Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Top pro-India politicians from Indian-administered Kashmir are meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time after the special status of the disputed region was scrapped two years ago.
The talks are being seen as a departure from Modi’s tough stance in the region following the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A in August 2019, followed by a long and crippling military and communications lockdown to stifle any opposition to the government’s controversial move.
The two constitutional provisions gave the Muslim-majority region a degree of autonomy. But the removal of its special status saw the region being divided into two federally administered territories.
Thousands of Kashmiri politicians, anti-India separatists, activists and lawyers were arrested as part of the crackdown, including some former chief ministers of the region set to meet the Indian leader on Thursday.
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan, who rule over parts of it since the two nations gained independence from British rule in 1947.
An armed rebellion began on the Indian side in the early 1990s to demand independence from India or a merger with Pakistan. Separatists who have been making the same demands through non-violent means continue to remain in jail or under house arrest.
The Muslim-majority region also has a small group of pro-India politicians and political parties, who participate in national and regional elections.
Why have Kashmiri leaders been invited?
More than a dozen leaders from these pro-India political parties have been invited to New Delhi for the meeting with Modi and his trusted lieutenant, Home Minister Amit Shah.
While there is no clarity on the agenda of the meeting, there is speculation that the federal government wants to restart the halted political activity in the region and restore the statehood that was taken away two years ago.
As the region lost statehood, pro-India parties that had dominated the region’s politics since 1947 were also targeted by the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government.
Three former chief ministers of the region – 83-year-old Farooq Abdullah, his son Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – were arrested under the controversial Public Safety Act (PSA), a law termed as “lawless law” by the rights group, Amnesty International.
The senior Abdullah was released in March last year after eight months’ detention, his son shortly afterwards, while Mufti was freed in October after 14 months of house arrest.
But the August 5, 2019 decision of the right-wing federal government had already altered the political and geographical realities of the region.
In order to challenge that, the region’s two main political parties – the National Conference led by the Abdullahs and Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party – for the first time united under an umbrella group with smaller parties and named it the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD).
The coalition, also known as Gupkar Alliance, seeks to restore the limited autonomy and statehood of Indian-administered Kashmir.
After a regional coalition between the PDP and the BJP fell apart in 2018, there has been no elected government in the region. New Delhi rules directly or through its hand-picked administrators.
In the last two years, the BJP has also made several controversial changes to the region’s laws, including allowing outsiders to permanently settle in the region, which locals fear would change its Muslim-majority character.
What do Kashmiri leaders say?
Before leaving for New Delhi, the leaders said they were unaware of the agenda of the meeting with Modi.
“We hope that we will present our position in front of the prime minister and home minister,” Farooq Abdullah told reporters at a news conference held after PAGD members met in the main city of Srinagar on Tuesday. Mufti, PDP president and the last chief minister of the region, said “there is a need for dialogue for the resolution of Jammu and Kashmir” issue and that New Delhi has “humiliated” mainstream politicians in the past two years.
“Whatever has been snatched from us, we will talk about it. Without restoring our rights, we will tell them (government) that they cannot bring peace to the region,” she said, referring to Article 370.
Meanwhile, the BJP has tried to sideline the pro-India Kashmiri parties by labelling them “dynastic and corrupt”. In a tweet last year, Home Minister Shah referred to the PAGD alliance as the “Gupkar gang”, sparking outrage in the region.
The government has also tried to bring in new faces and new parties in the region’s political arena, but they failed to yield results in local polls held in December last year.
Most of the seats in the polls were secured by the PAGD alliance, though the elected representatives enjoy little power in a federal territory.
New Delhi-based Manoj Joshi, a political expert at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), said the local polls could not bypass the authority of traditional political parties, forcing the government to engage with them.
“I think it is a planned move,” Joshi told al Jazeera.
“In the last two years, the government has revamped the state administration and also got a delimitation commission which may alter the political power balance within any new state that comes up,” he said.
Nirmal Singh, a former BJP minister from the region who is also scheduled to attend Thursday’s meeting, told Al Jazeera the talks are a part of a promise made by Modi.
“The prime minister had promised from the Red Fort that he would start the political process in Kashmir,” he said, referring to the Indian prime minister’s annual Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Mughal-era fort in New Delhi.
“It has taken some time but we hope this is a golden chance to keep our point of view,” Singh added.
Talks being held due to US pressure?
Ruhulla Mehdi, a former National Conference legislator in the region, told Al Jazeera that Modi’s government may have agreed to talk to Kashmiri leaders following secret meetings between India and Pakistan earlier this year, mediated by the United Arab Emirates.
In April, Reuters news agency reported that top intelligence officers from the two nations held secret talks in Dubai in January in an effort to calm military tension over the disputed Himalayan region.
“I guess it has more to do with international dynamics than domestic,” Mehdi said, adding that the Biden administration in the United States “wants India to behave democratically with Kashmir”.
“The US has mentioned Kashmir issue multiple times. The step is for face saving now because BJP has realised it needs to engage with political leaders in Kashmir.”
After the secret talks, India and Pakistan jointly issued a rare statement, reaffirming their decision to stick to a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC), the de facto border between them.
For five months now, guns have gone silent on the LoC, which in 2020 saw more than 8,000 instances of ceasefire violations, resulting in hundreds of deaths on both sides.
Are geopolitical factors behind the decision?
Some experts also say New Delhi’s surprise offer of dialogue has come amid India’s two major geopolitical concerns: the unresolved border crisis with China in the Ladakh region, and the Taliban advances in Afghanistan.
Months of heightened tensions with China last year had raised the spectre of a full-fledged war between the two nuclear-armed Asian rivals.
At least 20 Indian soldiers were killed during a clash in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley in June last year – the first combat losses on the disputed border in more than 40 years. China earlier this year admitted that it also lost four soldiers in the fighting.
Tensions eased in February this year after thousands of soldiers from both sides who were deployed on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto border between them, were withdrawn and a hotline between their foreign ministers was announced.
Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a political analyst based in the disputed region, said New Delhi is reviving the bridge with the old parties in Kashmir as it is concerned about the developments in Afghanistan.
“One of the factors is that the US is retreating from Afghanistan, and India is apprehensive because Kabul is much closer to Srinagar by distance than Delhi. They are concerned and they have to do something about it,” Hussain said.
But he also called the talks a “marketing exercise”.
“We don’t know about the outcome. There has been a retreat on the part of New Delhi because previously they portrayed them (Kashmiri politicians) as a bunch of thugs,” he said.
Hussain said Modi had “an understanding” with former US President Donald Trump.
“He (Modi) played like an election agent for Trump. He doesn’t have the same relationship with Biden administration, which comprises Cold War hawks who are keen to regain support of earlier allies like Pakistan and Turkey,” he said.
But analyst Joshi ruled out any international pressure behind New Delhi’s decision to talk to Kashmiri leaders.
“I don’t think there is any special international pressure as such. The situation in the valley is not that alarming to attract international attention,” he told Al Jazeera.
While Joshi admitted “there have been critical statements by the Biden administration on depriving people of internet”, he said that, “by itself, doesn’t affect the government much”.
“Normalcy (in Indian-administered Kashmir) is further off, but yes, the restoring of the political process can help bring that back,” he said.