Shops and offices were shut in Indian occupied Kashmir on Thursday and the streets largely deserted as federal authorities formally revoked the restive area’s constitutional autonomy and split it into two federal territories.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision in August to change occupied Kashmir’s status and tighten its grip over the region has stoked anger and resentment among Kashmiris.
Just after midnight on Wednesday, the federal government’s orders went into effect, dividing up occupied Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories; one Jammu and Kashmir, and the other the Buddhist-dominated high altitude region of Ladakh.
Both will be directly ruled by Delhi, and new lieutenant governors were due to be sworn in at a high-security governor’s premises later on Thursday.
But the most contentious change for many people is the threat of land grabs by Indians outside the region with the formal abrogation of a clause in the Indian Constitution that safeguarded Kashmiris’ exclusive right to land ownership.
“Everything changes on Thursday,” said a retired Kashmiri judge, Hasnain Masoodi, a member of India’s Parliament. “The entire exercise is unconstitutional. The mode and methodology have been undemocratic. People were humiliated and never consulted.”
Masoodi represents the National Conference, a powerful pro-India Kashmiri political group whose leaders have been detained.
Ahead of the biggest change in occupied Kashmir on August 5, authorities shut down internet access, mobile and landline phone service and cable TV for the region’s 12.5 million people.
The shutdown disrupted business and schools and demoralised the people.
With international pressure mounting to restore freedoms, authorities have begun easing the restrictions, lifting roadblocks and restoring landlines and some cellphone service. They have encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen. But Kashmiris have largely stayed home, in defiance or in fear amid threats of violence.
Authorities continue to limit internet access, saying it is likely to be used to organise anti-India protests and violence.
Protests and arrests
Despite a siege by tens of thousands of government forces, hundreds of anti-India protests and clashes have erupted across the region. Government forces have fired tear gas, shotguns and firearms to prevent stone-throwing protesters from marching in the streets, leaving at least three people dead and hundreds injured.
At least 4,000 people, mostly young men, had been arrested since the security lockdown was imposed in the first week of August. Indian officials say at least 3,000 have since been released.
About 250 of those still being held have been moved to various Indian jails outside occupied Kashmir.
Records show that about 300 of those are being held under the contentious Public Safety Act, which allows authorities to detain people for up to two years without trial.
Supreme Court battle
Kashmiri people’s hopes rest with India’s Supreme Court, which is set to begin hearings in early November on petitions challenging the validity of the abrogation of Article 370 of the constitution, which gave a special status to occupied Kashmir. A decision is expected within several months.
What does Modi plan?
The Modi government claims occupied Kashmir’s new status gives its people right that were denied to them under its past special status, including a right to education, a minimum wage law and statutes ensuring the rights of minorities.
Modi says an end to an anti-India insurgency would boost tourism in Kashmir, known for its stunning mountain vistas, and encourage outside investment that would improve its economy.
Pakistan has reacted strongly to the changes imposed by India by downgrading diplomatic relations with New Delhi and ending bilateral trade. It also has stopped train, bus and postal services.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has vigorously raised the issue at the United Nations, international human rights organisations and other forums. It says it will continue to give moral and diplomatic support to Kashmiris opposed to Indian occupation.