Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, held talks with top Kashmiri politicians on Thursday to discuss restoring democracy to the Muslim-majority region, as he seeks to deflect criticism of the country’s human rights record and improve relations with Pakistan.
Amit Shah, India’s powerful home minister, said participants discussed holding elections and restoring the statehood stripped from Jammu and Kashmir two years ago.
“Everyone expressed their commitment to democracy and the constitution,” Shah wrote on Twitter after the meeting. “We are committed to ensure all around development of J&K.”
But the Kashmiri politicians, who included three former chief ministers jailed or held under house arrest in the 2019 crackdown, said they would maintain their struggle for the return of the state’s autonomy, including through India’s court system.
“The agenda is to firstly open a line of communication with the mainstream leaders of the state to bring them back into the democratic fold,” an Indian official said on Thursday.
The restoration of an elected government in Kashmir is seen as crucial for India if it is to maintain momentum in back-channel talks with Pakistan. The nuclear-armed neighbours have fought three wars over the mountainous region.
Islamabad was incensed in August 2019 when New Delhi scrapped Kashmir’s constitutionally guaranteed political autonomy. To suppress dissent, Kashmiris were put under a tough lockdown; mobile phone and internet services were suspended for months and hundreds of political activists were imprisoned.
The Modi government’s new conciliatory approach reflects growing strategic pressures, including tension with China and concerns about the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, according to analysts.
India has had more than 50,000 soldiers deployed in Ladakh since a deadly border skirmish with People’s Liberation Army troops last year. Talks with Beijing on mutual troop withdrawals have made little progress.
Happymon Jacob, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said New Delhi now had a greater appetite for normalising relations with Pakistan, reflected in the joint February announcement of a ceasefire along their heavily militarised de facto border in Kashmir.
“India feels a bit boxed in at this point from all directions,” said Jacob. “Releasing pressure on the Pakistan front is a smart thing to do.”
Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said New Delhi’s reconsideration of its hardline Kashmir strategy reflected its “fear of a two-front collusive threat”. It also reflects pressure from the US, which is eager to see regional tensions lowered as it prepares to pull its troops from Afghanistan.
“Modi’s hand has been virtually forced,” Singh said. “India has been under real pressure on human rights and other issues in recent months.”
Dean Thompson, acting US assistant secretary of state for south Asia, testified before Congress this month that Washington had urged India “to return to normalcy as quickly as possible” in Kashmir.
New Delhi claimed its political overhaul of Kashmir would bring development to the region. But Siddiq Wahid, a Kashmir-based academic, said residents feared Modi’s latest initiative was merely a public relations exercise rather than a genuine attempt at reconciliation.
“The question is, ‘Is it all for optics?’” he said. “If it is optics, it’s not going to be satisfactory.”