood from the Indian-administered portion of Muslim-majority Kashmir amid an indefinite security lockdown in the disputed Himalayan territory, actions that neighbouring Pakistan warned could lead to war.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist-led government submitted the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill for a vote by the lower house of parliament a day after the surprise measure was introduced alongside a presidential order. That order dissolved a constitutional provision, known as Article 370, which gave Kashmiris exclusive hereditary rights and a separate constitution.

"After five years, seeing development in J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] under the leadership of PM Modi, people of the valley will understand drawbacks of Article 370," Indian Home Minister Amit Shah said just before the bill was passed.

The changes will also lift a ban on property purchases by nonresidents of Kashmir, opening the way for Indians outside the territory to invest and settle there. The local Muslim population has long feared such measures would change Kashmir's demography, culture and way of life.

Erasing the autonomy of the region will inflame the sentiments of most Kashmiris who demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country. Two of the three wars the nuclear-armed neighbours have fought since their independence from British rule were over Kashmir.

Supporters of the Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami demonstrate to protest India's policy on Kashmir in Lahore, Pakistan. (K.M. Chaudhry/The Associated Press)

Critics have already likened the proposed new arrangement of Kashmir to the West Bank or Tibet, with settlers — armed or civilian — living in guarded compounds among disenfranchised locals.

"The decision [to split the region] will reduce Kashmir to a colony," said A.G. Noorani, a constitutional expert who has written extensively about Kashmir, including the 2011 book Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir.

Noorani said splitting the region into federal territories will "divide Kashmir from the rest of the country and Kashmiris will oppose the Hindu feeling in the region."

Dibyesh Anand, a social scientist at the University of Westminster, said "the fear of settler colonialism is not a spectre but a reality, given the approach of both the government and a large number of Indians."

Anand said there will a major transformation of the socio-economic landscape in Kashmir, where Hindu Indian settlers will be "presented as patriotic pioneers braving Kashmiri Muslim resentment."

Human rights activists and residents of the troubled state have long feared such a move could destabilize the region and plunge it into chaos by redrawing sectarian lines.

Still, the main worry for many is that the central government's actions will set in motion a plan to crush the identity of the people of Kashmir.

No communication

How the seven million people in the Kashmir Valley were reacting was unclear, because the Indian government shut off most communication with it, including internet, cellphone and landline networks. Thousands of troops were deployed to the restive region amid fears that the government's steps could spark unrest in India's only Muslim-majority state.

Indian TV news channels showed security personnel, including armed soldiers in camouflage standing near barbed wire barricades in the otherwise empty streets of Srinagar, Kashmir's main city.

Parliament's upper house approved the bill by a two-thirds majority, with many opposition lawmakers voting with the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Some experts questioned whether India's actions were legal.

"This move is a violation of the procedure in any case and can be challenged by the Supreme Court. Article 370 can only be managed by the government of Jammu and Kashmir. So, this parliament cannot abrogate it. This is what the law says," Noorani said.

'The last drop of blood'

Tensions also have soared along the Line of Control, the volatile, highly militarized frontier that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

Hundreds of people in various parts of Pakistan and in its part of Kashmir rallied against Modi, burning him in effigy and torching Indian flags to condemn India's moves.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an address to parliament on Tuesday night that he feared the Kashmiri people, angered over India's decision, could attack Indian security forces and that New Delhi could blame Pakistan for it.

"If India attacks us, we will respond," Khan said. "We will fight until the last drop of blood."

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in a nearly 30-year-long armed revolt in Kashmir that India has sent hundreds of thousands of troops to quell.

Security personnel stand guard on a street in Jammu on Tuesday, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. (Rakesh Bakshi/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pakistani military was on high alert following reports that New Delhi was continuing to dispatch additional troops to the region.

Pakistan's top military commanders were meeting in the garrison city of Rawalpindi to discuss the changes in Kashmir. Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa said the country's military will "go to any extent" to support people in the region.

China, which also lays claim to a portion of Kashmir, is "seriously concerned" about the situation, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

"China's position on the Kashmir issue is clear and consistent. It is also an international consensus that the Kashmir issue is an issue left from the past between India and Pakistan. The relevant sides need to exercise restraint and act prudently. In particular, they should refrain from taking actions that will unilaterally change the status quo and escalate tensions," she said.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged all parties to show restraint, spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said Monday.

"We are following with concern the tense situation in the region," Dujarric said. "We're also aware of reports of restrictions on the Indian side of Kashmir, and we urge all parties to exercise restraint."

With files from Reuters