FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the parliament house to attend the first day of the budget session, in New Delhi
FILE - India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, India, Jan. 29, 2021.

SRINAGAR, INDIA - India’s prime minister was scheduled to hold a crucial meeting with pro-India politicians from disputed Kashmir on Thursday for the first time since New Delhi stripped the region’s semi-autonomy while jailing many of them in a crackdown.

Experts say the meeting is meant to ward off mounting criticism at home and abroad after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist 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 as many likened the moves to the beginning of settler colonialism. Modi has repeatedly called the changes overdue and necessary to foster economic development and fully integrate Kashmir with India.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, which both claim it in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Modi was chairing the meeting in New Delhi later Thursday that is likely to be attended by the Himalayan region’s 14 political leaders, including Modi’s own party members.

Among those invited are 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 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.”

The meeting was happening in the backdrop of the reaffirmation of a 2003 cease-fire accord between India and Pakistan in February as part of a peace deal brokered by the United Arab Emirates.

Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a public policy think tank in India, in a tweet said Tuesday that the UAE-brokered backchannel talks led to “certain commitments from the Modi government on Kashmir.”

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