Indian MPs have passed a bill that strips statehood from the Indian-administered part of Kashmir amid an indefinite security lockdown in the disputed territory.
The government of neighbouring Pakistan has warned that these actions in the Himalayan region could lead to war.
Indian PM Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government had submitted the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation 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.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, and both claim the region in its entirety, although each of them controls only parts of it.
Two of the three wars the nuclear-armed neighbours have fought since their independence from British rule were over Kashmir.
How the seven million people in the Kashmir Valley are reacting is unclear, because the Indian government has shut off most communication with it, including the internet, mobile phones and landline networks.
Thousands of troops, meanwhile, were deployed to the region amid fears that the government’s steps could spark unrest.
Tensions have also soared along the Line of Control – the volatile, highly militarised frontier that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
Hundreds of people in various parts of Pakistan and in its part of Kashmir have rallied against Modi, burning effigies of him and torching Indian flags.
Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan, meanwhile, told MPs on Tuesday night that he feared the Kashmiri people, angered over India’s decision to strip the region of its special status, 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.”
In February, a bomb attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed 40 Indian troops. India responded with an air strike inside Pakistan, blaming a Pakistani group for the attack. Pakistan retaliated and said it shot down two Indian air force planes.
On Tuesday, the Pakistani military was on high alert following reports that New Delhi was continuing to send additional troops to the region.
China, which also lays claim to a portion of Kashmir, is “seriously concerned” about the situation, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
She 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.”
India’s lower house ratified the bill, which strips the status of Jammu and Kashmir from a state to a union territory with a legislature, and carves out Buddhist-majority Ladakh, a pristine, sparsely populated area that stretches from the Siachen Glacier to the Himalayas, as a separate union territory without a legislature.
The upper house approved the bill by a two-thirds majority, with many opposition MPs voting with the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Indian TV news channels in Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, showed security personnel including armed soldiers in camouflage standing near barbed wire barricades in the otherwise empty streets.
US secretary-general Antonio Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said:
We are following with concern the tense situation in the region.
We’re also aware of reports of restrictions on the Indian side of Kashmir, and we urge all parties to exercise restraint.”
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