May 23, 2024

NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday is making his first official visit to Kashmir’s main city since New Delhi stripped the disputed region’s semi-autonomy and took direct control of it in 2019.

Thousands of armed paramilitary troops and police in flak jackets maintained extra vigilance across the Kashmir Valley, the heartland of the rebellion against Indian rule over the majority-Muslim territory where many residents strongly favor independence or a merger with Pakistan. Modi’s two previous visits to Kashmir after its status was changed were to the Hindu-dominated city of Jammu.

In 2019, Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government revoked the region’s semi-autonomous status, annulled its separate constitution, split the area into two federal territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — and removed inherited protections on land and jobs.

The region has remained on edge since, as authorities put in place a slew of new laws that critics and many residents fear could change majority-Muslim Kashmir’s demographics. The move resonated in much of India, where the Modi government was cheered by supporters for fulfilling a long-held Hindu nationalist pledge to scrap the Muslim-majority region’s special status.

Ahead of Modi’s visit to Srinagar, government forces laid razor wires and erected checkpoints as they patrolled all the roads leading to the soccer stadium where Modi is scheduled to speak and review development work. They randomly frisked residents and searched vehicles while navy commandos in motorboats patrolled the Jhelum River that snakes through the city.

Authorities ordered thousands of government employees to attend the meeting, and most schools in the city were closed for the day.

Thursday’s event is seen as part of Modi’s campaign ahead of national elections scheduled in April and May.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both rivals claim the Himalayan region in its entirety.

The extra security measures have become common in Kashmir since 1989, when rebels began fighting against Indian rule.

India insists the Kashmir militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris consider it a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

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