A group of 20 foreign diplomats reached Srinagar on Wednesday for a two-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir to study “the situation on ground” since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped the region of its semi-autonomous status in 2019, reported The Hindu.
Visuals showed the diplomats being driven in a motorcade amid tight security from the airport. They were later seen meeting locals in Magam block of Budgam district, where the envoys were briefed about various civic matters, reported ANI. There was a shutdown in several parts of Kashmir, NDTV reported.
Later in the day, the diplomats spoke to the mayor of Srinagar, chairpersons of the District Development Council and other local representatives. They also visited the Hazratbal shrine.
Srinagar Municipal Corporation Mayor Junaid Mattu told ANI that the visiting dignitaries were apprised of the elections of the DDC and urban local bodies. “Elected representatives from all political opinions and parties participated,” Mattu said. “The key issue discussed was decentralisation of power and planning, empowerment of the grassroots representatives. I believe the most important thing happening now is the empowerment of local elected representatives at grassroots level.”
One of the foreign delegates, Juan José Cortez Rojas, Charge d Affaires, Embassy of Bolivia in Delhi, told the news agency that the situation in the Union Territory was impressive. “What we are realising is that democracy took place here. People here are happy with the political decisions the central government took,” he said.
However, no meetings with former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti have been included in the agenda so far, according to The Hindu. Ahead of their visit to the Valley last year, the envoys had asked to meet the former chief ministers, who were all in detention at that time.
The delegation is led by European Union Ambassador Ugo Astuto, who is accompanied by French envoy Emmanuel Lenain and Italian envoy Vincenzo de Luca, among others. Diplomats from 24 countries are part of the group.
This includes Ambassadors from Portugal, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, Estonia. Diplomats from other regions like Bangladesh, Chile, Brazil, and Ghana are also visiting, unidentified officials told The Hindu. Wednesday’s visit comes before Modi’s trip to Brussels for the India-European Union summit in May.
While the Kashmir trip has not been officially announced by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the European Union’s European External Action Service confirmed that it had accepted New Delhi’s invitation.
“The Ambassador of the EU has accepted an invitation from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to pay a visit to Kashmir. Ambassadors of EU Member States will also join,” Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy told The Hindu. “Any such visit organised by the Indian authorities would help to inform the E.U. of the situation on the ground, as part of the E.U.’s wider outreach and contacts.”
India has organised two visits for foreign envoys since it abrogated Article 370 and split Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. The move was accompanied by a crackdown, including deployment of thousands of additional troops, a sweeping curfew, thousands of arrests, and a virtual communications blackout.
Authorities have since eased several restrictions, including the restoration of landlines and internet services. They have encouraged students to return to school and businesses to reopen, but Kashmiris have largely stayed home.
On Tuesday, workers in Srinagar were seen dismantling security bunkers and barricades, especially those dotting the main road connecting the Srinagar airport with the city.
An official told The Hindu that the outreach programme planned for Wednesday “is more extensive” compared to the previous two visits of foreign envoys to the region. “Representatives of the District Development Council (DDC), elected in December last year, will provide a fresh perspective of the ground situation,” another official told the newspaper.
Politicians criticise visit
Peoples Conference leader Omar Abdullah said the visit served no purpose as the delegation will be allowed to meet “only hand-picked” individuals.
“We’ve seen these guided tours in the past particularly, in the immediate aftermath of August 5, 2019,” he told The Hindu. “If this proposed delegation is going to do the same thing, this visit will be as pointless as previous ones.”
On February 13, Peoples Democratic Party President Mehbooba Mufti had also mocked the government for planning the visit, asking officials how can the security forces ensure the delegation’s safety, when they cannot provide security to the locals.