SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - India will formally split up disputed Jammu and Kashmir state into two federal territories on Thursday, aiming to tighten its grip on the restive region that has been in the grip of a harsh security clampdown for nearly three months.
Street protests against the measures have erupted sporadically, while militants have killed about a dozen people from outside the state in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government withdrew Kashmir’s autonomy in August but in addition it also announced the division of the state into two territories to be directly ruled from New Delhi - one consisting of Jammu and Kashmir and the other the remote Buddhist enclave of Ladakh.
(For a graphic on 'India scraps special status for Kashmir' click here)
At the same time it poured thousands of more troops into the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley where separatists have been fighting against Indian rule for decades, and made sweeping arrests to prevent any outbreak of violence.
The government also imposed severe restrictions on travel and cut telephone and internet lines. Some measures have been scaled back but a security lockdown is still largely in place and broadband and mobile internet connections remain unavailable to most Kashmiris.
Schools and colleges are empty and most shops, restaurants and hotels shut. Hundreds of people, including mainstream political leaders and separatists fighting for Kashmir’s secession from India, remain in custody for fear that they could whip up mass protests that have in the past turned violent.
Wajahat Habibullah, a former bureaucrat who served in Kashmir and traveled to the region’s main city last month, said Kashmiris felt humiliated to lose their statehood.
“Whatever the attitude of (federal) governments in the past, they at least felt they had something of their own. Now, there is a kind of feeling of having lost whatever freedom they had,” he said.
On Tuesday, suspected militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir shot dead five construction workers who had come to work from eastern India.
Officials said the killings appeared to be part of a campaign to deter outsiders from working in Kashmir. Truckers involved in the apple trade were targeted earlier in the month, also in the southern part of Kashmir, a hotbed of militant activity.
Crowds have also been gathering this week in the streets of Srinagar, the biggest city in Kashmir, and elsewhere, throwing stones at security forces in protest against the continuing clampdown.
On Thursday, G. C. Murmu, a former bureaucrat from Modi’s home state of Gujarat, will be sworn in as the first lieutenant governor of the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the government said.
Another former civil servant, Radha Krishna Mathur, will take office as the lieutenant governor of Ladakh, the Buddhist-dominated high altitude region that has long sought to disentangle itself from Kashmir, on grounds that the turmoil there had hurt its own growth prospects.
The Modi administration is hoping to ramp up tourism and infrastructure investment in Ladakh, known for its snow capped peaks and rocky desert plateaus, and is also an area of dispute with China which lays claims to parts of it.
Within the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, there are expectations that the takeover by the federal government will lead to development and shift the focus away from the Kashmir valley, where the insurgency is centered.
“There are three parts to this story, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. The problem is confined to Kashmir and that too a handful of districts. Why should the rest of the state suffer,” said a top official in New Delhi involved in the political strategy to deal with Kashmir.
Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan