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Strike, tight security as India's Modi visits Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India -- India's Narendra Modi faced a hostile welcome including a general strike Friday during his first visit as prime minister to 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 top separatist leaders were put under house arrest in a security crack down 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, a hard-line Hindu nationalist, traveled to Katra town, 270 kilometers 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 restive Himalayan region, 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 separatist 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 separatist 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 national parliament are not applied to Kashmir unless approved by the local legislature.

In May, soon after Modi took office, junior minister Jitendra Singh said that the federal government had “begun the process” of abrogating the constitutional provision that gives India's only Muslim-majority state its special status.

Divided Region

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, which both claim the region in full but administer separate partial areas. The neighbors have fought two of their three wars over its control.

Since 1989, an armed rebellion against Indian rule by about a dozen rebel groups seeking independence for Kashmir or a merger of the territory with Pakistan has left tens of thousands dead.

The dispute with Pakistan and the insurgency has made Indian Kashmir one of the most heavily militarized zones in the world where many chafe under tight security restrictions and complain of human rights abuses.

“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 separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani said in a statement on Tuesday.

Modi was set to meet with top generals at army headquarters in Srinagar where hundreds of police and paramilitary officers were patrolling the city's mainly deserted streets.

Modi was also expected Friday to travel to the town of Uri close to the disputed border with Pakistan to inaugurate a hydro-power project.

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Activists of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) release gas balloons with the slogan “Quit Kashmir” during a one-day strike in Srinagar on Friday, July 4. (AFP)

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