Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, chief minister of India's occupied Kashmir region and one of the country's best-known Muslim politicians, died on Thursday, an official said. Sayeed died in hospital in New Delhi after being admitted on December 24 suffering from a respiratory illness, a hospital official told AFP. His party gained popularity in the occupied Kashmir on a promise to bring a "healing touch" to the war-ravaged area, and Sayeed had won praise for his efforts to bring about reconciliation.
The 79-year-old, whose party is in a controversial coalition with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party in the Himalayan region, is likely to be succeeded as chief minister by his daughter. His daughter Mehbooba Mufti, current head of the moderate People's Democratic Party (PDP) that he founded in 1999, is widely expected to take over as the state's first female chief minister.
Thousands of locals including several top politicians flocked a sports ground in Srinagar on Thursday to offer prayers for Sayeed after his body was flown to the city. His body was then moved towards his home town of Anantnag, around 56 kilometres (35 miles) from occupied Srinagar, where an even bigger crowd waited to bid a final farewell to the veteran leader.
"Mufti Sahab's demise leaves a huge void in the nation & in occupied J&K (Jammu and Kashmir state) where his exemplary leadership had a major impact on people's lives," the prime minister tweeted, using an honorific for Sayeed. Sayeed's PDP controversially went into coalition in occupied Jammu and Kashmir state with Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party after state elections at the end of 2014.
The PDP's main support base is among Muslims in the occupied Kashmir Valley, the epicentre of the separatist insurgency that broke out in 1989, although the party stops short of calling for independence for the restive Himalayan region. Analysts said the death of the veteran leader, who also served as chief minister in held Kashmir after his party's election in 2002 until 2005, was unlikely to trigger major change.
"The BJP and PDP have limited options and will try to continue in power," said Happymon Jacob, assistant professor of international studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "But Mehbooba is a bit immature when it comes to the administrative part. She has never held any position in the government and has to start from scratch in an alliance with an ideologically disparate partner."
Sayeed, a former lawyer, was appointed India's first Muslim home minister in 1989. Later the same year another of his daughters was kidnapped by Kashmiri militants. She was eventually released in exchange for five jailed rebels. Despite gaining praise for his reconciliation efforts, he also faced criticism at home for his perceived closeness to New Delhi. A profile of the chief minister in the latest issue of Indian magazine The Caravan was headlined "The Collaborator - How Mufti Mohammad Sayeed became Delhi's man in held Kashmir". Sayeed's funeral is expected to take place later in the day Thursday.