August 15, 2019 / 6:37 AM / 5 days ago

India's Modi trumpets Kashmir, Muslim marriage moves in Independence Day speech

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered an Independence Day speech on Thursday that spotlighted a decision to remove the special rights of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir among the bold moves of the first 10 weeks of his second term.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during Independence Day celebrations at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, India, August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Modi talked about his aim to turn India into a $5-trillion (4.12 trillion pounds) economy within five years, by spurring wealth creation, boosting exports and tourism, and spending 100 trillion rupees (1.15 trillion pounds) on infrastructure.

But he did not touch on sagging demand that has hit parts of the economy in recent months, especially the auto sector.

Modi said special constitutional status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir had encouraged corruption and nepotism, while creating injustice for women, children and minority communities in India’s only majority-Muslim region.

“Today every Indian can proudly say ‘One Nation, One Constitution’,” Modi, speaking from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, said of the decision.

Critics of the policy say it will bring a backlash from Kashmiri Muslims, who had valued the previous ban on non-residents buying property in the state, which is also claimed by Pakistan, and benefited from the reservation of state government jobs for residents.

In a clampdown in the region since the Aug. 5 decision, authorities have cut internet and phone links, restricted movement with police roadblocks, and detained more than 500 leaders and activists.

KEY NEW MILITARY POST

Wearing a flowing bright saffron-coloured turban, Modi, who won a landslide election victory in May, also highlighted his government’s ban on some Muslim communities’ practice of allowing a husband to instantly divorce his wife.

Perhaps his most controversial announcement was the creation of a new post of chief of defence staff to ensure better coordination of India’s army, navy and air force, along the lines of Western military forces.

Defence experts have long called for such a post, recommended by a government panel in 1999, after India came close to war with Pakistan over Kashmir.

“To further sharpen coordination between the forces, I want to announce a major decision ... India will have a chief of defence staff,” Modi said.

However, he did not address the weakening economy and calls from industry for swift government measures to spur demand.

India’s growth rate has fallen to 5.8% for the three months ended March 2019, its lowest in 17 quarters, while research group CMIE estimates the jobless rate rose to 7.51 percent in July from 5.66 percent a year earlier.

Modi said he would invest 3.6 trillion rupees to improve water infrastructure and pipe clean water to every home.

Standing below a fluttering Indian flag, Modi urged a halt to use of single-use plastics, suggesting a phase-out date of Oct. 2, the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, regarded as the father of the nation.

Slideshow (8 Images)

During the last five years, Modi’s government has made it much easier to do business in India, he added, vowing to further streamline government procedure.

More small vendors should accept digital payments, Modi said, returning to a theme first spotlighted in 2016, when his government ordered an overnight ban of high-value banknotes.

(This story corrects to replace ‘part of’ in paragraph 6 with ‘also’)

Reporting by Promit Mukherjee; Editing by Martin Howell and Clarence Fernandez

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