SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday defended India's decades-long military presence in the disputed Kashmir region, saying troops were there to safeguard the country's democracy against separatist rebels.
He deplored a series of rebel attacks on Friday that killed 21 people, including eight Indian soldiers and three police officers.
"Our soldiers have sacrificed their lives to safeguard democracy," he told a campaign rally in Samba town in the disputed Himalayan territory, which is holding local elections this month. "Now you must vote to safeguard their sacrifices."
Modi was in Kashmir for the third time in a month, hoping to help his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party win a first-ever majority in India's only Muslim-majority state, where rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989.
Pro-India Kashmiri parties promise to boost development and infrastructure if they win, while separatists say the polls are an illegitimate exercise under a military occupation that dates back to India's independence in 1947.
Modi traveled later Monday to Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, visiting the Indian army headquarters for a wreath-laying ceremony to honor the soldiers killed in Friday's attacks before speaking at another election rally.
Wearing a traditional Kashmiri tunic, Modi said the army had admitted it made a mistake in gunning down two teenagers on Srinagar's outskirts last month.
The army's admission "is the proof of my intention. I've come to get you justice," he told several thousand people who gathered at a sports stadium.
The incumbent chief minister, Omar Abdullah, complained that the rally was being packed with residents from Hindu majority areas of the state such as Jammu. "Why not just have the rally there?" he said on his official Twitter feed. Abdullah, from Kashmir's largest pro-India regional party, has been the region's top elected official since 2008.
Voter Abdul Jabbar, 50, said he hoped the prime minister would help the mountainous region tackle rampant corruption and unemployment — promises Modi has repeatedly made at the national level.
"He is the prime minister of India, and has the power to tackle our issues," Jabbar said.
Modi promised that his government would help the region by repairing towns devastated by extreme flooding in September, building tourism, launching hydroelectricity projects and tackling endemic graft.
"I'll steer you out of these miseries," he said.
The region was on high alert Monday with paramilitary snipers on rooftops, road barricades and sniffer dogs near rally sites. A daytime curfew was imposed in some parts of Srinagar barring residents from leaving their homes.
Officials said they were taking no risks with Modi in the fractious region before a third day of voting is held on Tuesday. The elections are being held in five stages to allow government forces to better guard against any violence or anti-India protests. Results are due Dec. 23.
On Sunday night, a suspected rebel hurled a grenade that injured one soldier at a paramilitary post in the southern town of Tral, police said.
Authorities have detained hundreds of separatist leaders and activists in recent days who had called for an election boycott.
Shops, schools and other businesses were shuttered Monday after the separatist umbrella group All Parties Hurriyat Conference called for a general strike to "send a clear message to Indian leadership that Kashmiris have never accepted the dominance and hegemony of Indian union and they would decide their political future only through right to self-determination."
More than 68,000 people have been killed since 1989 in the rebel uprising and a subsequent Indian military crackdown that has suppressed most rebel activity.
India and Pakistan fought two of their three wars since 1947 over rival claims to Kashmir.
Follow Aijaz Hussain on Twitter at twitter.com/hussain_aijaz