Narendra Modi will meet top Kashmiri politicians on Thursday, with discussions expected to focus on restoring democracy to the Muslim-majority region two years after New Delhi stripped the state of its political autonomy.

The initiative is seen as critical to India’s ability to maintain momentum in back-channel discussions to improve relations with Pakistan. The nuclear-armed neighbours have fought three wars over the divided state.

Islamabad was incensed in August 2019 when the Modi government abolished a constitutional provision that had guaranteed Kashmir’s autonomy. The entire Kashmiri population was placed under lockdown. Mobile phone and internet services were suspended for months and hundreds of political activists were imprisoned.

An Indian official said the meeting in New Delhi was a step towards restoring statehood to Jammu and Kashmir and reinstating local elections. Kashmiri politicians were expected to demand the return of the autonomy the state previously had over its own affairs.

Three of Kashmir’s former chief ministers, who spent almost eight months in preventive detention or under house arrest after the 2019 measures, were due to attend the meeting.

“The agenda is to firstly open a line of communication with the mainstream leaders of the state to bring them back into the democratic fold,” the official said.

Kashmir locator map

The Modi government’s overtures reflected growing strategic pressure on New Delhi amid tensions with China and concerns about the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, according to analysts.

India has had more than 50,000 soldiers deployed in Ladakh since a deadly border skirmish with People’s Liberation Army troops last year. Talks with Beijing on mutual troop withdrawals have made little progress.

Happymon Jacob, professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said restoring democratic processes in Kashmir would advance New Delhi’s relations with Pakistan. The countries announced a joint ceasefire along their heavily militarised de facto border in Kashmir in February.

“India feels a bit boxed in at this point from all directions,” said Jacob. “Releasing pressure on the Pakistan front is a smart thing to do.”

Sushant Singh, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a think-tank, said New Delhi’s reconsideration of its hardline Kashmir strategy reflected its “fear of a two-front collusive threat”.

He added that the shift followed pressure from the US, which is eager for improved relations between India and Pakistan as it prepares to pull its troops from Afghanistan.

“Modi’s hand has been virtually forced,” Singh said. “India has been under real pressure on human rights and other issues in the recent months.”

Dean Thompson, acting US assistant secretary of state for south Asia, testified before Congress this month that Washington had urged India “to return to normalcy as quickly as possible” in Kashmir.

New Delhi claimed its political overhaul of Kashmir in 2019 would bring development and prosperity to the region. But Siddiq Wahid, a Kashmir-based academic, said residents feared Modi’s latest initiative was merely a public relations exercise rather than a genuine attempt at reconciliation.

“The question is, ‘Is it all for optics?’” he said. “If it is optics, it’s not going to be satisfactory.”