SRINAGAR: As Indian PM Narendra Modi arrived in held Kashmir for his first visit since he scrapped its special status under Article 370 of India’s constitution, Pakistan dismissed the move as “part of India’s efforts to portray normalcy” in the disputed region.

“We believe that these efforts to project normalcy are a facade and tourism cannot be promoted in a situation where local people are being intimidated and their rights and freedoms are being denied,” Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said in her weekly press briefing on Thursday.

Modi’s government had stripped the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley of its special constitutional status nearly five years ago, splitting the occupied region into two territories directly ruled from New Delhi, which angered Kashmiris in the densely militarised territory.

Taking pride in having cancelled the occupied region’s constitutional special status and inherited protections of land and jobs for its permanent residents, he claimed that the old rules and “dynastic politics” had limited the region’s potential.

Modi embarks on first visit to disputed region in five years; takes pride in having revoked its special status

“I am working hard to win your hearts, and my attempt to keep winning your hearts will continue,” AFP quoted the Hindu nationalist leader as saying at a public rally in Srinagar.

“[India-held] Jammu and Kashmir is not just a region, it is the crown of the country,” Modi told the rally in a stadium.

According to AFP, security forces on Thursday patrolled the streets, as well as in motorboats along the river that runs through Srinagar. Most schools in the city were shut for the day, and the authorities had called on government employees to attend the rally.

Omar Abdullah, a former chief minister of held Kashmir, accused the government of organising buses to bring in crowds, alleging that “almost none” would be attending willingly.

Modi also remotely inaugurated a slew of development projects and government schemes for boosting agro-economy and tourism in held Kashmir and other parts of India. The projects included new infrastructure around the revered Muslim shrine of Hazratbal in the city.

The visit comes ahead of India’s national elections due by May, the first since the region lost its autonomy. The last local elections in held Kashmir were held in 2014.

Modi’s government claims New Delhi’s direct rule of Kashmir brought about a new era of “peace and development”, but critics and many residents say it heralded a drastic curtailment of civil liberties and press freedom.

When asked about the new government’s policy on ties with India, Ms Baloch responded with a blend of cautious optimism and steadfast priorities.

As the country awaits the formation of its new cabinet, she suggested the appointment of new foreign minister will pave the way for defining the trajectory of Pakistan’s diplomatic interactions, including those with India.

“The Cabinet formation is yet to take place, and once the Cabinet is in place, we will have a direction with regard to the foreign policy and Pakistan’s relations with other countries, including its neighbors,” the spokesperson said.

“We would then be in a better position to respond to queries on how this will impact Pakistan’s interaction with India in the coming days,” she added. Emphasising the country’s desire for harmonious relations, she reaffirmed Pakistan’s long-standing position on engaging with all its neighbors, including India, on a foundation of respect and equality.

However, her remarks also underscored the importance of addressing critical issues that have long marred bilateral relations, including allegations of support for terrorism and concerns over extrajudicial and extraterritorial killings attributed to India.

Kashmir remains a pivotal point in Pakistan’s diplomatic stance, with the Foreign Office making it clear that the disputed territory will always be a priority in any engagement with India. “Kashmir will always be a priority when such engagement takes place,” the spokesperson emphasized, highlighting the issue’s centrality to Pakistan’s foreign policy and its relationship with India.

Reported by Pakistani News Portal DAWN