Modi on first trip to disputed Kashmir amid tight security

Indian prime minister says his objective is to win the hearts of Kashmiris

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi flagging off the first train at Katra,  a small town 275km south of Srinagar, while inaugurating a railway line linking a popular Hindu shrine to the rest of the country. Photograph: EPA/government of India information bureau

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi flagging off the first train at Katra, a small town 275km south of Srinagar, while inaugurating a railway line linking a popular Hindu shrine to the rest of the country. Photograph: EPA/government of India information bureau

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:06

Prime minister Narendra Modi arrived yesterday to empty streets and a security lockdown on his maiden visit to India’s northern disputed Kashmir province, after Islamist separatists imposed a strike demanding political dialogue over the divided region’s future.

Police erected barricades to stop and search vehicles entering Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar ahead of Mr Modi’s arrival and heavily armed paramilitaries patrolled major roads across the war-torn Himalayan province, ravaged by a Muslim insurgency since 1989.

Schools, offices and shops were closed and a curfew declared in Srinagar’s old city area, with residents ordered to stay indoors to prevent violent protests by separatist groups opposed to Indian rule in Kashmir. Several separatist leaders were put under house arrest or detained, officials said.

The authorities did not even permit worshippers to pray at Jamia Masjid, Srinagar’s main mosque, on the first Friday of Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting. Prayers, however, were permitted in smaller surrounding mosques.

“My objective is to win the hearts of the people of Kashmir through development,” Mr Modi said at Katra, a small town 275km south of Srinagar while inaugurating a railway line linking a popular Hindu shrine to the rest of the country.

“This facility is not just meant for the people of the state, but for the millions of Indians who want to travel to the shrine.” His aim, he told an audience comprising mostly official and security personnel, was to win the hearts of the people.

Later in the day Mr Modi inaugurated a hydroelectric dam high up in the Himalayas adjoining the Line of Control, the de facto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

The prime minster also addressed army troops at Srinagar’s vast Badami Bagh cantonment and reviewed the security situation in the province where more than 65,000 people, mostly Muslims, have died in the insurgency.

India blames Pakistan – which controls a third of Kashmir and lays claim to the rest – for stoking the Muslim insurgency for an independent homeland by training and arming militants, a claim Islamabad denies.

Kashmir is India’s only Muslim-majority province; this dominance increased after tens of thousands of Hindus fled the state to escape religious persecution in early 1990, weeks after the insurgency erupted.

Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government is committed to resettling the Hindus back in Kashmir under a controversial proposal that seeks their rehabilitation in segregated, ghetto-like protected enclaves, which many local Muslim leaders oppose. They fear that under the guise of resettling the Hindu population, Mr Modi’s administration would ultimately dilute their majority and swamp them.

The day before Mr Modi’s visit, Kashmir’s grand mufti, Bashir-un-Din Ahmad, said the Hindus would be welcome to return to their abandoned homes, but warned against a proposal to create separate settlements for them. Fearful of their safety, few if any Hindus want to return to their homes.

Hardline separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelanihas accused Mr Modi of aiming to “water down” Kashmir’s ethnic and religious demographics by settling “Hindu fundamentalists” in the state.

Mr Modi’s supposed bias against Muslims stokes such fears. His vigorous Hindu nationalism and links to anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in western Gujarat state as its chief minister, in which more than 1,200 people died over several weeks of mayhem, trouble many Kashmiris.

Al though exonerated by several judicial commissions inquiring into the anti-Muslim pogrom, Mr Modi has steadfastly refused to express remorse over the killings and is consequently feared by India’s Muslim community.