One of Kashmir’s most senior pro-democracy leaders said India’s promise of a new election in the territory must be accompanied by the release of political prisoners and other measures to restore public confidence.
Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, also called for a financial support package to help repair the region’s battered economy after Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, expressed his intention to restore its elected government.
“They need to reach out to the people, so [they] can see that something is moving forward,” said Mufti in an interview with the Financial Times following talks between Kashmiri leaders and the central government. “Otherwise, it will look like a photo op.”
Modi severely disrupted Kashmir and its tourism-based economy in August 2019 when the government abruptly scrapped a constitutional article guaranteeing political autonomy to India’s only Muslim-majority state, which has been scarred by a Pakistan-backed separatist insurgency.
New Delhi took direct control and evacuated more than 20,000 Indian and foreign tourists from Kashmir claiming a terror threat, put the local population under lockdown and suspended mobile phone or internet services for months.
Several leading Kashmiri politicians were detained, including Mufti, who spent 14 months in detention and house arrest.
Modi and Amit Shah, India’s home minister, met Kashmir’s pro-democracy leaders last week for the first time since the political reorganisation to present plans for new elections. However, they did not commit to a timetable and said there would first be a process to redraw its electoral map.
India is under pressure to restore democracy in Kashmir as it engages in back-channel talks with Pakistan to improve relations between the two nations, which have fought three wars over the region.
Modi’s government is also grappling with strategic pressures from an increasingly assertive China and the imminent US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
Mufti was cautiously optimistic that last week’s meeting marked the start of a process to improve conditions but criticised Indian authorities for using national security and anti-terror laws to quash public discourse over Kashmir’s autonomy.
“They have done something which we think is illegal and unconstitutional, but you are prohibited even from talking about it,” she added.
Mufti said she had urged Modi to give Kashmiris “some breathing space” to express themselves. “People are really feeling suffocated,” she said. “How long can people keep their anger inside? It can blow up any time.”
Since taking control of the region, New Delhi has pushed through laws to make it easier for outsiders to gain residency, get local government jobs and purchase property, Mufti said.
Such changes, she added, had reinforced fears that the government wants to alter Kashmir’s demographic character and reduce the indigenous population to a minority in their home state.
Mufti said New Delhi should refrain from imposing new laws on the territory until an elected government was in place.
“People are really scared,” she said. “All kinds of laws are coming which further disempower the people of the state.”
Mufti also reaffirmed her commitment to restoring Kashmir’s political autonomy, which she said was critical for ensuring “security of our resources, of our jobs and especially our identity”.