NEW DELHI, Aug 15 – India celebrated Saturday the anniversary of its independence from British rule with a vow to eradicate terrorism from its soil in the wake of last year’s "horrific" militant Islamic attacks on Mumbai.
India was boosting its security to prevent assaults such as the carnage in the country’s financial capital last November, in which gunmen killed 166 people, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said.
"After the horrific terror attacks in Mumbai last November our government has taken various steps and our intelligence agencies and security organisations are being strengthened," Singh said in an address to the nation from the heavily guarded Red Fort in the Indian capital.
"We will succeed in eradicating terrorism from Indian soil," Singh added from behind a bullet-proof screen at the Mughal-built fort.
The annual Independence Day address marks the end of British rule in 1947 and partition of the subcontinent into mainly Hindu India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, a split that has caused endless tension in the region.
Singh did not mention India’s rival Pakistan by name but reiterated that India wants to live in peace and harmony with its neighbours.
Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars, two over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, began a peace process in 2004 that was put on hold after the Mumbai attacks.
India says "official agencies" of Pakistan abetted the attackers who arrived by sea and targeted two hotels, a congested rail station and a Jewish centre.
Islamabad rejects the allegations but accepts the attackers were Pakistani citizens and says it is making efforts to bring the plotters to justice.
In restive Indian Kashmir, where an insurgency against New Delhi’s rule has been under way for two decades, troops killed four Muslim rebels on the eve of the Independence Day celebrations.
On Saturday, a strike called by separatists paralysed the Muslim-majority region as they described the festivities as a "black day."
But Singh said recent elections in Kashmir were "proof that there is no place for separatist thought in the region."
Singh also pledged to crack down on Maoist insurgents who have set up base in nearly half of the country and who say they are fighting against the exploitation of landless farmers.
"People who think they can rule with the power of the gun underestimate the power of Indian democracy," Singh said.
New Delhi was under a huge security blanket with armed commandos guarding the imposing sandstone fort where cabinet ministers, diplomats and guests were invited to hear Singh’s speech. Police barricades blocked roads.
The prime minister also sought to allay fears that patchy monsoon rains, which have led to drought in many parts of the country, could lead to food shortages in the nation of more than one billion people.
"We have adequate stocks of foodgrains and all efforts will be made to control the rising prices of foodgrains, pulses and other goods of daily use," Singh said.
But the premier described putting India’s economy back on its blistering annual growth path of nine percent as "the greatest challenge."
Growth slipped to 6.7 percent in the last financial year to March due to the global economic slump and economists forecast expansion of around six percent or lower this year.
"Restoring our growth rate to nine percent is the greatest challenge we face," Singh said.
"We expect that there will be an improvement in the situation by the end of this year, but till that time we will all have to bear with the fallout of the global economic slowdown," he said.
While six percent growth looks strong compared with anaemic rates in the US, Japan and Europe, India says it needs to return to nine percent expansion or higher to reduce widespread, crushing poverty.