Modi makes rare pre-election Kashmir trip, but struggles to ‘win hearts’ | India Election 2024 News

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – In his first speech in the main city of Indian-administered Kashmir since scrapping its semi-autonomous status in 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed the move had brought development and prosperity to the region’s residents.

“I am working hard to win your hearts,” Modi told a rally in Srinagar on Thursday, where he announced a slew of development projects worth $777 million that he says will boost agro-economy and tourism in the disputed region .

“Today there is no Article 370, therefore the talent of the youth of Jammu and Kashmir is fully respected and given new opportunities. Today there are equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone here,” he said, referring to the constitutional provision that granted special status to the Muslim-majority region, which was also claimed by neighboring Pakistan.

“The country sees these smiling faces of yours… [and] I am relieved to see you all happy,” he said, ending his 27-minute speech by wishing people well during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that starts next week.

A paramilitary soldier stands guard as people queue for a security check outside the stadium in Srinagar where Prime Minister Narendra Modi held the rally [Mukhtar Khan/AP Photo]

But independent analysts and many Kashmiris said they were disappointed by the prime minister’s speech, which many had expected would have offered a more substantive political message aimed at reaching out to a region with which New Delhi’s party and Modi have long has a tense relationship.

The 2019 break

For decades, the abrogation of Article 370 was a core agenda of Modi’s Hindu-majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to “fully integrate” the region with the rest of India. The article allowed the region to have its own laws and prohibited outsiders from buying land or getting local jobs.

But Modi’s government divided the former state into two areas – Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir – and brought them under the direct rule of New Delhi. To curb street protests against the action, the government launched a security crackdown and curtailed civil liberties and press freedom.

Defending its controversial move, the government said New Delhi’s direct rule would bring progress in Kashmir and eradicate the armed insurgency against New Delhi’s rule that began in 1989. Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have since been killed in the conflict. turning the Himalayan region into one of the most militarized regions in the world.

But the BJP’s move was opposed by Kashmiris, who feared the government was trying to change the region’s demography by allowing people from other parts of India to settle or invest there.

“This is the new Jammu and Kashmir that we have been waiting for for decades,” Modi said in remarks ahead of national elections in April and May in which he is seeking a third straight term.

People attend the meeting addressed by Modi [AP Photo]

‘The public disappointed’

However, residents said they had low expectations for the prime minister’s visit – and that their grievances were not addressed in his speech.

“The highest expectation was the recovery of the state. The second could have been the restoration of democracy, as central rule has lasted far too long. People have no voice here,” said a 33-year-old Kashmiri who did not want to reveal his identity for fear of reprisals from authorities.

Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir has not held regional elections since 2014. The government formed then was dissolved by the BJP central government in 2018.

In December 2023, the Supreme Court, while upholding the abolition of special status, declared that state elections should take place in September this year. But in his speech on Thursday, Modi gave no guarantee that the vote would go ahead.

“Two things people wanted to hear were the dates of the elections and the status of the state,” New Delhi-based academic Radha Kumar, who has worked extensively on the Kashmir conflict, told Al Jazeera.

“On both counts, Prime Minister Modi disappointed the public,” she said. “You would expect him to give assurances that the elections would take place within the deadline. Surprisingly there was no referral.”

But Zameer Ahmad, a BJP member from Kashmir’s Kupwara district, defended Modi’s visit, saying it gave residents a chance to talk about their problems. “We have a future with the BJP because they will win the elections. “I think the Prime Minister will listen to us and solve our problems,” he said.

Government workers mobilized as a mob

Modi’s BJP is not a major player in Indian-administered Kashmir. Several government employees, including teachers, said their departments and offices had instructed them – about 20,000 people in all – to attend Modi’s rally. Many schools in the region were closed that day.

“We hardly slept and left home at four o’clock. It was a compulsive job,” Ahmad, a 45-year-old worker from Anantnag district, 50 kilometers from Srinagar, told Al Jazeera, outside the football stadium in the city where the event was being held.

A woman teacher from south Kashmir said she felt no excitement about the event. ‘I can’t say anything. We were instructed by the administration to come.”

Mehbooba Mufti, the region’s last elected chief minister, criticized the government for mobilizing its workers for the rally.

“This visit is only to show support to the BJP’s key constituencies in the rest of India for the upcoming assembly elections,” she wrote on X.

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