MUZAFFARABAD: Pakistani soldiers carry a coffin holding a body of a colleague killed in cross border shelling, at a funeral in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. – AFP

SRINAGAR: India and Pakistan exchanged “heavy” cross-border fire yesterday, after New Delhi’s move to strip the restive Kashmir region of its autonomy prompted a rare meeting of the UN Security Council. The two foes regularly fire potshots over the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed Himalayan territory, which is divided between the two countries and poisoned their relations since independence in 1947.

But the latest exchange follows India’s decision this month to rip up the special constitutional status of its part of Kashmir, sparking protests from the local population, outrage from Pakistan and unease from neighboring China. “The exchange of fire is going on,” a senior Indian government official told AFP, calling it “heavy”. One Indian soldier was reportedly killed. Pakistan made no immediate comment on the violence.

Late Friday, Pakistan and China succeeded in getting the UN Security Council to discuss Kashmir-behind closed doors-for the first time since the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan yesterday hailed the gathering, saying that addressing the “suffering of the Kashmiri people & ensuring resolution of the dispute is the responsibility of this world body”.

New Delhi insists the status of the territory is a purely internal matter. “We don’t need international busybodies to try to tell us how to run our lives. We are a billion-plus people,” India’s UN envoy Syed Akbaruddin said after the meeting. US President Donald Trump urged the nuclear-armed rivals to come back to the negotiating table, speaking to Khan by phone on the importance of “reducing tensions through bilateral dialogue”.

Phone lines

India yesterday meanwhile gradually restored phone lines following an almost two-week communications blackout in its part of Kashmir, imposed hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise August 5 gambit. Seventeen out of around 100 telephone exchanges were restored yesterday in the restive Kashmir Valley, the local police chief told AFP.

But mobiles and the internet remained dead in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, the main hotbed of resistance to Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir state in a 30-year-old conflict that has killed tens of thousands. Fearing an angry and potentially violent response, India also sent 10,000 extra troops to the area, severely restricted movement and arrested some 500 local politicians, activists, academics and others. The state’s Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam had said Friday there would be a “gradual” restoration of phone lines over the weekend, with schools to resume classes in some areas next week.

Clashes

The transformation of Srinagar into an eerie maze of barricades, soldiers and concertinas of barbed wire has failed to stop public anger boiling to the surface. “We want peace and nothing else, but they have kept us under this lockdown like sheep while taking decisions about us,” resident Tariq Madri told AFP. “Even my nine-year old son asked me why they had locked us inside,” he added. Several hundred protesters clashed with police in the city on Friday, who responded with tear gas and pellet-firing shotguns.

People hurled stones and used shop hoardings and tin sheets as improvised shields, as police shot dozens of rounds into the crowd. No injuries were reported. The clashes broke out after more than 3,000 people rallied in the city’s Soura neighborhood, which has witnessed regular demonstrations this month. A week earlier around 8,000 people staged a protest which also ended in a violent confrontation with police, residents said. “I want the government to know that this aggression and aggressive policies don’t work on the ground,” said 24-year-old Adnan Rashid, an engineering student.

Some people took to the streets yesterday to buy essential goods but most shops in Srinagar remained closed. Mohammed Altaf Malik, 30, said people remained angry about the stripping of Kashmir’s special status “and the way it was done”. “There is widespread corruption and the police here have made it a business to pick up any people it wants and then ask for money to release them from detention,” Malik said as he went to visit a sick neighbor in hospital. “We don’t see anything changing from this for ordinary people like us,” he added.

Changing ‘no first use’

Meanwhile, India’s defense minister hinted on Friday that New Delhi might change its “no first use” policy on nuclear weapons, amid heightened tensions with fellow atomic power Pakistan. India committed in 1999 to not being the first to use nuclear weapons in any conflict. Among India’s neighbors China has a similar doctrine but arch rival Pakistan does not.

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh made the comment on Twitter after visiting Pokhran, the site of India’s successful nuclear tests in 1998 under then prime minister Atal Vajpayee. “Pokhran is the area which witnessed (Vajpayee’s) firm resolve to make India a nuclear power and yet remain firmly committed to the doctrine of ‘No First Use’,” Singh wrote.

“India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances,” Singh tweeted. The statement comes as tensions rise with Pakistan after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped Indian-administered Kashmir of its autonomy, a move sharply condemned by Islamabad.

‘Stop lying’

Singh’s comments prompted considerable noise in both India and Pakistan, with Pakistan’s minister for human rights Shireen Mazari tweeting that India “need to stop lying”. “India’s claims to NFU ended when on 4 Jan 2003 Indian govt declared it would use nuclear weapons against any (even Chemical or Biological) attack ‘against India or Indian forces anywhere’,” she said. Observers said Singh’s statement is the clearest so far with regards to a change in India’s nuclear doctrine.

Vipin Narang, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tweeted it was the “highest level declaration that India may not feel indefinitely or absolutely bound to No First Use.” Singh received support from Subramanian Swamy, a hardliner parliamentarian from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Rajnath is correct as to warn about possible review of Vajpayee’s no first use of n weapons since Pak leadership is more crazed today than in 1998,” he tweeted.

“First use is required now on if we get credible evidence that Pak faced with ignominy may go for first strike. We must pre-empt that,” Swamy wrote. This is not the first time that the Modi government has made a statement regarding its nuclear policy. In 2016, then defense minister Manohar Parrikar had expressed his reservations over the “no first use” nuclear policy. Parrikar, who died last year, had said India was a responsible nuclear power and “it would not use it irresponsibly.”

A revision to the policy was part of the BJP’s election manifesto in 2014. Then front runner Modi, however, stated that if voted to power, he had no intention of changing the stance. Running for a second term earlier this year, Modi had said his government had called Pakistan’s “nuclear bluff”. “India has stopped getting scared of Pakistan’s threats. Every other day they say, ‘we have a nuclear button.’ What do we have then? Have they kept it for Diwali?”,” he said, referring to a Hindu festival when fireworks are set off.- Agencies