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Indian government strips disputed Kashmir of special status, internet services cut

NEW DELHI — India’s government revoked disputed Kashmir’s special status with a presidential order Monday as thousands of newly deployed troops arrived and internet and phone services were cut in the restive Himalayan region where most people oppose Indian rule.

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Home Minister Amit Shah announced the revocation amid an uproar in India’s Parliament and while Kashmir was under a security lockdown that kept thousands of people inside their homes. The decree needs the approval of the ruling party-controlled Parliament, which was debating it on Monday.

The order revokes Article 370 of India’s Constitution, eliminating the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s right to its own constitution and decision-making process for all matters except defense, communications and foreign affairs. The government’s action would also strip Kashmir of its protection from Indians from outside the state permanently settling, buying land, holding local government jobs and securing educational scholarships.

READ MORE: Thousands of Indian students, tourists ordered to leave Kashmir

Critics of India’s Hindu nationalist-led government see the move as an attempt to dilute the demographics of Muslim-majority Kashmir with Hindu settlers.

The announcement came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a Cabinet meeting and the government’s top-decision making body on security matters, the Cabinet Committee on Security, which he heads.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both claim the region in its entirety. Two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since their independence from British rule were over Kashmir.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, told a Pakistani TV station on Monday from Saudi Arabia, where he is on a pilgrimage to Mecca, that Pakistan will step up diplomatic efforts to prevent the order from taking effect.

“India is playing a very dangerous game by changing the status of Kashmir through illegal acts,” he said.

In Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, hundreds of Kashmiri activists rallied against the change in Kashmir’s status near the diplomatic enclave where India’s embassy is located. Authorities kept demonstrators away from the building because of security concerns.

WATCH: Why Kashmir is the centre of the India-Pakistan dispute

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Ghulam Mohammad Safi, a prominent Kashmiri leader in Pakistan, urged the United Nations and the international community to help Kashmir achieve self-determination.

The president of the Pakistan-controlled portion of Kashmir, Sardar Masood Khan, also rejected the Indian presidential order and said it could lead to a war with Pakistan.

Jammu and Kashmir’s former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufi, tweeted that the Indian government’s decision is “illegal” and “unconstitutional.”

“Today marks the darkest day in Indian democracy,” Mufti wrote.

Government officials said the presidential order will take effect after it is approved by Parliament, which is controlled by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

WATCH: Hundreds protest in Dhaka over India’s decision to scrap special status for Kashmir

Shah also introduced the “Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill” which, if passed, would split the state into two union territories — Jammu and Kashmir, which will have an elected legislature, and Ladakh, which will be ruled directly by the central government without a legislature of its own.

Currently, the state of Jammu and Kashmir comprises three regions: Hindu-majority Jammu, Muslim-majority Kashmir and Buddhist-majority Ladakh.

The reaction in Ladakh, a pristine, sparsely populated area that stretches from the Siachen Glacier to the Himalayas, was mixed, said Tsewang Gyalson, a guide whose family’s roots are centuries deep.

READ MORE: India and Pakistan threatened to trade missile strikes after Kashmir attack: sources

“Some fear that people from outside will come and start business or will buy lands. Maybe slowly our identity will disappear,” he said.

India’s former finance minister, Arun Jaitley, hailed the government’s decision to remove Article 370, praising Modi and Shah for “correcting a historical blunder.”

“A historical wrong has been undone today,” he tweeted.

Regional parties in Jammu and Kashmir had earlier called attempts to revoke Article 370 an aggression against the people.

Many political parties in other Indian regions, however, welcomed the decision.

“In a real sense today, Jammu and Kashmir has become part of India. My party supports this resolution,” Prasanna Acharya, leader of the Biju Janata Dal party, said in Parliament’s upper house.

The provision dates to 1927, when an order by the administration of the then-princely state of Jammu and Kashmir gave its subjects exclusive hereditary rights. Two months after India won independence from British rule in August 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, signed a Treaty of Accession for the state to join the rest of the union, formalized in Article 370 of the Indian Constitution.

WATCH: Kashmir was at the centre of Modi’s India re-election plan

Further discussions culminated in the 1952 Delhi Agreement, a presidential order that extended Indian citizenship to the residents of the state but left the maharaja’s privileges for residents intact.

Late Sunday in Kashmir, government forces laid steel barricades and razor wire on roads and intersections to cut off neighborhoods in Srinagar, the region’s main city. The government issued a security order banning public meetings, rallies and movement and said schools would be closed.

Authorities also suspended internet services on cellphones, a common tactic to prevent anti-India demonstrations from being organized and to stop the dissemination of news.

The order affects about 7 million people living in the region, including journalists who faced difficulties in relaying information to the outside world.

It was unclear when the security measures would be lifted, or the extent to which many Kashmiris were aware of the presidential order being debated in Parliament, since access had been cut off.

READ MORE: Kashmir rights group calls on UN to investigate torture allegations against India

The security deployment in recent days added at least 10,000 soldiers and other forces in Kashmir, which was already one of the world’s most militarized regions. India also ordered thousands of tourists and Hindu pilgrims to leave the region.

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

Modi and his Hindu nationalist party won reelection early this year on a platform that included promises to do away with special rights for Kashmiris.

In a statement, Amnesty International India said the move could “cause unrest and wide scale protests in the state.”

Rebels in Indian-controlled Kashmir have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control. About 70,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian crackdown.

Associated Press writers Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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