Tight security as Modi visits Srinagar for first time since revoking Kashmir's special status

Tight security as Modi visits Srinagar for first time since revoking Kashmir's special status
Tight security as Modi visits Srinagar for first time since revoking Kashmir's special status

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - NEW DELHI — Indian PM Narendra Modi is on his first visit to the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley since revoking the region's semi-autonomous status in 2019.

Modi will address a rally in Srinagar, just weeks before India's general election dates are announced.

Reports say his Bharatiya Janata Party will mobilize thousands of people to attend the event amid tight security.

An armed revolt against Indian rule in the disputed territory has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the 1980s.

Kashmir was divided after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947. The two nuclear-armed states both claim the region in its entirety and have fought two wars over it in the decades since.

Revoking part of the Indian constitution that allowed Indian-administered Kashmir special status had been a poll promise and Modi's government announced the move soon after he won re-election in 2019. Article 370 had granted significant autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the right to have its own flag, legislature, constitution and laws.

It was the only Muslim-majority state in India. After the abrogation of Article 370, its 12 million people were divided into two federally-administered territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and remote, mountainous Ladakh.

Tens of thousands of extra Indian troops were deployed ahead of the move, which shocked locals and upended normal life in the region — but was backed by many of Modi's supporters. Schools and colleges were shut in the former state, tourists ordered to leave, telephone and internet services suspended and local political leaders placed under house arrest or moved to jails in other parts of India.

Modi's visit on Thursday will set the tone for the BJP's campaign in the region for the coming general election, analysts say.

The prime minister could announce development projects, like he did in February during his visit to Jammu, with its mostly Hindu population, reports quoting BJP leaders suggest.

Analysts say the message Modi will want to send is that things are back to normal in the territory, despite incidents of violence and high levels of unemployment. His government is keen to talk up projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars that it says are part of a plan to integrate Kashmir's economy with the rest of India.

Until Jammu and Kashmir's special status was removed, outsiders could not buy land to do business there. Many locals say they have yet to see the benefits of such projects. Most of those the BBC spoke to ahead of the visit were critical, although one or two were prepared to wait and see what the PM said.

One worker at a private firm in Srinagar told the BBC that removing Article 370 had been a "great injustice" and he would not go to the PM's rally. "When did he ever talk about the atrocities being committed against Muslims across the country?"

Another person said: "Electricity rates are skyrocketing. One has to put in so much effort even to get rice. Inflation is skyrocketing. Why should we go to listen to the speech of such a government?"

In Jammu in February Modi had said that Article 370 had been an impediment to progress. India's Supreme Court upheld the abrogation of Article 370 in December — but said the government had promised to restore Jammu-Kashmir's statehood and should do so as soon as possible.

Before his speech, Modi will visit army headquarters in Srinagar. The presence of Indian forces is contentious, with security personnel accused of numerous human rights abuses and other excesses over decades.

Prior to Modi's visit, the streets of Srinagar were cleaned and bill boards put up to welcome him. Thousands of government officials are reported to have been asked to attend the public address and help run the event.

Former Kashmiri chief minister Omar Abdullah said that "almost none" of those attending would be doing so of their free will. "This participation isn't optional, it's compulsory. Employees who don't show up are been threatened with disciplinary action," he alleged in a message on X, formerly Twitter.

Thousands of security personnel have been deployed to guard the Bakshi stadium where Modi will deliver his address. Vehicles moving in and out of Srinagar are being checked and people frisked.

Thursday's visit is one among many events Modi will attend before general election voting dates are announced. On Wednesday, he inaugurated an underwater metro rail tunnel in Kolkata in India's West Bengal state. — BBC

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