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India divides disputed Kashmir

SRINAGAR: Shops and offices were shut in Kashmir on Thursday and the streets largely deserted as the authorities formally revoked the restive state’s constitutional autonomy and split it into two government territories.

The move, announced in early August when India imposed a lockdown and sent in tens of thousands of extra troops, saw Jammu and Kashmir cease to be a state and split into two new administrative territories ruled directly from New Delhi.

Speaking next to a colossal statue of independence hero Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in his home state of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday hailed a “bright future” for the region.

Police and paramilitary troops in bulletproof gear patrolled the streets in the densely populated old quarters of the main city of Srinagar and other towns across the volatile Kashmir Valley.

“We are happy that Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh are moving towards a new future from today onwards. Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir today are taking steps for their bright future,” Modi said.

In early August, Modi’s Hindu nationalist government stripped Indian-occupied Kashmir of its special status in the constitution, detaining thousands of people, including almost all local political leaders, and cutting telecommunications.

It also announced that from October 31, the state would become two so-called union territories: Ladakh to the east bordering China, which also claims part of it and Jammu and Kashmir in the west. New Delhi has a much bigger say in the overall administrative affairs of union territories, considered the lowest governance unit in India. There are now nine union territories and 28 states.

Amid the tight security, low-key ceremonies on Thursday in Srinagar and the territories’ main cities, were due to see two new Lieutenant Governors sworn into office. The move also removes occupied Kashmiris’ exclusive land rights, allowing people from elsewhere to buy property. Locals suspect that this is part of Modi’s aim to bring demographic change in the region. Almost three months after Modi’s surprise move, which came only weeks after he was re-elected in a landslide, hundreds of Kashmiri politicians and others remain in detention, mostly without charge.

In total, several thousand people were locked up, including children as young as nine,  with most subsequently released. There have also been allegations of torture by Indian troops, something the government denies. Access to around half of mobile phones was only restored on October 14 and the internet remains cut for the Kashmir Valley’s more than seven million people.

The UN High Commission for Human Rights in Geneva said Tuesday that it was “extremely concerned” at the situation.

“We urge the Indian authorities to unlock the situation and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied,” it said.

Meanwhile, Pakistan on Thursday rejected the “bifurcation” of India-occupied Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories.

“Changing of the status of the Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir is in complete violation of the UN Security Council Resolutions and Bilateral Agreements between India and Pakistan, especially the Simla Agreement,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. The disputed territory is an internationally-recognized disputed territory, it said, adding no step by the Government of India can change this.

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