NEW DELHI: Kashmiri leaders from pro-India parties on Thursday urged the prime minister to restore the region's special autonomy and engage in dialogue with Pakistan during their first meeting with him since the region lost its autonomy and saw many of its leaders jailed in a crackdown.
Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with both claiming it in its entirety.
It became a flashpoint between the neighbors at the end of British colonial rule in 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into predominantly Hindu India and mainly Muslim Pakistan. India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over control of Kashmir.
In Aug. 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government abolished Article 370 of the constitution ending Kashmir's autonomy. It split it into two federal territories — Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir — and placed its entire population under lockdown and a communication blackout.
In a series of administrative changes that followed, India removed protections on land and jobs for the local population, which many likened to attempts at demographically altering the region.
Leaders of 14 pro-India political parties were invited for Thursday's meeting in New Delhi. Many of them, including Kashmir's former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, had been under house arrest for months.
“People of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) feel very humiliated after what happened on Aug. 5, 2019,” Mufti told reporters. “The way Article 370 was removed from the constitution — unconstitutionally, illegally and immorally — this is not acceptable to the people of Kashmir, and we will struggle for the restoration of Article 370 because this is the question of our identity.”
Home Minister Amit Shah, while not commenting on the restoration of Kashmir's autonomy, confirmed that the restoration of its statehood — with a state being of higher administrative importance than federal territory — was discussed.
“The future of Jammu and Kashmir was discussed and the delimitation exercise and peaceful elections are important milestones in restoring statehood as promised in parliament,” he tweeted after the meeting.
India’s main opposition Congress party demanded that the restoration of the territory's statehood be carried out soon.
“Statehood should be restored at the earliest,” Congress leader and former Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told the media. “The prime minister and home minister had made a promise that the government would restore statehood.”
The meeting took place against the backdrop of reaffirming a 2003 ceasefire accord between India and Pakistan in February. The Kashmiri leaders said India should engage in talks with Pakistan for the sake of the region’s economic condition.
“I complimented the PM on (the) ceasefire with Pakistan and told him to hold talks with Pakistan for peace in Kashmir,” Mufti added. “New Delhi should talk with Islamabad for the resumption of the stalled trade between both parts of Kashmir because many people’s lives are involved in this.”
Omar Abdullah, another former chief minister of Kashmir and leader of the region's oldest political party the National Conference, also supported talks with Pakistan. “We can change friends but not neighbors,” he said. “Pakistan is our close neighbor and we should use the back channel to address the existing tensions between the two nations.”
But, among observers and Kashmiris themselves, there was little hope about the meeting.
“Modi needed a photograph to convey to his international audience that he is engaged with the Kashmiri leadership, that is what (he) has got on Thursday,” Srinagar-based political analyst Prof. Sheikh Showkat Hussain, who teaches at the Central University of Kashmir, told Arab News. “It was not meant for something serious, and this is the common impression in Kashmir.”