Five months after the Central government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status under Article 370 and split the former state into two Union Territories, placing the region under lockdown, it has seen fit to invite a diplomatic delegation to the region. But mere diplomatic access, granted after months of mounting international concern, is not enough to strengthen the government’s fraying narrative that normalcy is returning. It could not quite suppress the political dissensions still bubbling beneath the surface, either.
The optics of this visit are marginally better than the Rashomon-like spectacle late last year, when a group of far-right members of the European Parliament flew down to Delhi and then Kashmir on the invitation of a businesswoman based in Britain. It what was apparently a “private” visit, the star attraction of which was a meeting with the prime minister. The delegation boated on the Dal Lake while Kashmir shut in protest against the visit and hundreds remained locked up. The diplomats were invited by the Indian government this time and did not take a ride on the freezing Dal. According to reports, there was no shutdown either.
Despite the government’s protests that this was not a guided tour, access to the Valley was not unconditional. The diplomats are believed to have met with handpicked politicians, civil society leaders and businessmen in Kashmir. There was one group of people they did not meet – Kashmiri political leaders still imprisoned after five months, including three former chief ministers. Delegates from the European Union are believed to have refused the invitation because they would not be allowed to visit the detained chief ministers.
Such a high-profile visit was also curiously secretive. The visiting officials reportedly shuttled between the army cantonment at Badami Bagh and Gupkar, the heavily securitised political nerve centre of Srinagar. There was also no official press meet. While a few select editors were let into the charmed circle, most Kashmiri journalists said they were barred entry into Gupkar. Security concerns cannot quite account for the limited scope of what was meant to be a first-hand experience of normalcy in the Valley.
The political tensions that the carefully planned visit sought to gloss over rose to the surface later in the evening. The People’s Democratic Party, whose leader, Mehbooba Mufti, is one of the three former chief ministers locked up, announced it was expelling eight leaders for “going against the will of the people” and meeting the diplomats. Some of these leaders had been released from detention or house arrest over the last couple of months.
Even though these leaders deny signing a bond pledging not to agitate on Article 370, they have been curiously silent on the matter so far. As with the European MPs’ visit, those who have acquiesced to the loss of special status seem to have been invited to meet the foreign delegation. Recently, a group of former legislators were also allowed to meet the lieutenant governor with a charter of demands – restore statehood, ensure special protections for jobs and land ownership, release political prisoners. These are vague promises that the Centre itself has made at some point or the other.
Over the last few months, Delhi seems to have adopted a policy of taking maximalist positions and then appearing to make concessions. It took away both special status and statehood but promised to return statehood after having redrawn the constituency map. It locked up political leaders and then released those willing to do politics on Delhi’s terms. It refused international scrutiny for months, then allowed foreign diplomats to visit, but only on a carefully charted route. Meanwhile, after a complete communications blackout, phone connections have been restored but the Valley remains without internet for five months, the longest shutdown in a democracy.
This is not what normalcy looks like in any democracy.