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Modi campaigns in Indian Kashmir after deadly attack

SRINAGAR: Prime Minister Narendra Modi told voters Monday not to be intimidated against casting ballots in Indian Kashmir’s state elections after a string of attacks, as he hit the campaign trail in the Muslim-majority region.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist party is making an unprecedented bid for power in the troubled Himalayan region, where tensions are high following the killing of 11 soldiers and police in a series of assaults last Friday.

But speaking at an election rally in the south of the state, Modi said voters should not be scared off by the attacks which India blames on Pakistan-backed militant groups.

“Our soldiers have sacrificed their lives to safeguard democracy,” he said at an election rally in the southern Jammu area of the state.

“You must ensure that their sacrifices are safeguarded. The power of your finger is greater than the power of an AK 47.”

Modi was later due to travel north to the main city of Srinagar which was under virtual lockdown, with thousands of extra troops deployed.

He will first visit the army’s headquarters in Srinagar and then address supporters from his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who are confident of making an unlikely breakthrough in the state.

The BJP has traditionally had no base in the Kashmir Valley, where local resentment against Indian rule runs high.

But Modi’s landslide win in national elections in May on a pledge to revive the economy, along with a meltdown in support for the Kashmir chief minister after deadly September floods, have lifted the BJP’s hopes.

The party has been campaigning aggressively in the state, promising stability and development.

– ‘Emotionally wounded’ –

“Kashmir is economically sick and emotionally wounded,” said Hina Bhat, one of the party’s 32 candidates.

“The BJP wants to work for development first, the political issue of Kashmir comes later,” said Bhat, referring to its longstanding pledge to scrap a constitutional provision known as Article 370, which allows Kashmir to make its own laws.

“People here want employment and a few hours of clear water supply, many don’t understand what 370 is about,” Hina told AFP.

Analysts say the BJP is almost certain to fall short of an outright majority in the 87-member assembly.

But they also say it has drawn up a strategy to win big in the Hindu-majority Jammu area, and then cut a deal with one of the smaller Muslim parties to become the lead player in a coalition.

Chief Minister Omar Abdullah accused the BJP on Monday of bussing in supporters from Jammu to swell the numbers at Modi’s rally in Srinagar.

“Two trainloads of supporters are being brought in from Banihal in Jammu. Why not just have the rally there?” he tweeted.

Picturesque Kashmir — divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both — has seen a surge in violence during the staggered elections for the local legislature.

The first two rounds saw turnout reach more than 70 percent as voters ignored calls for a boycott, but Tuesday’s voting will be the first since last week’s attacks.

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence over Kashmir. About a dozen rebel groups have been fighting Indian forces for independence or a merger of the territory with Pakistan since 1989.

Separatist groups called for a general strike to mark Modi’s arrival in Srinagar, saying the people of Kashmir would “never relinquish their demand for self-determination”.

The BJP has taken an aggressive line on the separatists. A party hoarding at the 9,000-capacity stadium where the premier is due to speak promised that “separatism will be defeated”.

In a symbolic move, Modi will speak at the venue chosen by India’s only other BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, for a 2003 speech pledging reconciliation with Pakistan.

Modi promised at the start of the elections last month to “carry forward” what he called Vajpayee’s dream of peace in Kashmir.

Police and paramilitaries were checking vehicles and pedestrians were being frisked at the many checkpoints across the city.

Shops and offices were closed ahead of Modi’s arrival in Srinagar, and residents of the old city said they were under police curfew.

“I tried to go out and was turned back — there is no permission to go out,” said resident Shakir Ahmed. -AFP

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