India’s Modi visits Srinagar, first since Kashmir autonomy removed in 2019

The visit comes ahead of India’s national election due by May, the first since the government scrapped region’s special status.

Modi in Kashmir
A paramilitary soldier stands guard near a billboard ahead of Indian PM Narendra Modi's visit to Srinagar [Mukhtar Khan/AP]

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made his first official visit to the main city of Indian-administrated Kashmir since New Delhi scrapped the disputed region’s semi-autonomy in 2019.

Addressing a crowd in a football stadium in Srinagar, Modi on Thursday announced development projects and said previous governments had misled people over the region’s special status.

Modi’s government stripped the Muslim-majority territory of its special constitutional status, splitting the former state into two territories – Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir – directly ruled from New Delhi. Inherited protections on land and jobs given to the Indigenous residents were also removed.

The move, widely welcomed across India, angered many in the densely militarised territory. Rebels in the Himalayan region have waged a rebellion since 1989, seeking independence or a merger with Pakistan, which controls a smaller part of the Kashmir region and, like India, claims it in full.

“The success story of Jammu and Kashmir will be the centre of attraction for the world,” he said, adding the region has prospered since the 2019 move.

“This new Jammu-Kashmir has the courage to overcome any challenge,” he said. “The country is seeing these smiling faces of yours … [and] feeling relieved to see you all happy.”

Modi Kashmir
People watch from closed windows of their home near the venue of Modi’s rally in Srinagar [Mukhtar Khan/AP]

Although Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not a key player in Kashmir, the visit is seen as a signal to its voters that the party has fulfilled a core promise to end Kashmir’s special status.

Thursday’s event was also a part of Modi’s campaign ahead of national election scheduled in April and May, the first since the region lost its autonomy. The last election for the region’s legislative assembly was held in 2014, but the government was dismissed in 2018.

Modi did not mention plans to hold elections in the region or to restore its statehood, both demanded by Indian-administered Kashmir’s pro-India political parties. His close aide and federal Home Minister Amit Shah has repeatedly promised that the region would be regain statehood after elections.

In December, India’s Supreme Court upheld the 2019 decision and asked the government to conduct state polls by September.

Modi’s government claims New Delhi’s direct rule of Kashmir brought about a new era of “peace and development” in the region, but critics and many residents say it heralded a drastic curtailment of civil liberties and press freedom.

For security, thousands of armed police and paramilitary forces in flak jackets were deployed, and new checkpoints were set up across Srinagar. The forces laid razor wire as they patrolled all the roads leading to the football stadium and randomly frisked residents and searched vehicles.

Navy commandos in motorboats patrolled the Jhelum river that snakes through the city. Most schools in the city are shut for the day, and the authorities have called on government employees to attend the rally.

Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, accused the government of organising buses to bring in crowds to attend the rally, alleging that “almost none” would be attending willingly.

“This visit is only meant to … drum up support amongst the BJP’s core constituency in the rest of India for the upcoming parliament elections,” Mehbooba Mufti, another former chief minister and former BJP ally, posted on social network X.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies