Pakistan downgrades diplomatic ties, suspends trade with India over Kashmir

Left party supporters and students hold placards during a protest against the Indian government revoking Kashmir's special constitutional status in New Delhi, India.

Pakistan has announced it will downgrade diplomatic relations and suspend bilateral trade with India after New Delhi stripped the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir of its special status.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office said in a statement Wednesday that Islamabad would also review bilateral agreements with India and take the issue up with the United Nations and the UN Security Council.

On Tuesday, India’s parliament voted to reclassify the state of Jammu and Kashmir as a union territory, giving the government in New Delhi greater authority over the contested Muslim-majority region. The day before, the Indian government announced it was revoking Article 370, a constitutional provision which had granted special status and powers to the state.

The vote was met with outcry from Pakistan, which also claims Kashmir. On Wednesday, Khan’s office repeated its claim that India’s moves were illegal, and urged the Pakistani military, which has warned it will “go to any extent” to fight the changes, to remain vigilant.

The statement added that Pakistan’s independence day on August 14 would be dedicated to “brave Kashmiris and their struggle for their right of self-determination.”

India’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Pakistan’s announcement.

Rising tensions

Indian-controlled Kashmir remains in lockdown amid a communications blackout, with landline connections, internet and mobile coverage all suspended. Tens of thousands of additional Indian troops have also been deployed into the already heavily militarized region to head off unrest.

The scrapping of Article 370 of India’s constitution will allow non-residents to purchase property in Jammu and Kashmir, and apply for jobs or scholarships that had previously been reserved for residents. Experts fear the move could lead to a demographic change in Hindu-dominated India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The remote mountainous region of Ladakh, currently part of Jammu and Kashmir, will also be separated and turned into a standalone union territory, the government said.

Relations between the rival nuclear powers have been strained since February, when Pakistan reportedly shot down two Indian fighter jets over Kashmir and captured one of the pilots. India said it had retaliated by shooting down a Pakistani jet, which fell on the Pakistan side of the border.

Pakistan released the captive pilot in March and the situation calmed — but India’s Kashmir vote has inflamed tensions again.

On Tuesday, Khan accused Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party of believing “that Muslims should be ethnically cleansed in India.”

China, which controls about 20% of the Kashmir region and has close ties with Pakistan, also protested India’s moves, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry accusing New Delhi of encroaching on Chinese territorial sovereignty.

India’s foreign ministry responded that the bill was “an internal matter concerning the territory of India. India does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries and similarly expects other countries to do likewise.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Tuesday’s vote to change Kashmir’s status as a “momentous occasion,” and said the changes would “ensure integration and empowerment” in the region.

Kashmir on lockdown

Kashmir is one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, and has been the epicenter for more than 70 years of an often violent territorial conflict between the Pakistan and India.

The mountainous Kashmir region was free to accede to either India or Pakistan after the two countries separated in 1947. When the Hindu king of Jammu and Kashmir chose to join India in exchange for military protection, it became the country’s only Muslim-majority state.

The India-controlled Jammu and Kashmir state covers around 45% of Kashmir, in the south and east of the region, while Pakistan controls Azad Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan, which cover around 35% of the total territory in the north and west.

Skirmishes along the de facto border between Indian-controlled Kashmir and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, known as the Line of Control, continue to break out periodically. Earlier this year, two Pakistani soldiers were killed in cross-border fire with Indian forces, according to the country’s military.

But with Jammu and Kashmir now on lockdown, and further change imminent, many Kashmiris are reeling with shock.

“Unprecedented horror in Kashmir,” tweeted Shah Faesal, a prominent politician from Kashmir who arrived in New Delhi yesterday. “From citizens to subjects … A people whose land, identity, history, was stolen, in broad day light.”

In addition to the communication blackout, a number of prominent politicians have also been placed under house arrest, including at least two former chief ministers of the state, according to CNN affiliate CNN-News18.

Faesal was unable to reach or message the two former chief ministers, he said in a separate Facebook post.

Until last week, Indian authorities had said the deployment of extra troops were in response to a potential security threat in the region. But residents were tense even before the announcement on Monday, rushing to secure essential supplies.

Now, with news of the bill confirmed, “people are in shock,” Faesal wrote.

“Everyone is mourning what we lost … It’s the loss of statehood that has hurt people deeply. This is being seen as the biggest betrayal by the Indian state in last 70 years.”

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