India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during a rally at the Bakshi Stadium in Srinagar, on March 7, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

SRINAGAR: Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Thursday he was working to “win hearts” in Indian-administered Kashmir, on his first visit to the region’s main city since its semi-autonomy was cancelled in 2019.

Modi’s government stripped the Muslim-majority territory of its special constitutional status nearly five years ago, splitting the former state into two territories directly ruled from New Delhi.

The move, widely welcomed across India.

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

“Jammu and Kashmir is not just a region, it is the crown of the country,” Modi said at the rally in a stadium attended by thousands.

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Modi took pride in having cancelled the region’s constitutional special status and inherited protections of land and jobs for its permanent residents.

He said the former rules and “dynastic politics” had limited the region’s potential.

Equal rights and equal opportunities

He said that Congress and its partners had for decades misled the people of Jammu and Kashmir and the country over Article 370 and people have come to know the truth.

“Today Jammu and Kashmir is touching new heights of development because Jammu and Kashmir is breathing freely today. This freedom from restrictions has come after the abrogation of Article 370,” he said.

“For decades, for political gains, Congress and its allies misled the people of Jammu and Kashmir in the name of 370 and misled the country. Did Jammu and Kashmir benefit from Article 370 or were only a few political families taking advantage of it? The people of Jammu and Kashmir have come to know the truth that they were misled. Jammu and Kashmir was kept in chains for the benefit of a few families. Today there is no Article 370, hence the talent of the youth of J&K is being fully respected and they are getting new opportunities. Today there are equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone here,” he added.

Image Credit: AFP

He said the abrogation of Article 370 has led to the respect of youth’s talent and equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone.

He spoke about the refugees from Pakistan, the Valmiki community and sanitation workers getting voting rights, fulfilling the demand of the Valmiki community for the SC category, reservation of seats in the assembly for Scheduled Tribes and eligibility of several communities for reservation benefit.

Modi said he would not leave any stone unturned to repay the debt of affection of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

“Whenever I came here after 2014, I have always said that I am working hard only to win your hearts... I am doing all this hard work to win your hearts and I believe that I am on the right path. I will keep trying hard...This is Modi ki guarantee and you know that ‘Modi ki guarantee’ means, there is a guarantee of fulfilling the guarantee,” Modi said.

Heavy security

“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, expected to begin in the coming days.

Thousands of armed police and paramilitary forces were deployed, and checkpoints set up across Srinagar.

Modi also remotely inaugurated a slew of development projects and government schemes for boosting agro-economy and tourism in Kashmir and other parts of India.

The projects included new infrastructure around the revered Muslim shrine of Hazratbal in the city.

The visit comes ahead of India’s national elections due by May, the first since the region lost its autonomy. The last local elections in Kashmir were held in 2014.

Modi’s government claims New Delhi’s direct rule of Kashmir brought about a new era of “peace and development”, but critics and many residents say it heralded a drastic curtailment of civil liberties and press freedom.

Security forces on Thursday patrolled the streets, as well as in motorboats along the river that runs through Srinagar.

Most schools in the city were shut for the day, and the authorities had called on government employees to attend the rally.

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 Muslim-majority region is now run by unelected government officials and bureaucrats.

India’s powerful home minister, Amit Shah, has repeatedly promised that the region would be regain statehood after elections.

In December, India’s Supreme Court upheld the 2019 decision and asked the government to conduct state polls by September.

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