KARGIL // Narendra Modi accused Pakistan on Tuesday of waging a proxy war in Kashmir as he became the first Indian prime minister to visit Kargil since more than 1,000 died in fighting there 15 years ago.
Mr Modi landed in the remote Himalayan town a day after India and its rival Pakistan traded accusations of ceasefire violations on their border in Kashmir.
He is the first Indian leader to visit the highly sensitive area since a 1999 Pakistan army incursion triggered a conflict between the two countries.
Since then, India has maintained a heavy military presence in Muslim-majority Kargil in the mountainous Kashmiri region of Ladakh.
But a reporter at the scene said there were few soldiers on the streets of Kargil on Tuesday.
“Today when I came I heard the cheerful claps of the people,” Mr Modi told the 5,000-strong crowd in the town, which was festooned with flags from his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
“I had also come at a time when the place was echoing with the noises of bombs and bullets,” he said, recalling an earlier visit he made to Kargil before becoming prime minister.
Speaking earlier Tuesday to soldiers in Leh, capital of the Ladakh region, where he stopped en route, Mr Modi condemned what he called a “proxy war by Pakistan”.
He said troops were “suffering more casualties from terrorism than from war”.
New Delhi has long accused Islamabad of using Pakistan-based militant groups such as the outlawed Lashkar-i-Taiba against its forces in Kashmir — a claim that Islamabad denies.
Mr Modi, a hardline Hindu nationalist, also promised to build new roads and develop tourism in the restive Muslim-majority state, where poverty and underdevelopment have worsened anti-government sentiment.
“There was a time when prime ministers never visited the state. I have come here two times already,” said the prime minister, who was decked out in a traditional Ladakhi gold-coloured robe and hat for the occasion.
“We want to make jobs available for the youth. We want educational institutions for the youth... The government is committed to developing tourism in this region.”
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, which both claim the region in full but administer separate partial areas. The neighbours have fought two of their three wars over its control.
Since 1989 a rebellion against Indian rule by about a dozen groups — seeking independence for Kashmir or a merger with Pakistan — has left tens of thousands dead.
Ajai Sahni, executive director at the Institute of Conflict Management think tank, said Mr Modi’s visit was an “important first step towards bringing these areas back to the centre of national and strategic consciousness”.
“This government’s initiative in the region will gradually shift the power equation in favour of India over Pakistan as people in the region become more integrated (with India) with development and progress,” he said.
Mr Modi had been reportedly planning to visit Kashmir’s Siachen glacier — dubbed the world’s highest battlefield due to the long-running territorial dispute — but officials said he would not now do so, without giving a reason.
An estimated 8,000 troops have died on the glacier since 1984, almost all of them from avalanches, landslides, frostbite, altitude sickness or heart failure rather than combat.
The nuclear-armed rivals fought over Siachen in 1987, though guns on the glacier have largely fallen silent since a peace process began in 2004.
Mr Modi’s visit comes a day after Pakistan summoned a senior Indian diplomat over a cross-border firing incident near the eastern city of Sialkot at the foot of the Kashmir hills, which the foreign ministry said killed at least one civilian.
Pakistani authorities accused India of a “ceasefire violation” and registered a formal protest.
Earlier, Indian police accused Pakistan of injuring four people during firing along their border in Kashmir.
New Delhi and Islamabad agreed a ceasefire in 2003 but firing along the disputed de facto border called the Line of Control, which separates Kashmir into Indian and Pakistani sectors, still occurs sporadically.
* Agence France-Presse