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India’s Modi rallies troops in Diwali day Kashmir visit

SRINAGAR: India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi marked the festival of Diwali Thursday with a visit to the disputed Kashmir region to rally the morale of troops after recent deadly clashes with Pakistan.

Modi, who also visited victims of floods that devastated parts of Kashmir last month, met soldiers based on a Himalayan glacier as he bolstered his Hindu nationalist credentials in what is India’s only Muslim-majority state.

“Today India sleeps peacefully because you stay awake day and night,” Modi told the soldiers based in the remote Siachen glacier at what has been dubbed the world’s highest battleground.

“Indian soldiers are respected across the world for their discipline and determination… I assure the soldiers of my country whether they are at the border or in a cantonment, the country of 1.25 billion Indians stand with you.”

Modi’s visit comes after a recent flare-up in violence in Kashmir, with at least 20 civilian dying in cross-border skirmishes earlier this month amid mutual recriminations over who provoked the firing.

“Modi’s visit on the eve of Diwali is religious extremism and rubs salt in the wounds of Kashmiri flood victims,” said one placard in reference to the devastation wrought by deadly floods in the region last month.

More than 450 people were killed in India and Pakistan when the floods swept through Kashmir and Pakistan’s neighbouring Punjab province.

— Shopkeepers strike —

Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir has been heavily criticised for its response to the flooding and shopkeepers were observing a strike on Thursday in the main city of Srinagar to mark Modi’s visit.

After landing in the late afternoon, Modi met with top state government officials, leaders of political parties and aid workers.

Several families affected by the floods waited to meet the prime minister outside the governor’s mansion where the meeting was taking place.

Indian media said that Modi, who was making his second trip to Srinagar since the floods, was likely to pledge more aid to help rebuild the city.

Provincial polls are scheduled to take place before the end of the year and Modi’s visit has been dismissed by opponents as an election stunt.

But Omar Abdullah, Kashmir’s chief minister who is battling to fend off a a challenge from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, defended Modi’s visit.

“Let’s just appreciate that (Modi) is in Srinagar on his festival & not at home celebrating as he normally would have been doing,” Abdullah wrote on Twitter.

Many observers believe that the elections are likely to be postponed as a result of the floods. -AFP

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