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India’s Modi pledges to win hearts in first visit to disputed Kashmir

SRINAGAR, July 4 – India’s Narendra Modi pledged on Friday to “win the hearts” of the Kashmiri people as he faced a hostile reception during his first visit as prime minister to the tense Himalayan region.

File photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
File photo of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

As schools and shops closed in the main city of Srinagar to protest the visit, Modi opened a railway line elsewhere in the restive Muslim-majority state, promising increased infrastructure and development.

Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, inaugurated the line in Katra town, 270 kilometres (168 miles) from Srinagar, that links a popular Hindu shrine in the disputed region with India’s vast and neglected railway network.

“Our railway stations can be better than airports. This is possible,” Modi said after flagging off the first train on the Udhampur-Katra line.

“Private parties can also participate, they will also benefit,” he added.

“It is every Indian’s dream to see happiness and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.

“My aim is to win the hearts of the people of the state.”

The line is part of an ambitious project to connect the Kashmir Valley, where a separatist movement opposed to Indian rule is centred, with the network sometime in 2017.

The trip by Modi, whose party secured a landslide win in polls in May on a pledge to revive the economy, has provoked a sharp reaction from influential separatist groups which called a general strike.

Businesses were mostly closed in Srinagar as a result and the city’s streets were largely deserted, while top separatist leaders were put under house arrest in a security crackdown ahead of Modi’s arrival.

Separatists rejected Modi’s comments on Friday, reiterating demands for a political process to resolve the dispute over Kashmir.

“Development is fine but our primary aspiration is security, right to life and fundamental political rights which will come when the Kashmir dispute is resolved,” chief cleric and a top separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, told AFP from his house where he is confined in Srinagar.

He criticised Modi’s decision to visit Kashmir on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which meant he was barred from leading prayers in the city’s main mosque as part of the crackdown.

Separatist leader Yasin Malik also rejected Modi’s comments on development, saying it would never take priority “over our demand for freedom and self government”.

Divided region

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, which both claim the region in full but administer separate partial areas. The neighbours have fought two of their three wars over its control.

Since 1989, an armed rebellion against Indian rule by about a dozen rebel groups seeking independence for Kashmir or a merger of the territory with Pakistan has left tens of thousands dead.

The dispute with Pakistan and the insurgency has made Indian Kashmir one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world where many chafe under tight security restrictions and complain of human rights abuses.

Ahead of the visit, Modi sparked anger in the region over his apparent plans to curb the region’s autonomy.

During election campaigning, Modi had argued for “a discussion” about Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which specifies that laws passed by the national parliament are not applied to Kashmir unless approved by the local legislature.

In May, soon after Modi took office, junior minister Jitendra Singh said that the federal government had “begun the process” of abrogating the constitutional provision that gives India’s only Muslim-majority state its special status.

On Friday, Modi also met troops and held a security meeting at army headquarters in Srinagar where hundreds of police and paramilitary were seen patrolling the streets.

Restrictions for the visit were also imposed on civilians’ movements in parts of the city’s volatile old town, a top police officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Modi was expected to travel to the town of Uri close to the disputed border with Pakistan to inaugurate a hydro-power project.