India’s Modi holds first talks with Kashmir leaders since removal of autonomy

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Security personnel stand guard ahead of the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his meeting with political leaders of Jammu and Kashmir, in Srinagar on Thursday, July 24, 2021. Image Credit: ANI

Srinagar: India’s prime minister held a crucial meeting with politicians from Kashmir on Thursday for the first time since New Delhi stripped the region’s semi-autonomy.

No major decision was announced after the meeting and many Kashmiri leaders said they reiterated their demand that New Delhi should reverse its 2019 changes.

Experts say the meeting was meant to ward off mounting criticism at home and abroad after the 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. Modi has called the changes overdue and necessary to foster economic development and fully integrate Kashmir with India.

Modi chaired the meeting in New Delhi attended by the Himalayan region’s 14 political leaders, including Modi’s own party members. India’s home minister, Amit Shah, and New Delhi’s administrator in the region, Manoj Sinha, also attended the meeting.

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 for nearly two years after the 2016 state elections.

The three and a few other invited leaders were among thousands arrested and held for months in 2019. They have criticized India’s policies in Kashmir and formed an alliance with four other parties to fight them, calling them “spitefully shortsighted and unconstitutional.”

Shah said the government “stressed to strengthen the democratic process” in the region.

But the alliance spokesman, Yousuf Tarigami, told reporters after the meeting that they did not get any concrete assurances from Modi and Shah, although they “heard our concerns, demands and aspirations.”

The Kashmiri alliance stuck to their demands and said they told Modi during the meeting that the region’s semi-autonomous powers should be restored.

“India’s unconstitutional, illegal and immoral changes in the region are not acceptable to us,” Mufti, the region’s former chief minister, told reporters after the meeting.

Mufti said she told the Indian leaders that New Delhi should also talk to neighboring Pakistan and find a solution to the dispute.

Several other leaders, however, steered away from demanding a restoration of the special status and said they instead stressed an early restoration of statehood, the holding of an election and land and employment security for people.

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