Is the Narendra Modi government changing its position on Kashmir, opening itself up to international scrutiny? On Tuesday, 27 members of the European Parliament, travelling to India in their “personal capacity” will make a brief trip to Kashmir. This will be the first visit made by foreign officials since August 5, when the Centre announced it was going to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special status under the Indian Constitution and split the state into two Union Territories. But there may be less to this visit than meets the eye.
Over the last few months, there have been growing signs of disquiet about human rights violations and civil liberties in Jammu and Kashmir, particularly the Valley. As the Centre made its announcement in August, the state was put under lockdown, communications channels were cut and thousands were detained, including most of the Valley’s political leadership. Even Indian parliamentarians from Opposition parties were detained as they tried to visit Srinagar.
As internationational disquiet over Kashmir grew, the Indian government refused requests for access, whether it was from the United Nations or American senators keen to assess the situation first hand. Even foreign journalists working for international publications were not allowed into the Valley. At the recent United States Congressional hearing on human rights in South Asia, the Indian government came under renewed fire for resisting outside scrutiny.
Under growing international censure, the Indian government might be making efforts at damage control. But several questions must be raised about the European visit. It is, to begin with, an unofficial visit that does not have the European Union’s imprimatur. The European Parliament has an official “Delegation for relations with the countries of South Asia”. A cursory look at the list of members shows it is scantily represented in the Kashmir visit. Only France’s Thierry Mariani and the Czech Republic’s Tomas Zdechovsky are “substitute” members of the official delegation.
Most of the private delegation’s members belong to parties described as “far-right” or “populist”. They include Britain’s Brexit Party, France’s National Rally, Poland’s Law and Justice, Spain’s VOX and a Flemish nationalist party called Vlaams Belang. Many points on their political agenda, seen as anti-immigrant, anti-minority and jingoistic, chime in sympathy with those of the Bharatiya Janata Party. On October 28, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met the delegates and made the parameters of the visit amply clear. It would give the Europeans a better idea of the Indian government’s developmental priorities. Meanwhile, everyone was to make common cause against terror.
Given the circumstances, it seems unlikely that the visitors will ask tough questions of government – why Opposition leaders are locked up, why minors have been detained illegally under a preventive detention law, why the Indian Army has been accused of brutalising civilians in South Kashmir, why a decision apparently taken for the good of the people entailed putting them under lockdown.
On the face of it, the visit seems another stage managed attempt to project normalcy in Kashmir. There have been many like it since August 5, including Doval’s visit to a militancy-hit Shopian district in the early days of the lockdown, when he tucked into a hearty meal in front of shuttered shops. They did little to boost the Indian government’s credibility in the international community.