Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a public event in Indian-administered Kashmir on his first major journey since stripping the region of limited autonomy two years ago, addressing thousands of his supporters on the occasion of Panchayati Raj – a day when grassroots democracy in India is commemorated.
Speaking at the Palli village of Samba district in the southern city of Jammu, Modi said: “It is a proud moment that democracy has reached grassroots level in Jammu and Kashmir”, adding that more than 30,000 representatives have now joined the village system. their own.
But analysts and opposition leaders say the disputed region has not had an elected government since 2018 before the region’s special status was revoked by the Hindu nationalist government.
Elections were held in 2020 for district and village councils, but critics say the local authorities do not have the power to enact or change laws in the region now administered directly from New Delhi.
Security across the region has been tightened with hundreds of additional troops on the roads and highways. The trip comes as the region has been ravaged by multiple gun battles over the past three days that killed nine suspected rebels and a police officer.
Attacks on migrant workers and local Hindus have also increased in recent weeks by suspected rebels.
One of the gun battles took place Friday in the Sunjwan area of the southern city of Jammu, 34 km (21 miles) from the Samba district where Prime Minister Modi delivered his speech.
The government led by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has kept a tight grip on the situation, enacting controversial laws and policies that locals fear are aimed at bringing about demographic change in the Muslim-majority region.
Over the past two years, hundreds of people, including journalists and human rights activists, have been imprisoned under laws allowing up to two years’ detention without charge.
The ruling BJP government says the removal of Article 370 in 2019, which granted special status to the region, aimed at bringing development to the region and led to an end to the armed insurgency.
But the violence has not abated. This month alone, 29 people have been killed, including 22 suspected rebels, five security personnel and two civilians across the region.
The BJP has been accused of having an anti-Islamic agenda, with many provincial governments led by the BJP passing laws that infringe on the fundamental rights and freedoms of minorities. Rights groups have accused the government of pursuing policies and actions targeting minorities. The BJP has denied the allegations.
Modi said the proposed investments have reached $5 billion (Rs 38,000 crores) in the region in the past two years. It includes proposed investments from United Arab Emirates (UAE) companies such as retail giant LuLu Group and DP World. The UAE’s Emaar Group has announced that it will develop a 5,000-square-meter shopping center in the region’s main city, Srinagar, UAE-based Khaleej Times reported.
Last month, a delegation from the UAE, including several Emirati and Indian entrepreneurs and some Indian expatriates, visited the region to explore investment opportunities and met Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha in Srinagar.
The UAE, which has maintained a strategic relationship with India, awarded Modi its highest civilian honor in 2019, days after New Delhi began suppressing the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
“Just over a decade ago, the Srinagar-Sharjah sector flight failed when Pakistan appealed for Kashmir’s ‘disputed’ status with the UAE. A decade later, the UAE is flying down to invest in Kashmir,” Zafar Choudhary, a political analyst and journalist in Jammu, told Al Jazeera.
“These are not just the private parties, but state-led consortia of the UAE. So these are not just investment proposals, but a confirmation of India’s position on Kashmir and a clear rejection of Pakistan’s position,” he said.
India and Pakistan both claim the divided territory of Kashmir in its entirety, but control parts of it.
In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said that “Since the introduction of constitutional reforms, the government has focused on implementing broad reforms to significantly improve governance and increase the convenience of living for the people of the region at a unprecedented pace.”
The Indian Prime Minister has also virtually inaugurated the Banihal-Qazigund Road Tunnel, a major four-lane tunnel that will provide an all-weather link between Kashmir and the rest of India. He will also lay the foundation stones for two hydropower projects.
Modi’s last visit to the region was in November 2021 to celebrate Diwali with the Indian armed forces in the Nowshera district of Jammu.