India’s move to carve up Kashmir and curtail its autonomous powers has caused division and anger in parts of the far-flung Himalayan region even as followers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi rejoice.
Since Modi’s shock decree last week, protests and celebrations in many towns have widened religious fault lines between communities in the strategic region.
International focus has remained on the Kashmir valley, where tens of thousands of troops have enforced a lockdown and cut off phone lines and internet connections to head off opposition to the government move. But tensions have spread to other parts of the state, which will be cut in two under the new administrative arrangements.
In remote Ladakh, the region’s Buddhist minority welcomed Modi’s decision to split the territory from the Muslim-majority valley.
“Ladakh has finally gained freedom,” exclaimed Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian diplomat and now head of a conference centre in Leh, the region’s largest town.
Despite Ladakh’s sparse population and thin air, its border with China’s regions of Tibet to the east and Xinjiang to the north make it strategically important to New Delhi.
At the other end of Ladakh, many in the Shia Muslim majority town of Kargil are in shock.
“This was an undemocratic move. It should be rolled back,” Asgar Ali Karbalai, a former regional lawmaker, told AFP by telephone.
As a so-called union territory, Ladakh will not have its own legislature under the new system. “It just takes away our voice,” said Karbalai. “The debate around this issue may become communal now as, I feel, most Muslims in Ladakh oppose and the Buddhists support the move.”
But even in Kargil, many are looking for a boost to the rudimentary economy promised by Modi, who said tourism and even the film industry would bolster Ladakh and Kashmir if there was peace.
While Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city with a population of around 1.2 million, remains under curfew, the city of Jammu further south, with a population of over 500,000, is slowly returning to normal.
Jammu is more than 60 percent Hindu and Sikh, and its citizens have long complained about Muslim-majority Kashmir’s dominance in politics and business. Many local communities’ leaders were seen dancing in the streets of Jammu city waving Indian flags after Modi’s announcement.
Yesterday, the J&K state governor said that restrictions on freedom of movement in the Kashmir will be eased after India’s Independence Day celebrations, although phone lines and the internet will remain cut off.
“We don’t want to give that instrument to the enemy until things settle down,” Satya Pal Malik told Times of India told the paper in an interview.
“In a week or 10 days, everything will be alright and we will gradually open lines of communication,” he said.