India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has met pro-India politicians from disputed Kashmir for the first time since he removed the region’s semi-autonomous status and imposed a widespread crackdown almost two years ago.
Thousands of people, including mainstream and prominent Kashmiri leaders, were detained and a crippling months-long lockdown was imposed in August 2019.
Kashmiri leaders have long demanded the restoration of their semi-autonomy and for elections to be held, but India has been working to readjust some assembly and parliamentary constituencies there under a process known as “delimitation”.
Modi took to Twitter later on Thursday to reiterate the line he had taken in the roughly three-hour talks in New Delhi.
“Delimitation has to happen at a quick pace so that polls can happen and J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] gets an elected Government that gives strength to J&K’s development trajectory,” he posted on Twitter.
Today’s meeting with political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir is an important step in the ongoing efforts towards a developed and progressive J&K, where all-round growth is furthered. pic.twitter.com/SjwvSv3HIp
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 24, 2021
Regional leaders said they pressed their demand for restoration of statehood and limited autonomy at the talks.
“We told PM that we don’t stand with what was done on 5th Aug 2019,” said Omar Abdullah, leader of the regional party National Conference.
“We’re not ready to accept it, but we won’t take law into hands, we will fight this in court.”
As well as revoking the region’s statehood and semi-autonomy in August 2019 by abolishing Article 370 of the constitution, India split its only Muslim majority state into two federally administered territories – Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir – and removing inherited protections on land and jobs for the local population.
The Modi government has said the move was needed to speed up development in the region.
The meeting comes just a few months after India and Pakistan in February reaffirmed a 2003 ceasefire agreement along a disputed border in Kashmir.
The Muslim-majority region is divided between India and Pakistan, which both claim in its entirety.
The shock decision to revoke the region’s statehood and semi-autonomy triggered protests by thousands of people and was criticised by local leaders who said they were never consulted.
Before that move, India had also locked down the heavily militarised Kashmir valley and placed strict curbs on movement and telecoms, cutting most mobile telephone and internet links for weeks.
Even 18 months later, high-speed mobile internet had been only partially restored, and local leaders complain about an erosion of civil rights.
“I spoke about the pain and anger and frustration among the people of Jammu and Kashmir since August 2019, about how they feel humiliated,” said Mehbooba Mufti, leader of the regional People’s Democratic Party.
“The people of Jammu and Kashmir do not accept the unconstitutional removal of Article 370.”
Many people in Kashmir have voiced criticism of “delimitation”, fearing it is aimed at tilting the balance of power in the region towards Hindu leaders.
Nisar Ahmad, a university student in Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar, said he did not have high hopes from Wednesday’s meeting.
“They are not going to reverse what they did,” Ahmad told Reuters news agency.
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 earlier 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”.