SRINAGAR, India, Jan 7 – The leader of India’s insurgency-plagued Jammu and Kashmir state and an ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi died on Thursday, bringing political uncertainty to the disputed region at the heart of tension between India and Pakistan.
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, 79, died of a respiratory infection after spending the last two weeks in hospital in New Delhi, a spokesman for his Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said.
“Mufti Sahab’s demise leaves a huge void in the nation and in J&K, where his exemplary leadership had a major impact on people’s lives,” Modi said in a message on Twitter.
The Muslim-majority region is claimed in full, but ruled in part, by India and Pakistan and a high-level dialogue between the nuclear-armed neighbors only resumed recently after India agreed to add it to the agenda of talks that seek to reduce border tension and contain militant attacks.
Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, who met last month, are struggling to keep the talks on track after a militant attack last weekend on an Indian air base near the border.
India says the attack was carried out by Kashmiri separatists operating from Pakistan.
Sayeed, who was appointed to lead the state for a second time last year, formed an unlikely partnership with Modi’s Hindu nationalist party to govern state for the first time.
At the time, he likened a coalition with Modi’s party to a meeting of the North and South Pole.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to bring the contested region into the Indian mainstream, while Sayeed’s party supports self-rule.
Sayeed was a member of the state government during some of the worst years of the insurgency.
When he was home minister in 1989 his daughter was kidnapped by gunmen who threatened to kill her unless jailed militants were released. The government later agreed to their demands.
Another daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, a member of parliament, is expected to take over the party leadership.
She is known to take a more pro-Kashmiri stance than her father and the BJP on the most contentious issues, but the coalition is expected to last.
For example, she favors reining in more of the army’s shoot-to-kill powers and protecting the state’s special status that allows it to make its own laws.
India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir and clashes across their disputed frontier there do occur, although a 2003 ceasefire has largely held.