Modi visits Indian-controlled Kashmir amid tight security

A security officer patrols near the site of an attack in Jammu, India, Friday, April. 22, 2022.

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Himalayan Kashmir for his first public event on Sunday since New Delhi stripped the disputed region’s semi-autonomy and took direct control in 2019.

Modi arrived amid massive security and is scheduled to speak in a public event and review development work. His speech will be part of a function to commemorate the annual Panchayati Raj, or grassroots democracy, Day.

Tens of thousands of people and elected officials from local councils across the region assembled in Palli village near Jammu city for the speech. The area visited by Modi generally welcomed the Indian government’s unprecedented changes three years ago.

Officials say the councils represent grassroots governance but its members have no legislative powers. The region has been without an elected government since 2018.

Government forces fanned out across Kashmir to thwart any violence. On Friday, two suspected militants and a paramilitary officer were killed in a gunfight some 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Palli.

Police chief Dilbag Singh said the slain militants were a “suicide squad from Pakistan” likely sent to sabotage Modi’s visit. He did not offer any evidence to back up his claim.

Modi’s two previous visits after Kashmir’s status was changed were to military camps to celebrate a Hindu festival with soldiers. In 2019, Modi’s 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 amid unprecedented lockdown.

The region has remained on edge since, as authorities put in place a slew of new laws that critics and many residents fear could change majority-Muslim Kashmir’s demographics.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both rivals claim the region in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

India insists the Kashmir militancy is Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. Pakistan denies the charge, and most Kashmiris consider it a legitimate freedom struggle. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.