(Bloomberg) -- India’s top court upheld a government decision to scrap the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, boosting Prime Minister Narendra Modi who earlier pledged to bring the restive region under his administration’s direct control. 

The Supreme Court’s five-judge bench upheld the 2019 decision to remove the special status of the Himalayan region, said Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud. The court also directed the election commission to hold local polls in the region by September next year. 

“We have held that the state of Jammu and Kashmir did not retain an element of sovereignty,” when it joined India, Chandrachud said in court. The law guaranteeing the region’s special status was only “temporary” in nature, he added. 

The court ruling boosts Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the national elections due next year. Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, lost its special status under Article 370 of the constitution in August 2019, months after Modi’s party won elections by a landslide and the prime minister made good on a key election pledge. 

The Supreme Court was hearing petitions challenging a series of legislative and executive orders to scrap the special status of the region and split it into two territories. Since then, the administration had restricted the movement of people, curbed internet connectivity and arrested local political leaders. 

Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, the only judge on the bench with Kashmiri heritage, called the issue a sentimental one and addressed the region’s history with insurgency and displacement. He also called for a committee to be set up to probe human rights violations. 

“The situation became so aggravated that the very integrity and sovereignty of the country was in danger and that army had to be called in,” he said. “The men, women, and children of the state have paid a heavy price.”

Militancy in Jammu and Kashmir has led to 41,000 deaths between 1990 and 2017, according to a local news report citing government data. More than half of the dead were militants, the report said.  

Modi hailed the court verdict in a tweet, saying it was a “beacon of hope, a promise of a brighter future and a testament to our collective resolve to build a stronger, more united India.”

Autonomy

Modi’s move at the time to scrap seven decades of autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir raised tensions with neighbor and nuclear rival Pakistan, which also lays claim to the border territory. China brought up concerns about India’s decision to split the region into two and carve out the Buddhist region of Ladakh — an area of strategic importance between Tibet and Pakistan. 

India has called the decision an internal matter with no bearings on its borders with Pakistan and China, saying the move had to do with ensuring better governance in the region and boosting economic opportunities. Modi’s government repeated that argument in the top court this year, describing the move as bring an “unprecedented era of peace” in the area. 

The court asked the government to ensure that the restoration of statehood of Jammu and Kashmir is concluded quickly and proceeded to uphold the territory status for Ladakh. 

The region’s restoration to a full state is on the cards but may take time, the government earlier told the court. Tushar Mehta, India’s solicitor general, said the region may see polls soon although there is no clear timeline for it.

This is not the first time the Modi government has faced challenges to its orders on Jammu and Kashmir. In 2019, a petition was filed to contest the shutdown carried out after the region lost its special status with the Supreme Court ruling that the move was an abuse of power and not permissible. 

The verdict at the time, however, stopped short of reversing the restrictions and the top court asked the government to place such orders in public domain. 

(Updates throughout.)

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