India is set to withdraw the special status of the disputed territory of Kashmir and split the state in two, in a move likely to face major resistance in the Muslim-majority state and escalate tensions with Pakistan.
The proposal, which has been advocated by Hindu nationalists for decades, is the most radical change any government has suggested for Kashmir’s status since the region was granted autonomy in exchange for joining the Indian union after independence in 1947
It follows a security crackdown in Indian-administered Kashmir, where extra troops have been deployed and thousands of pilgrims and tourists were abruptly evacuated at the weekend.
In the early hours of Monday, Kashmiri leaders said they had been placed under house arrest, internet and phone coverage to Kashmir valley was cut, public gatherings were banned and schools closed.
The government sought to revoke the state’s special status through a presidential order on Monday, which will be voted on by the lower house of parliament, controlled by Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). A government source said the vote was a technicality and the proposals were a done deal.
Mehbooba Mufti, Jammu and Kashmir’s former chief minister who was once in alliance with the BJP, tweeted that the government announcement would “make India an occupational force in Jammu and Kashmir … Today marks the darkest day in Indian democracy.”
The BJP has repeatedly pledged to scrap Kashmir’s special status but this is the first time a concrete proposal has been tabled.
The announcement could define Modi’s legacy as prime minister. However, it is expected to lead to a furious reaction from Pakistan, which also claims the territory. Two of the three wars India and Pakistan have fought since their independence from British rule have been over Kashmir.
On Monday, about 28 miles (45km) from the contested border, in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, dozens of protesters held black flags and burned car tyres, chanting: “Down with India”, according to reports by Reuters.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it would “exercise all possible options to counter the illegal steps” taken by India. The foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said the issue would also be raised with allies, including the US.
The move could also fuel the insurgency in Kashmir, which has continued for the past three decades and has left more than 70,000 people dead, mainly civilians.
The legal basis for the move is unclear as some analysts argue that according to the constitution, the consent of the state legislature is required to revoke Kashmir’s status.
Amid shouting in India’s parliament on Monday, the interior minister, Amit Shah, proposed the abolition of Kashmir’s special status, which is guaranteed under Article 370. This grants the state its own constitution and autonomy over all matters except for areas such as foreign affairs and defence.
Another provision, which prevents people from outside the state buying land in the territory, will also disappear. Many Kashmiris believe this rule is crucial to protecting the demography of the Muslim-majority state.
A government source said the change would bring the state’s laws in line with those of India and was crucial to ensuring development in Kashmir, which it said had been stifled by land ownership rules.
Currently, the state of Jammu and Kashmir comprises three regions: Hindu-majority Jammu, Muslim-majority Kashmir and Buddhist-majority Ladakh.
Shah said the government had decided to split the state into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, which will have a legislature; and Ladakh, which will be ruled directly by the central government without a legislature of its own.
The announcement was welcomed by Modi’s Hindu-nationalist supporters, who say that the provisions made under article 370 were only ever intended to be temporary. But others accused the government of failing to listen to the will of Kashmiri people and condemned the manner in which the government appeared to prepare for the announcement, by placing Kashmir on lockdown.
Over the weekend, panicked people across Kashmir, many of whom will be celebrating Eid next week, queued for hours outside petrol stations and cash machines.
After the announcement on Monday, Indian media reports said a further 8,000 troops had been deployed to Kashmir, bolstering its already heavy military presence.
In the early hours of Monday, Mufti and Sajad Lone, the president of the People’s Conference party, were among several politicians reporting they had been placed under house arrest. Omar Abdullah, the scion of a prominent political family in Kashmir and former chief minister in the state, said on Sunday evening he believed he would be placed under house arrest.
It is unclear when the security measures will be lifted in Kashmir, where a communications blackout remains. Sanjay Kak, a documentary film-maker whose family are Kashmiri, said he was unable to contact his parents.
“As of last night we had no contact and we don’t expect to for several days. I’m assuming all will be well,” he said. “But think of people with illnesses and small children and so on.”
Kashmiris are used to the internet being cut, he added, but this time even landlines were gone. He returned from Kashmir on Sunday and said the mood was unprecedented, adding that no one knew what was happening.
It is not clear the extent to which many Kashmiris were aware of the presidential order being debated in parliament, due to the cuts to communications.
“My biggest problem is that today the government has demonstrated that they can step aside the will of the people, they can step aside the elected representatives of the people … that’s very dangerous,” said Khalid Shah, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
“The best argument to the people of Jammu and Kashmir was that we are a democracy and, at the end of the day, in a democracy your rights and opinions will be taken care of.”
“What happens today will lay seeds for a very dark future and I don’t know what that future is going to be,” said Shah.