SRINAGAR – India's Narendra Modi faced a hostile welcome including a general strike on Friday during his first visit as prime minister to Indian-held Jammu Kashmir, where he has sparked anger over apparent plans to curb the region's autonomy.
Schools, shops and other businesses were mostly closed in the main city of Srinagar in protest over Modi's visit, while Hurriyat Conference leaders were put under house arrest in a security crackdown ahead of his arrival. Restrictions were also imposed on civilians' movements in parts of the city's volatile old town, a top police officer told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Modi travelled to Katra town, 270 kilometres (168 miles) from Srinagar, where he opened a railway line linking a popular Hindu shrine in the Muslim-majority state with India's vast railway network. "This facility is not just meant for the people of the state but for the millions of Indians who want to travel to Mata Vaishnodevi (shrine)," Modi said after flagging off the first train on the Udhampur-Katra line.
Modi said the new railway will become the fountainhead of development for the state, while also dedicating the new train to the Hindu pilgrims who travel to the shrine every year. "My aim is to win the hearts of the people of the state,” Modi added. The line is a part of an ambitious project to connect the tense Kashmir Valley, where a movement opposed to Indian rule is centered, with the rest of the country's railway network sometime in 2017.
The trip by Modi, whose party secured a landslide win in polls in May, has provoked a sharp reaction from influential Kashmiri groups which called the general strike. During election campaigning, Modi had argued for a discussion about Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which specifies that laws passed by the Indian parliament are not applied to Kashmir unless approved by the local legislature.
"We have no personal enmity with him (Modi). But he is visiting as the prime minister of a country which has forcibly enslaved us and whose army kills our people systematically," senior Kashmiri leader Syed Ali Geelani said in a statement issued ahead of the visit.