The visit drew ire from rights activists and leaders of the opposition as the ruling BJP has barred foreign journalists and independent groups from visiting Kashmir, where a clampdown on dissent has continued since August 5.
NEW DELHI — Almost three months since a security clampdown was imposed in India-administered Kashmir, the Indian government on Tuesday invited the first international delegation of 23-members of the European Union (EU) to visit the disputed region.
The announcement of the EU delegation quickly drew controversy, however.
Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the UK Chris Davies said that he had received an invitation to travel to the disputed region but the offer was "withdrawn" after he insisted on moving in the Valley “unaccompanied by military, police or security forces”. Many observers also pointed out that most of the visiting EU members belonged to Europe's far-right parties and have a reputation of peddling both Islamophobic and anti-immigration views.
South Asia analyst Peter Friedrich criticised India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for entertaining right-wing EU parliamentarians in the troubled region.
"Modi handpicks EU's fascist friendly parliamentarians for a Potemkin village tour of #Kashmir so they can return to pump pro-BJP/RSS propaganda into Europe," Friedrich wrote on Twitter.
Member of the European Parliament from the UK's Labour Party Theresa Griffin also questioned the locus standi of the visiting EU delegation.
"To be absolutely clear - the group of far-right MEPs currently visiting #Kashmir are not in any way an ‘official’ delegation. They do not speak for the European Parliament. The shutdown in Kashmir must be ended and constitutional rule of law restored," Griffin wrote on Twitter.
The team originally comprised of 27 parliamentarians, mostly from the extreme right or right-wing parties, but four did not travel to Kashmir and have reportedly returned to their respective countries.
The members of the delegation are from the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia among others.
Backed by the Indian government, the visit has been described as “unofficial”, while several European embassies in New Delhi were unaware of it until it became public knowledge on Monday.
"The delegation of MEPs is not on an official visit in India and came here at the invitation of a non-government group," an EU official in India told AFP, on condition of anonymity.
"We are not organising any of their meetings," the EU official added.
The members of the delegation met Indian prime minister on Monday.
In a statement issued by the Indian Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Modi said that India's relationship with the European Union is based on shared interests and common commitment to democratic values.
While welcoming the EU delegation, Modi said he's hopeful that the visiting members will have a fruitful visit to various parts of the country, including Jammu and Kashmir, which was put under a severe lockdown for several weeks after New Delhi unilaterally ended its semi-autonomous status on August 5.
The trip comes after US members of Congress expressed concern over a lack of access for diplomats and foreign media in the disputed region. US Congressman Chris Van Hollen was not allowed to visit Srinagar, the main city of Kashmir, earlier this month.
During the two-day visit, the delegation is expected to be briefed by government officials on the prevailing situation in Kashmir. On Tuesday, it was scheduled to meet top officials of the Indian army and other security agencies at the 15 Corps Headquarters in Srinagar.
Amid the visit by the EU members, Kashmir on Tuesday observed a complete shutdown.
Reports of protests and clashes between people and the Indian security forces poured out from several parts of Srinagar city and South Kashmir. At least four people were injured during clashes in which police were firing.
The EU parliamentarians’ visit comes after Modi-government declined to allow a delegation of India's elected parliamentarians to visit Kashmir. Parliamentarian and former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India in September, seeking free access to the Kashmir region.
Khurram Parvez, a prominent human rights activist in Srinagar and Program Coordinator of Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, told TRT World over phone that in a way it’s good that the Indian government has allowed the delegation to visit Kashmir to see the situation on the ground but what is problematic is that “this is a state-guided tour”.
“It’s not an open fact-finding visit where people who are coming from outside will be allowed to do what they want to do and meet all kinds of stakeholders,” said Parvez.
Parvez said that the delegation has not invited human rights groups or trade bodies to meet them and discuss the security situation in the disputed region. Also, political leaders, Parvez said, are in jail.
He added that India, intentionally or unintentionally, has agreed that the international community has reasons to come to Kashmir, so it cannot be limited to only those who are “approved by the government”.
If the foreign delegations come to Kashmir as part of a state-guided tour, Parvez asked: “What are they going to achieve?”
Abrogation of Article 370
India revoked the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir on August 5 and bifurcated the state into two Union Territories, followed by a harsh crackdown. Not only did India send thousands more troops to Kashmir, considered one of the world’s most militarised regions on Earth, it also imposed a complete communication ban, jailed thousands of Kashmiris including senior pro-India politicians, pro-freedom leaders and children as young as 12.
The communication ban has been eased now with the restoration of landline phones and postpaid mobile connections but the internet continues to remain shut down.
Due to the communication shutdown, many people have reportedly lost their jobs.
In the last three months, Kashmir's economy has completely fallen apart. The region's business community has suffered losses amounting to over $ 1.4 billion.
The Modi government came under attack from the opposition leaders with many saying it should have first allowed its own parliamentarians to enter Kashmir before inviting foreign leaders to the region.
“Before sending EU MPs to Kashmir to assess the current situation there, it would have been better if the government had allowed the MPs of [our] country, especially opposition parties, to go there,” said former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati.
Senior leader and the former president of the opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “MPs from Europe are welcome to go on a guided tour of Jammu & #Kashmir while Indian MPs are banned & denied entry.”
“There is something very wrong with that,” Gandhi added.
The visit was criticised by political parties in Jammu and Kashmir as well, with the region’s oldest party, National Conference, terming the visit a “PR stunt”.
Jammu and Kashmir former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti's daughter Iltija Mufti, who has been operating her mother's Twitter handle since her detention, wrote that only "fascists" were being allowed to visit the state.
Speaking with TRT World a Delhi-based political analyst Zoya Hassan said: “On the one hand the Indian government says that the issue of Jammu and Kashmir and the abrogation of Article 370 is an internal matter but on the other hand they are themselves internationalizing the issue by inviting MPs from EU most of whom belong to far-right parties.”
She added that the Modi government is hoping to get a report which would say things are 'normal' in Kashmir, when clearly they are not.
“If they get a positive assessment of conditions in Kashmir, they can then use it to counter considerable criticism outside India against the clampdown and shutdown in Kashmir,” she added.
Basharat Ali, a Kashmiri researcher based in New Delhi, sees the visit of the EU delegation as a planned trip to “help the Indian state whitewash its crimes in Kashmir”.
“‘Everything is alright and people are happy’ is going to be the underlying impression of any report these parliamentarians give on their return,” Ali told TRT World.