Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised early elections for the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir days after stripping the Muslim-majority region of statehood and turning it into a federally administered territory.
Under its new status, the territory will have an elected assembly but will function under the control of the federal government in New Delhi. The constitutional changes also eliminate Kashmir’s right to its own constitution, limit its decision-making power and allow non-Kashmiri Indians to settle there.
Modi introduced the changes this week as India’s Election Commission was already working on a schedule for elections in Kashmir before the end of the year.
Kashmir, a restive Himalayan region, is claimed by both Hindu-majority India and its archrival, Muslim-majority Pakistan, although each controls only a portion of it. Rebels have been fighting Indian rule since 1989.
In a speech late Thursday, Modi said the changes will help free the disputed region of “terrorism and separatism” and put it on a path to development.
Kashmiri leaders have labeled the changes “the darkest day” in India’s democracy.
WHAT DID MODI SAY?
Modi said Kashmir is ready to undo decades of neglect by a political system dominated by two families, which he said had bred dynastic rule and corruption. He also rejected criticism that the new assembly would have little power with key decisions made by the federal government. A lieutenant governor appointed by New Delhi will oversee the region’s governance.
“Your representative will be chosen only by you,” he said. “I assure you that you will get an opportunity to elect your representatives very soon with full transparency.”
WHAT’S LIKELY TO HAPPEN?
Indian-controlled Kashmir plunged into a political crisis last year when a coalition between Modi’s Hindu nationalist party and a powerful regional group, the People’s Democratic Party, collapsed, mainly over differences on the region’s future status. Modi’s government put the state under direct New Delhi rule in June last year.
It’s unclear how many voters would participate in any elections, with many Kashmiris angry over an unprecedented security clampdown imposed by Modi’s government along with the changes in the region’s status.
Kashmir has a history of low voter turnout, a reflection of discontent as well as boycott calls by separatist groups seeking the region’s independence or merger with Pakistan.
Voter turnout was just 19% in national elections held in the region in May-June.
Mainstream Kashmir politicians oppose the latest changes, and several have been detained by Indian authorities, including two former top elected officials.
WHAT ELSE DOES MODI PLAN?
The Modi government may give voting rights to thousands of refugees, including Hindus, who entered Kashmir after the creation of Muslim-majority Pakistan in 1947. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party has long advocated citizenship and voting rights for the migrants from Pakistan.
Modi said Kashmir’s new status would give its people the right to education, a minimum wage law and statutes ensuring the rights of minorities, saying the region’s past special status had deprived it of them.
He said an end to the insurgency would boost tourism in Kashmir, known for its stunning mountain vistas, and encourage outside investment that would improve its economy.
Nuclear-armed rival Pakistan has reacted strongly to the changes in disputed Kashmir by downgrading diplomatic relations with India and ending bilateral trade.
Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi is visiting China as part of efforts to pressure India to reverse its decision.
Pakistan said it will continue to give moral and diplomatic support to Kashmiris opposed to Indian rule. India accuses Pakistan of providing arms and training to rebels to attack Indian forces and other targets, a charge Islamabad denies.
India and Pakistan fought two of their three wars since independence from British colonialists in 1947 over control of Kashmir. The first war ended in 1948 with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire that left Kashmir divided and promised its people a U.N.-sponsored referendum on the region’s future. It has never been held. The second war in 1965 ended in a stalemate.