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India downgrades Kashmir’s status and takes greater control over contested region

India has officially split the former state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, a move that gives the government in New Delhi greater control over the disputed Muslim-majority region.

From Thursday, most of Jammu and Kashmir — including a section of the disputed Kashmir Valley controlled by India — was stripped of its statehood and turned into one union territory.

The remote mountainous region of Ladakh, previously a part of the state, was separated and turned into another standalone territory, the Home Ministry announced.

The unprecedented move comes nearly three months after the government launched a security crackdown in Indian-controlled Kashmir, suspending all communications initially, and placing heavy restrictions on movement and public gatherings.

As tens of thousands of Indian troops moved into the Kashmir Valley — already one of the most militarized regions in the world — the Indian government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s decades-old special status on August 5, effectively stripping the state of its autonomy.

Since 1949, Article 370 of India’s constitution gave Jammu and Kashmir the power to have its own constitution, flag and autonomy over all matters, save for certain policy areas such as foreign affairs and defense.

That’s no more.

The scrapping of Article 370 brought Jammu and Kashmir under all the provisions of the Indian constitution. The move allows non-residents to purchase property in the valley, and apply for jobs or scholarships that had previously been reserved for the state’s existing population.

Experts said the move could open the way for a demographic change in India’s only Muslim-majority state. Revoking Kashmir’s special status was one of the promises made by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party ahead of recent national elections.

Also on August 5, the government introduced a bill to change Jammu and Kashmir’s administrative status from a state to a union territory. It was signed into law days afterwards, and took effect on October 31. In the Indian system, state governments retain significant authority over local matters. But New Delhi has more of a say in the affairs of a union territory.

While Jammu and Kashmir will still be able to elect its own legislative assembly, all of its administrative regions are now largely controlled by the central government. Ladakh, however will not have its own legislature.

The creation of the two new territories coincides with National Unity Day and the 144th birthday of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who is seen as the architect of incorporating more than 560 of colonial India’s princely states into a single union.

India now has 28 states and nine union territories.

On Thursday, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah said Article 370 and another that gave special rights to the state’s permanent residents, “were the gateway to terrorism in India.”

“Prime Minister Modi has closed this gate by revoking them,” he said in New Delhi.

The move prompted uproar from opposition parties, with critics saying the changes to Kashmir’s status could further inflame tensions and the risk of violence in an already unstable region.

The region has been the epicenter of an often-violent territorial struggle between India and Pakistan, as it has been claimed in its entirety by both nuclear-armed neighbors.

CNN