NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s government will formally break up Jammu and Kashmir state into two federal territories on Thursday, as part of a sweeping move to tighten its grip over the restive region that is at the heart of more than 70 years of hostility with Pakistan.
The Himalayan state comprises the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley which is the bone of contention, the Hindu-dominated Jammu region and the remote, high altitude Buddhist enclave of Ladakh.
Under the new arrangement, Jammu and Kashmir will be clubbed as one union territory with some 12.2 million people and Ladakh, with a population of less than 300,000 spun off into another, both ruled directly by Delhi.
The Kashmir valley region of the state is one of the world’s most militarized regions, where militants have waged a decades-long war against Indian rule, killing tens of thousands of people.
It has long been one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoint. Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir in full but rule in part, and have fought two of their three wars over the region.
In February, the rivals nearly went to war again, after a suicide attack in Indian Kashmir killed 40 paramilitary troopers. India sent warplanes into Pakistan, which then mounted a counter-attack, and an Indian pilot was shot down and captured in the ensuing skirmish.
China and India also contest an ill-defined border in the Ladakh region, where troops from both sides have occasionally confronted each other.
In 1962, India lost a short but bloody war with China, fought in Ladakh and eastern Arunachal Pradesh state. Arunachal Pradesh remains in India’s control, while China administers a large area adjacent to Ladakh called Aksai Chin.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had long wanted to do away with the special provisions that had given Jammu and Kashmir its own constitution, a flag and the right to frame its own laws.
The provisions were granted to the state via the Indian Constitution’s Article 370, after Jammu and Kashmir’s Hindu king agreed to accede to India in 1947.
On August 5, Modi’s government revoked Article 370 and other related provisions, passing a new law to reorganize Jammu and Kashmir.
Simultaneously, it locked the region down, detaining thousands of people, imposing movement restrictions and enforcing a communications blackout. Many of those detained have now been released and most curbs eased.
The state of around 12.5 million people will be bifurcated into two federally-administered territories on Oct 31, with the Jammu region and Kashmir valley comprising one and the Buddhist-enclave of Ladakh forming the other.
Headed by a lieutenant governor appointed by New Delhi, the new Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir will have its own elected assembly with a five-year term, but most powers will be retained by New Delhi.
Ladakh, a wind-swept high-altitude desert region that borders China, will be under the federal government’s direct administration with its own lieutenant governor.
Culturally, religiously and ethnically different from the Kashmir Valley, many Ladakhis have long wanted their land to be recognized as a separate union territory.
Ladakh’s two districts - including Kargil, where India and Pakistan fought a short war in 1999 - were already run by “hill councils”, giving them more autonomy than other parts of Jammu and Kashmir state.
On Thursday, Ladakh will separate entirely, with some hoping it will bring more development to the remote province. And on cue, the federal government this month said it would open up parts of Ladakh’s Siachen glacier, the world’s highest battlefield, to tourists.
Post-separation, Jammu and Kashmir will have five representatives in India’s lower house, while Ladakh will send one representative to the parliament in New Delhi.
On the ground, the reorganization will significantly dilute the ability of Jammu and Kashmir representatives to govern their own affairs by making 106 federal laws applicable to the region, including India’s penal code.
More than 150 laws made by the state government will also be repealed, and amendments made in seven other laws. Among those will be provisions that will lift prohibitions on leasing land to persons who are not permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir.
There has been apprehension, particularly in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, that the scrapping of Article 370 will lead to an influx of outsiders buying land and settling there.
The reorganization specifies that the Jammu and Kashmir assembly will not be able to make laws on policing and public order, effectively ceding control of the entire security apparatus to New Delhi.
Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani & Simon Cameron-Moore