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India’s Modi visits Kashmir to ‘win hearts’ ahead of national elections

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a visit to Srinagar, March, 7, 2024. (Photo by Press Trust of India)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he is working to “win hearts” in the Indian-controlled Kashmir ahead of national election in May, on his first visit to the region since the abrogation of its special status in 2019.

The Modi administration stripped the Muslim-majority state of its special constitutional status in 2019 by abolishing Article 370 of the Indian Constitution that downgraded Jammu and Kashmir from a recognized state to a Union Territory (UT).

People in Kashmir saw the move as an attack on their rights, as inherited land protections and jobs for the indigenous residents were also removed.

But Modi on Thursday defended it, stating that the former rules and “dynastic politics” had limited the region’s potential and that Jammu and Kashmir were "touching new heights of development after abrogation of Article 370”.

“This freedom from restrictions has come after the removal of Article 370. For decades, for political gains, Congress and its allies misled the people of J&K in the name of 370 and misled the country,” he told a crowd in a football stadium in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.

His visit to the region comes ahead of the national elections due in May.

“I am working hard to win your hearts, and my attempt to keep winning your hearts will continue,” the Hindu nationalist leader said.

“Today, from Kashmir I extend my greeting for the coming Ramadan to the entire country,” Modi said, ahead of the Muslim holy month of fasting which will begin in the coming days.

A woman walks past India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party flags displayed ahead of a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Srinagar, March 6, 2024. (Photo by AP)

Omar Abdullah, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, alleged that the government had arranged the transportation of crowds to the event in Srinagar by bus. 

“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, said. 

Kashmir has held a pivotal role in the Hindu nationalist politics of the BJP. The ruling party advocates a stringent security approach in the state, where an armed struggle persists.

The BJP, known for its strong support from Hindu voters, has historically performed well in the Jammu region of Kashmir. But the party has faced challenges in gaining political influence in Kashmir, where Muslims make up the majority of the population.

Modi’s Thursday visit took place two weeks after his trip to Jammu, where he announced a slew of development projects, distributed letters of appointment to 1,500 new government recruits, inaugurated a college campus and the state’s first electric train.

After gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India and Pakistan divided Kashmir. The two assert entire claim over the region.

Since the 1980s, tens of thousands of lives have been lost in an armed uprising against Indian control in the contested region.

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