PM Narendra Modi holds face-to-face talks with several pro-India leaders from disputed Kashmir, the first such meeting since his right-wing government annexed the Himalayan territory, detained thousands and imposed a tough crackdown.
India's right-wing prime minister has held a crucial meeting with pro-India politicians from disputed Kashmir for the first time since New Delhi stripped the region's semi-autonomy, annexed it and jailed many of them in a crackdown.
Experts say the meeting on Thursday was meant to ward off mounting criticism at home and abroad after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government in August 2019 downgraded the region's status, split it into two federal territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — and removed inherited protections on land and jobs for the local population.
Since then, Indian authorities have imposed a slew of administrative changes through new laws, often drafted by bureaucrats, that triggered resentment and anger as many likened the moves to the beginning of settler colonialism.
Modi has called the changes overdue and necessary to foster economic development and fully integrate Kashmir with India.
Our priority is to strengthen grassroots democracy in J&K. Delimitation has to happen at a quick pace so that polls can happen and J&K gets an elected Government that gives strength to J&K’s development trajectory. pic.twitter.com/AEyVGQ1NGy— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 24, 2021
Bitterly contested region
Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, which both claim it in its entirety.
Rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.
India has stationed more than 500,000 soldiers in the region, the highest concentration of troops anywhere in the world.
Modi chaired the meeting in New Delhi attended by the Himalayan region's 14 unionist leaders, including Modi's own party members.
India's powerful Home Minister, Amit Shah, and New Delhi's administrator in the volatile region, Manoj Sinha, also attended the meeting.
Pro-India or 'collaborators'?
Among those invited were Kashmir's former three top elected officials: Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah, and Mehbooba Mufti, who was a regional coalition partner of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] for nearly two years after the 2016 state elections.
They are pro-India and seen by many in Kashmir as New Delhi's collaborators, but Shah last year labeled them a "gang" while some others called them "anti-national elements."
Some senior ruling party leaders also dubbed them political untouchables who were rendered redundant by the 2019 decision.
The three and a few other invited leaders were among thousands arrested and held for months in 2019.
They have criticised India's policies in Kashmir and formed an alliance with four other parties to fight them, calling them "spitefully shortsighted and unconstitutional."
Ahead of the meeting, the alliance leaders said they are demanding restoration of the region's former special status.
Former lawmaker Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, spokesman of an alliance of the main regional parties formed last year to push for a rollback of the measure, said no agenda had been provided for Thursday's meeting, however.
"The ice has broken," Tarigami told Reuters news agency. "At least we are sitting together and talking."
After the meeting, former Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said New Delhi should reverse the August 2019 decisions which she called "illegal and unconstitutional".
"We will fight peacefully and constitutionally against those changes," Mufti told reporters in New Delhi.
Another former chief minister Omar Abdullah said he told PM Modi that his party doesn't stand with abrogation of Kashmir's limited autonomy.
"We are not ready to accept it. We will fight this in court," he said.
But PM Modi appeared to focus on elections in the region.
He said delimitation – demarcation of boundaries of constituencies – has to happen "at a quick pace" to pave way for elections.
"Delimitation has to happen at a quick pace so that polls can happen and J&K gets an elected Government that gives strength to J&K's development trajectory," he tweeted after the meeting.
UAE-backed deal on Kashmir
The meeting follows the reaffirmation of a 2003 ceasefire accord between India and Pakistan in February as part of a peace deal brokered by the United Arab Emirates.
Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a public policy think tank in India, said geopolitical reasons forced "Modi's hand for an outreach towards Kashmiri political leaders."
In a tweet, he said on Tuesday that the UAE-brokered back-channel talks led to "certain commitments from the Modi government on Kashmir."
International pressure, particularly from US President Joe Biden's administration, has also been piling on the Indian government to reverse some of its recent changes.
Dean Thompson, acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, told a congressional hearing early this month that although New Delhi had taken some steps such as the release of prisoners and the restoration of 4G internet access in the region, "there are other electoral steps we'd like to see them take and that we have encouraged them to do and will continue to do so."
People in the Kashmir voiced distrust of New Delhi's intentions.
"I don't have much expectation from the meeting," said Nisar Ahmad, a university student in Kashmir's main city of Srinagar.
"They are not going to reverse what they did."