SRINAGAR (AA): A 15-member delegation of foreign ambassadors to India visited the Kashmir Valley on Thursday and met with a cross-section of people.
The ambassadors of the U.S., Togo, Bangladesh, Morocco, South Korea, Vietnam, Maldives, Fiji, Norway, Philippines, Argentina, Peru, Niger, Nigeria and Guyana drove straight from the airport to the Indian army’s largest cantonment in the capital Srinagar at Badami Bagh, where the commander of the army’s 15- Corps briefed them.
They then made their longest stop at a hotel nearby, where they met a group of Kashmiri politicians and journalists.
A 27-member delegation of European Parliament members had visited Kashmir in October last year amid a security and communication lockdown, which drew criticism from Indian political parties because a delegation of Indian parliamentarians had been denied entry to Kashmir around the same time.
‘Not a guided tour’
The Press Trust of India cited Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar as saying the objective of the envoys’ visit was “for them to see firsthand efforts to normalize the situation there.”
He deemed criticism that it was a “guided tour” as unfounded. Kumar said a similar visit to Kashmir could be organized in the future, including by European Union envoys.
He was reacting to media reports that suggested that some EU ambassadors had dropped plans to visit along with the delegation after their request to hold meetings with jailed former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir were turned down.
None of the mainstream journalists working for foreign, local or Indian publications had been invited to the meeting, and they were not allowed to enter the hotel.
A group of TV reporters and print journalists vainly waited along the banks of Dal Lake, about 100 meters from the hotel, hoping the envoys might take a boat ride on the lake like European politicians last time and speak to the media for a few moments.
A police official who spoke on condition of anonymity said a few civil society groups who had met the European politicians also met the ambassadors Thursday.
“We spoke about issues concerning Kashmiri people. Among various things, the ambassadors also asked us about the situation post abrogation of Article 370. We told them Kashmiris never expected the laws would be abrogated, nor are they happy with this decision,” said Mir, who was one of the politicians that met the ambassadors.
“I don’t think talking about Kashmir is a crime. We cannot afford to not have deliberations on Kashmir,” he added.
Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which conferred a special status on Jammu and Kashmir, was revoked on Aug. 5 last year.
Hundreds of people, mostly political leaders, have been detained or arrested by authorities since the move.
‘Restoration of internet’
The group that met the ambassadors Thursday had presented a memorandum of demands to federal governor Girish Chandra Murmu on Tuesday, including restoration of the internet and the release of detained politicians but skipped a mention of the special laws that were scrapped on Aug. 5, which drew criticism from their own party and opposition politicians.
After today’s meeting, their party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), expelled those who had met Murmu and the ambassadors. They included Dilawar Mir, Rafi Mir, Zaffar Iqbal Manhas, Chaudhary Qamar Hussain, Raja Manzoor, Javaid Beigh, Abdul Majeed Padroo and Abdul Rahim Rather.
During their meeting with Murmu, they had called for the restoration of statehood — Jammu and Kashmir was divided and downgraded into two federally administered Union Territories on Aug. 5 — as well as the revival of tourism, restoration of the internet and release of detainees.
The PDP, which six of the eight lawmakers belong to, tweeted: “While the house is yet to stabilize, looters have descended on it.”
Its arch rival, the National Conference, joined the chorus that denounced the lawmakers, saying New Delhi has always “used and discarded such fronts in the past.”
In its defense, Altaf Bukhari, who was leading the delegation, said their meeting has not rendered invalid a demand for restoration of special laws.
Recent reports in local and Indian media outlets suggest that this group is coming up as a ‘Third Front’ which is ready to resume political activities without seeking a return to the lost autonomous status.
Javaid Malik, an editor with the Greater Kashmir newspaper, told Anadolu Agency the envoys asked journalists about the media’s role post Aug. 5, whether Pakistan was interfering in Kashmir, whether circulation of newspapers had increased because of the internet gag and the state of governance in the past seven decades.
He added that American envoy Kenneth Juster sought feedback on the possibility of enacting domicile laws that would protect jobs and land for Kashmiris. The abrogation of the special laws now makes it possible for Indians to buy properties and apply for government jobs in Kashmir.
Imran Nabi, spokesman for Jammu and Kashmir’s oldest political party, the National Conference, said his party had not been invited to meet with the ambassadors.
“Like the visit by the European politicians, this was a guided tour. The government had summoned its own people to meet them. Some European ambassadors declined the invitation this time because they didn’t want a guided tour. They must have realized that reality is something else than India wants to project before the world,” Nabi said.
Three youngsters belonging to the NGO Kashmir Youth Power who held placards that said “restore internet facility” told reporters the security personnel did not allow them to meet the ambassadors.
Mudasir Bashir, the chairman of the NGO, said he has not been able to speak to his mother, who is in Australia, for the past six months because of the Internet gag.
“We wanted to tell these ambassadors how the internet ban has affected us, how the Indian government’s tall promises to develop this region have come to nothing,” he said.
Before flying to the Jammu region, the ambassadors took a ride along the banks of the lake in a security cavalcade for about 10 minutes.
No strike was observed in the valley this time, unlike during the European politicians’ visit, when a complete shutdown was held as a mark of protest.