Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the people of Jammu and Kashmir on Thursday that elections would be held soon in the state for the local assembly, two days after government’s decision to end special status for the state and split it into two union territories.
In an address broadcast on television and radio, the first time he has spoken to the nation on the decision, Modi painted the move as one that will benefit the people of Kashmir. The federal government would take steps to create more economic opportunities, he said.
This week’s move, tightening New Delhi’s grip on the contested region, withdrew the Muslim majority state’s right to frame its own laws and allowed people from outside the region to buy property there.
“The people of Jammu and Kashmir will be able to choose their leaders, their CMs (chief ministers) like they have done before,” Modi said. He added that once the law-and-order situation improves in the region, Jammu and Kashmir would again be a converted into a full-fledged state.
Indian authorities have imposed a communications blackout on Kashmir for a fourth straight day, stopping media from being able to report what is happening there.
Modi said the government had taken the decision to repeal Article 370 and 35A of the constitution for the overall development of the region. These legal provisions created hurdles to extending legal benefits to women, minorities and students that the rest of India provides, he said.
Introduced decades ago, the constitutional provisions provided autonomy to the state authorities to limit the implementation of Indian laws as well as to keep people from other parts of the country from overrunning the state.
“I am confident that with Article 370 and 35A becoming a history, Jammu and Kashmir will come out of its negative effects,” Modi said.
Modi said the decision to change the status of Kashmir would help government employees of Jammu and Kashmir get the benefits enjoyed by people of other federally administered territories.
He also exhorted large corporations, including information technology companies, to invest in the state and generate jobs for the people from the region, and promised to step up infrastructure projects in the region.
The Indian government’s move has drawn a strong reaction from Pakistan, which has taken a series of steps to exert diplomatic pressure on its neighbor. Kashmir has been at the heart of 70 years of hostility between the countries.
International reaction to India’s decision on Kashmir has been mixed, with Pakistan downgrading diplomatic ties and suspending trade.
The United States on Wednesday said it supports direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on the disputed Kashmir region and called for calm and restraint as the dispute escalated.
“We continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues of concern,” a department spokeswoman said in a statement.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he had expressed concern to his Indian counterpart about the situation in the disputed Kashmir region.
“I have to spoken to the Indian Foreign Minister,” Raab said on Wednesday. “We’ve expressed some of our concerns around the situation and called for calm, but also had a clear readout of the situation from the perspective of the Indian government.”
China said it opposed India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status and that New Delhi needed to be cautious on border issues.
“India’s action is unacceptable and would not have any legal effect,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement, drawing an immediate rebuke from Delhi that Kashmir was an internal affair.
China urged India to strictly abide by the agreements reached by both countries in order to avoid any actions that would further complicate boundary issues, Hua said. India and China have a longstanding dispute over the border including in Ladakh, the high altitude area.
Indian foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said splitting Jammu and Kashmir into federal territories was a domestic issue.
“India does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries and similarly expects other countries to do likewise.”
The Buddhist enclave of Ladakh cheered India’s move to hive it off from Jammu and Kashmir state, a change that could spur tourism and help New Delhi counter China’s influence in the contested western Himalayas.
“The fact that India took this move … can be seen as one way that India is trying to counter growing Chinese influence in the region,” said Sameer Patil, a Mumbai-based fellow in international security studies at the Gateway House think-tank.
Patil from Gateway House said monks he interviewed in Ladakh told him China-endorsed monks had been extending loans and donations to Buddhist monasteries in the area in an apparent bid to win influence.
By announcing it would turn Ladakh into its own administrative district, the Indian government fulfilled a decades-long demand from political leaders there.
Ladakh locals were tired of being hurt or ignored because of the many years of turmoil in the Kashmir Valley resulting from separatist militant activity and the Indian military’s moves to crush them.
Local politicians and analysts expect the change to bring Ladakh out of the shadow of Kashmir, which has long been a flashpoint with Pakistan. It could also help the area pocket more government funding as it seeks to build up its roads and facilities to lure tourists.
“We are very happy that we are separated from Kashmir. Now we can be the owners of our own destiny,” Tsering Samphel, a veteran politician from the Congress party in Ladakh, said on Tuesday. He added the area felt dwarfed by Jammu and Kashmir – which is a majority Muslim area – and that the regions had little in common culturally.
In Ladakh’s city of Leh on Monday, members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party danced in the streets and distributed sweets, Reuters partner ANI reported.
Ladakh will be governed by a centrally-appointed lieutenant governor, handing New Delhi stronger oversight over the area.
However, while Ladakh will become a Union Territory, it will not have its own legislature – a sore point for some locals.
“Hopefully we will be getting that also, slowly,” said Samphel, 71, adding that local politicians would put that demand to New Delhi.
Ladakh’s economy, traditionally dependent on farming, has benefited from tourists visiting ancient monasteries and trekking up mountain peaks.
- C. Thakur, general manager of The Zen Ladakh hotel in Leh, hopes that dissociating from Jammu and Kashmir will further attract visitors. He expects the hotel’s occupancy to jump by up to 7 percentage points from an average of around 80-85% currently. “Next year will be good,” he said.