The Indian Prime Minister at the first public event in Kashmir since the crackdown

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Srinagar (India) (AFP) – India’s prime minister on Sunday will hold his first public event in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir since New Delhi imposed a crackdown on security forces there more than two years ago.

Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has sought to quell a long-running insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir and to bolster its grip on the Muslim-majority region claimed by neighboring Pakistan, over which the countries have fought two wars.

New Delhi lifted the area’s limited autonomy in 2019, when authorities arrested thousands and imposed the world’s longest internet shutdown to forestall local opposition to the move.

It is the most militarized part of India, with more than half a million soldiers and paramilitaries deployed across the region.

Tight security will be in place for Modi’s visit, but he can still expect an enthusiastic reception in Palli as tens of thousands are expected to greet him at an event hosted by his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The village is in Jammu, the predominantly Hindu southern part of the territory that celebrated the introduction of direct rule in New Delhi as a bulwark against Kashmir’s separatist movement.

Muslim-majority Kashmir experienced a large-scale crackdown following the repeal of autonomy in 2019, with thousands arrested TAUSEEF MUSTAFA AFP

Modi will lead a ceremony to mark the Panchayati Raj – a day reminiscent of grassroots democracy, although Kashmir has been without an elected regional government since 2018, when the BJP left its ruling coalition and the New Delhi-appointed governor stepped in.

His last prime minister was arrested during the raid and only released more than a year later.

At Sunday’s event, Modi will lead the region “into a new era of development,” Deputy Governor Manoj Sinha told reporters.

“Anxious Atmosphere”

Modi’s government says its decision to end Kashmir’s limited autonomy was aimed at promoting lasting peace and bringing investment to the troubled region, which has killed tens of thousands over the years.

The result has been a rigid security framework that has made public protest all but impossible and that critics say has a stranglehold on civil life.

Some 2,300 people, mostly politicians and activists, who fought against Indian rule have been arrested under vaguely worded laws that allow authorities to label anyone as a terrorist and leave the accused with a burden of innocence.

International human rights groups have condemned the measures.

Indian security forces have been deployed heavily in the mountainous region of Kashmir to quell protests and raid separatist armed groups
Indian security forces have been deployed heavily in the mountainous region of Kashmir to quell protests and raid separatist armed groups TAUSEEF MUSTAFA AFP

Foreign journalists are barred from visiting, and local reporters are often summoned by riot police and questioned about their work. Three of them have been arrested under preventive detention laws in recent months.

“Covering Kashmir now is like walking and living on a knife edge all the time,” a journalist working for an Indian newspaper told AFP, declining to be identified for fear of government reprisals.

“It’s a very fearful atmosphere.”

Police say violence has decreased since Kashmir’s status was revised in 2019.

But in that time nearly 1,000 people have been killed – including soldiers, militants and civilians – and young men continue to join rebel groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir for more than three decades.

Most of the violence took place in the predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley, which is reportedly not on Modi’s weekend itinerary.

Sunday’s event will be his first formal public appearance in the region since the crackdown, although he has made informal visits to celebrate Hindu religious festivals with troops stationed along the Line of Control, which is the de facto border with Pakistan.

The 2019 changes also opened up land ownership, jobs and local university places in Kashmir to all Indians — privileges previously reserved for permanent residents of the territory.

Commentators claim the move is aimed at strengthening a Hindu constituency in the contested region, comparing it to “settler colonialism”.

Historian and political commentator Siddiq Wahid told AFP that Modi’s visit was a “pandering” to a populace already inclined to support his agenda in the area.

But, he added, “it will be difficult to achieve this and divert attention from the overarching territorial dispute”.

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