Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended India’s decades-long military presence in the disputed Kashmir region, saying troops were there to safeguard the country’s democracy against separatist rebels.
He deplored on Monday a series of rebel attacks that took place on Friday and killed 21 people, including eight Indian soldiers and three police officers.
“Our soldiers have sacrificed their lives to safeguard democracy,” he told a campaign rally in Samba town in the disputed Himalayan territory, which is holding local elections this month. “Now you must vote to safeguard their sacrifices,” he said.
Modi was in Jammu and Kashmir state for the third time in a month, campaigning for his Bharitya Janata Party in India’s only Muslim-majority state, where rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989.
The region was on high alert on Monday with paramilitary snipers on rooftops, road barricades and sniffer dogs near rally sites. A daytime curfew was imposed in some parts of Srinagar barring residents from leaving their homes. Main roads leading into the city were lined with razor wire to contain traffic, while police and paramilitary soldiers patrolled on foot and in armoured vehicles.
Pro-India Kashmiri parties promise to boost development and infrastructure if they win, while separatists say the polls are an illegitimate exercise under a military occupation that dates back to India’s independence in 1947.
Modi also addressed a rally in Srinagar.
Hundreds of people from the countryside and towns had arrived by bus and taxi for that rally, in a sports stadium festooned with orange BJP flags and huge banners bearing Modi’s face.
Voter Abdul Jabbar, 50, said he was attending Modi’s rally in Srinagar in hopes that the prime minister would help the mountainous region tackle rampant corruption and unemployment, which are promises Modi has repeatedly made at the national level.
“He is the prime minister of India, and has the power to tackle our issues,” Jabbar said.
Many Kashmiris are also hoping a new government would speed efforts to rebuild Srinagar and other towns devastated by extreme flooding in September.
Authorities have detained hundreds of separatist leaders and activists in recent days who had called for an election boycott.
Shops, schools and other businesses were shuttered on Monday after the separatist umbrella group All Parties Hurriyat Conference called for a general strike to “send a clear message to Indian leadership that Kashmiris have never accepted the dominance and hegemony of Indian union and they would decide their political future only through right to self-determination.”
More than 68,000 people have been killed since 1989 in the rebel uprising and a subsequent Indian military crackdown that has suppressed most rebel activity.
Kashmir is also claimed by Pakistan, which India accuses of supporting the rebels with arms and training. Pakistan denies the allegation, saying it offers only moral and diplomatic support for their cause.
India and Pakistan fought two of their three wars since 1947 over rival claims to Kashmir.