Srinagar: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged Friday to 'win the hearts' of the Kashmiri people as he faced a hostile reception during his first visit as prime minister to the tense Himalayan region.
As schools and shops closed in the main city of Srinagar to protest the visit, Modi opened a railway line elsewhere in the restive state, promising increased infrastructure and development.
Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, inaugurated the line in Katra town, 270km from Srinagar, that links a popular Hindu shrine in the disputed region with India's vast and neglected railway network.
"Our railway stations can be better than airports. This is possible," Modi said after flagging off the first train on the Udhampur-Katra line. "Private parties can also participate, they will also benefit," he added. "It is every Indian's dream to see happiness and prosperity in Jammu and Kashmir," he said. "My aim is to win the hearts of the people of the state."
The line is part of an ambitious project to connect the Kashmir Valley, where a separatist movement opposed to Indian rule is centred, with the network sometime in 2017.
The trip by Modi, whose party secured a landslide win in polls in May on a pledge to revive the economy, has provoked a sharp reaction from influential separatist groups which called a general strike.
Businesses were mostly closed in Srinagar as a result and the city's streets were largely deserted, while top separatist leaders were put under house arrest in a security crackdown ahead of Modi's arrival. Separatists rejected Modi's comments yesterday, reiterating demands for a political process to resolve the dispute.
"Development is fine but our primary aspiration is security, right to life and fundamental political rights which will come when the Kashmir dispute is resolved," chief cleric and a top separatist leader, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, said from his house where he is confined in Srinagar.
He criticised Modi's decision to visit Kashmir on the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan which meant he was barred from leading prayers in the city's main mosque as part of the crackdown.
Separatist leader Yasin Malik also rejected Modi's comments on development, saying it would never take priority "over our demand for freedom and self government".