• EU MPs in Kashmir – A Diplomatic Blunder?

    Seema Mustafa

    October 31, 2019

    Kashmir has indeed become a Pandora’s box that either the only very stupid or the very callous could open. And follow the decision not with acts of wisdom but the very opposite as is evident in the much touted visit of 23 European Union Parliamentarians to the Valley. That too after Indian MPs have not been allowed to take a step outside of the Srinagar airport, and requests by American Senators for such permission has been turned down. Not to speak of the United Nations and the foreign media.

    That those advising Prime Minister Narendra Modi actually believed that they could pull off the EU visit shows that policy planning has now even less thought behind it. And that there is over reliance on the magical rabbit, along with pressure and clout, that passes for policy planning these days.

    Look at it. Some obscure NGO that has little to no presence in India, to the point where journalists are still searching for its credentials and those of the supposed woman owner –one Madam Madi Sharma who appears in the newspapers like this mystery figure now—sets up this high profile visit. The NGO, Westt, writes to specific MPs asking them to join the tour and in the itinerary promising a meeting with PM Modi along with the visit to Srinagar. About 29 MPs respond positively. One from the UK Chris Davies, by his own admission, tries to lay down conditions. I want to meet journalists and local people without the police, he says. And according to Davies the invitation is abruptly withdrawn.

    Of the remaining, four decide not to accompany the others. So 23 arrive in Delhi to be briefed —they found this very “impressive”– by the PM and his National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. The media gets to work and finds that most of them are renowned Islamaphobes, and have crossed ethical limits with their comments against immigrants and Muslims. Even the conservative Indian press was moved to describe the bunch as “right wing” Parliamentarians from different European countries.

    After the briefing they are taken to Srinagar, and even pliant photographers find it difficult to photograph crowds on the streets. In fact quite the opposite as their convoy rolls down deserted, and heavily security fortified roads of Srinagar. They are briefed —no guess work needed here— by the Indian Army. And then taken for a shikara ride on the deserted Dal lake that has them smiling and clicking photographs a la ordinary tourist. This is all that is really known about the visit so far.

    The expectation is that the delegation will hold a press conference speaking of ‘normalcy’ in Kashmir. But perhaps even they will find it difficult to do so given the fact that clashes were reported from different parts leading to an intensified lockdown in the Valley. And if this was not enough militants struck in Kulgam, lining up poor migrant labourers and shooting dead five of them in a gruseome, tragic incident. One was left for dead so lived. All from West Bengal.

    This terrible attack on Tuesday has been the fifth since October 14. Four truckers, one apple trader and one labourer —all non-locals— have been killed in separate incidents. So the abrogation of Article 370 that has been pedalled by the government as an anti-terror move clearly has not had a salutary impact on terrorists.

    So what is the message from this EU visit? To understand this it is perhaps best to start with what the government was hoping for. Given the harsh US Congress hearing on Kashmir where the members did not leave any one in doubt about their concerns on Kashmir, the government was obviously desperate to get some international endorsement for the move on Kashmir. Incidentally the Valley has been locked down since August 5, that will make it a full 90 days soon. An open air prison as the locals have said to the media repeatedly.

    The government was clearly trying to dilute the criticism by the US Congress and the foreign media that has been fairly relentless in its coverage of the Valley through this EU visit. With of course the usual overreliance on the Indian media that has become a government propaganda machine, screaming in decibles when it comes to manifesting support. The big Indian media did its job, as did the 23 MPs, as did for that matter the mysterious Ms Madi Sharma, as did also the Ministry fo External Affairs and Jaishankar by stamping visas with record speed. But then matters went awry because of the prying nature of some journalists who are still hung up on independent reporting, and the UK MeP Chris Davies.

    The journalists detailed the antecedents of the EU bunch. And Davies issued a statement saying that this was just a “PR stunt”. And the terrorists killed migrant labourers. And the Kashmiris protested with Srinagar again facing the full weight of a mightly clampdown. And as a result the big plan went awry. Adding to the din was the Opposition in Delhi wondering at a government that did not allow them into Srinagar —well in case readers have forgotten some of them did try at the onset—-but was facilitating a conducted tour for the EU MPs.

    So the intended message started getting diluted. And then blurred. And the takeaway now seems to be one, that the EU delegation was rigged, in that only select MPs were contacted. And when one insisted on some freedom of movement the invitation was withdrawn;

    Two, the government is trying to cover up the situation in Kashmir by taking a delegation of supposedly ideologically prejudiced MPs to the Valley and continuing to deny access to its own Parliamentarians. No doubt now the US Congress Democrats will follow this with a demand to be given the same facility of a visit that has been denied to them as well. What then?

    Three, far from diluting the international aspect of the Kashmir issue the government seems to have exacerbated it. The world is speaking about the visit, even the EU representatives who were earlier silent on Kashmir. The international media of course is covering it in some detail.

    Four, the counter voice to the US Congressional hearing that the government hoped for is cracked and weak given the moorings of the selected delegation. Davies has cut into this and enhanced the perception that access to the Valley is being denied by New Delhi.

    And five, terrorism targeting non Kashmiris has returned to the Valley in what is fast becoming a situation that might surpass the bloody 1990s.

    The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights has also not been left behind. Spokesperson Rupert Colville issued a statement on Tuesday describing the Valley as “Indian-Administered Kashmir” despite New Delhi protests earlier.”We are extremely concerned that the population of Indian-Administered Kashmir continues to be deprived of a wide range of human rights and we urge the Indian authorities to unlock the situation and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied,” Colville said.

    He further added in the very detailed statement, “The undeclared curfew imposed by the authorities in the region was lifted from much of Jammu and Ladakh region within a few days, but is reportedly still in place in large parts of the Kashmir Valley, preventing the free movement of people, as well as hampering their ability to exercise their right to peaceful assembly, and restricting their rights to health, education and freedom of religion and belief.

    There have been several allegations of excessive use of force including the use of pellet-firing shotguns, tear gas and rubber bullets by security forces during sporadic protests, with unconfirmed reports of at least six civilian killings and scores of serious injuries in separate incidents since 5 August.

    We have also received reports of armed groups operating in Indian-Administered Kashmir threatening residents trying to carry out their normal business or attend school, as well as several allegations of violence against people who have not complied with the armed groups’ demands. At least another six people have been killed and over a dozen injured in alleged attacks by armed group members since 5 August.

    Hundreds of political and civil society leaders, including three former Chief Ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, have been detained on a preventative basis. While some political workers have reportedly been released, most senior leaders – especially those from the Kashmir Valley – remain in detention.

    We have also received a number of allegations of torture and ill-treatment of people held in detention. These must be independently and impartially investigated. Torture is totally and unequivocally prohibited under international law.

    While restrictions on landline telephones were eventually lifted, and a state-run telecom company allowed to resume partial mobile services, all internet services remain blocked in the Kashmir Valley. Media outlets continue to face undue restrictions, with at least four local journalists allegedly arrested in the past three months.

    The Supreme Court of India has been slow to deal with petitions concerning habeas corpus, freedom of movement and media restrictions. The Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, the State Information Commission (which implements the right-to-information laws) and the State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights are among key institutions being wound up, with the new bodies to replace them yet to be established.

    Meanwhile, major political decisions about the future status of Jammu and Kashmir have been taken without the consent, deliberation or active and informed participation of the affected population. Their leaders are detained, their capacity to be informed has been badly restricted, and their right to freedom of expression and to political participation has been undermined.”

    The EU visit has focused international attention on Kashmir with other EU parliamentarians tweeting their concerns, and pointing out that this in now way represented the official position. The EU delegation was in Kashmir, they said, in their personal capacity and in no way could be construed as the European Unions voice.

    Meanwhile the delegations press conference is eagerly awaited.


    First published in The Citizen.

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