More than 20 diplomats tour India-administered Kashmir under high security, a visit critics say is aimed at portraying normalcy in the highly-militarised region.

Foreign diplomats are seen in boats as Indian paramilitary troops stand guard on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar on February 12, 2020.
Foreign diplomats are seen in boats as Indian paramilitary troops stand guard on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar on February 12, 2020. (Reuters)

India took more than 20 foreign diplomats on a visit to disputed Kashmir on Wednesday, the third such trip since Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government stripped the region of its semi-autonomous status last summer.

Critics say the tour is a smokescreen for India's rights abuses in the volatile region and aimed to blunt European initiatives on Kashmir. 

India's foreign ministry in a statement said the New Delhi-based envoys would meet representatives of the civil society, including youth from different ethnic and religious communities, local business and political leaders, civil administration and representatives of mainstream media.

The delegation included envoys from Germany, Canada, Bulgaria, Nigeria, France, New Zealand, Mexico, Italy, Afghanistan, Austria, Uzbekistan, Poland and some members of the European Parliament. They'll stay in the region for two days.

Kashmir-based political analyst Sheikh Showkat told TRT World the "Indian PR exercise is aimed to blunt European initiatives on Kashmir and portray normalcy in the region."

"The exercise loses its worth because of continuous detentions of leaders, activists, and internet ban."

Mosharraf Zaidi, an independent analyst and former adviser to Pakistan's foreign ministry, told TRT World the visit "reconfirms the international community's unholy alliance with the fascist and religious extremists that run India."

"It is a shameful abdication of Western responsibility in highlighting and preventing human rights abuse. It could also strengthen extremist narratives and groups in Pakistan."

Boat-ride diplomacy

The diplomats were driven in a motorcade amid tight security from the airport to a luxury hotel in a high-security zone. They also went for a boat ride in the Dal Lake in Srinagar.

Tahir Qadiry, an Afghan diplomat, told reporters after the boat ride that "everything is normal and alright here. We saw children on the way to their school, which is a sign of normalcy."

All schools and colleges in the Himalayan region are closed for winter vacations since December, making it unclear what Qadiry was referring to.

He also tweeted that the envoys "are interacting with the traders, businesswomen and entrepreneurs in Srinagar about the status of business & tourism."

However, social media sites including Twitter continue to be blocked in Kashmir even though authorities restored the slow-speed internet on mobile phones in January.

Foreign tours amid limited access

India has been organising visits for foreign envoys after it ended Muslim-majority Kashmir's semi-autonomous status, crucial to its 1947 treaty with Kashmir, then a separate kingdom. 

The August 5 move was accompanied by a harsh crackdown, including tens of thousands of additional troops in the already heavily-militarised region, a sweeping curfew, and thousands of arrests.

Those arrests also include pro-India politicians who were previously allies of Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  

Authorities have since eased several restrictions, including some internet services.

Outside access to the region, however, remains limited, with no foreign journalists allowed.

'A smokescreen'

Wednesday's visit of the envoys comes before Modi's trip to Brussels for the India-European Union summit on March 13.

"These visits are organised as a smokescreen to trick the international community into believing that everything is fine in Kashmir and to support the Indian viewpoint," said Abdul Rashid, a Kashmiri trader. 

"These curated hand-held tours of the besieged Kashmir do not answer the basic question: if the situation in Kashmir is normal, why are hundreds of political activists still under detention, why are journalists being harassed for reporting, and why are Kashmiris denied the ability to express themselves on social media or in the form of political activity?" Mohamad Junaid, who teaches anthropology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in US, said.

"Taking diplomats to meet a chosen few Kashmiris in tiny enclaves of Srinagar says more about the abnormality of the occupation than about how the situation is 'normal'."

'Unholy alliance with fascists'

In October last year, violent clashes erupted in the region when members of European Parliament, mostly from far-right parties, visited Kashmir amid lockdown.

At the time one member of UK's centrist Liberal Democrats, Chris Davies, had said his invitation was cancelled by New Delhi after he insisted on being able to talk to local Kashmiris without a police escort.

"I am not prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government and pretend that all is well," Davies had said in a statement.

In January this year, European Union members, except Norway, refused to travel to Kashmir in what one diplomat said was India's "guided tour" taken by envoys of many countries including the US.

The latest visit of foreign envoys comes after European Union parliamentarians decided to postpone a vote that criticises India's controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and its August 5 move in locked down Kashmir. 

The vote will now not be held until the end of March.   

Sources familiar with the itinerary said the trip will also include meetings with the Indian army and government officials, as well as journalists and civil society groups selected by the security services.

Last month, fifteen foreign envoys visited Kashmir – a trip participants characterised as tightly-choreographed with no room for independent meetings.

"Things looked calm, but we only had a very short time out the window of the car to assess the situation," said a diplomat who attended the previous trip.

"They told the truth, but not necessarily the whole truth," he added of his meetings with delegates. 

Deadly conflict 

India says the audacious August 5 move was to end "a vicious cycle of terrorism, violence, separatism, and corruption" and make Kashmir a "paradise once more".

But Kashmiris say the move was unilateral and New Delhi's ultimate plan is to change the demographics of the Muslim region by settling Hindu outsiders. 

Pakistan says the "illegal" annexation of the portion of the disputed territory by India is "unacceptable".

Kashmir has been the spark for two major wars and countless clashes between nuclear rivals Pakistan and India.

Anti-India sentiment runs deep in Kashmir's mostly Muslim population and most people support the rebels' cause against Indian rule. 

Nearly 100,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the ensuing Indian military crackdown since 1989. 

India has stationed more than 500,000 troops in the region who have been accused of suppressing the Kashmiri uprising using brutal tactics, including the infamous pellet guns which have wounded or blinded many Kashmiris.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies