On February 17, the Ministry of External Ministry flew a group of 24 foreign envoys, fourth since the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, to showcase efforts to restore normalcy and boost development in Jammu and Kashmir. The group included the European Union (EU) ambassador Ugo Astuto and ambassadors of key European states such as French envoy Emmanuel Lenain, Italian envoy Vincenzo de Luca, Swedish ambassador Klas Molin, Irish envoy Brendan Ward and Dutch diplomat Marten van den Berg. The delegation included at least four members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
The 2-day visit was organised following the conduct of District Development Council (DDC) elections in November-December and restoration of high speed 4G mobile internet early February after 550 days.
In Kashmir, the envoys were put up at The Lalit, a 5-star hotel offering a panoramic view of Dal lake. There the envoys met a number of delegations to get a sense of the situation in Kashmir. Srinagar’s Mayor Junaid Azim Mattu also met the envoys and briefed them about the recently concluded DDC elections. The visiting dignitaries, he said, were “apprised of the landmark elections and all of them agreed it was a free and fair process.”
Among others who met the diplomats included the DDC and panchayat members from Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir, officers of the civil administration, and more than a dozen editors and correspondents of local and national newspapers and television networks.
According to reports in the media, the editors who met the envoys told them that Kashmir press was free. “In Kashmir, the press is free and the journalists are working in a free atmosphere. Though there were some concerns that the media fraternity was facing when Article 370 was abrogated but they have been addressed,” one editor was quoted to have said by a local daily.
Similarly, another editor is said to have underlined the need for “starting the political dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir and holding of Assembly elections”. He has also demanded the restoration of statehood.
But at the same time, the other set of journalists who were waiting outside the hotel were not allowed to meet the envoys. Some of them complained that they were kept at a safe distance from the hotel. “We were not even allowed to reach the gate. It was difficult to even shoot,” a video-journalist who didn’t want to be named said.
The visiting diplomats also held a brief interaction with a small group of Kashmiri artisans, poets and writers at Sher-i-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC). They were briefed by the top army commanders about the security issues at the headquarters of Srinagar based 15-Corps. Besides, the envoys had detailed meetings with the Chief Justice in Jammu and a visit to the Dargah in Hazratbal.
Anurag Srivastava offered details of the visit and the objectives involved. “The idea behind facilitating these visits was to enable Foreign Heads of Missions to get a better sense of the ground situation and the prevailing normalcy in the union territory,” Srivastava told reporters in Delhi. “Subsequently, there has been an enhanced interest in the ongoing political and democratic process, including strengthening of grassroots democracy in Jammu and Kashmir.”
The visit, he said, was in the context, to allow foreign envoys to witness, first-hand, “Jammu and Kashmir’s march on the path of inclusive development and the dynamism in the grassroots democratic institutions”.
In Srinagar, the delegation was also briefed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police about the various programmes including community engagements, counter-radicalisation measures and also about the Army’s role in convincing militants to surrender and countering Pakistan’s infiltration activities while conducting DDC elections in Jammu and Kashmir.
However, no one from the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) was invited to meet the envoys even though two days before the envoys arrived in Kashmir, orders to restrict the movement of two former chief ministers – Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah were withdrawn. Similarly, the EU delegation didn’t meet anyone from the Congress party.
Later Omar took a dig on the visit of foreign envoys to Kashmir, asking them to send real tourists from their countries to Jammu and Kashmir.
“Thank you for visiting Kashmir. Now please send some real tourists from your countries to visit J&K. #envoysvisitJK,” Omar tweeted.
Mehbooba too slammed the government for the envoys’ visit: “So much done to woo foreigners who have no stake in the Kashmir issue while the main stakeholders i.e. the people of J&K are disregarded & brutalised into silence,” she tweeted.
State Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir termed the envoys’ visit “a stage-managed show”.
“The EU members didn’t meet any designated member from Congress and National Conference as projected by the media. They met those who speak BJP language and praise BJP,” he told a local news agency. “Why EU delegations aren’t sent to rape capital of India which is Uttar Pradesh, why Kashmir only. Why the PM Narendra Modi led government is itself internationalizing Kashmir issue by bringing foreign envoys to Kashmir.”
Parts of Srinagar, including Lal Chowk, observed a complete shutdown in protest against the visit of the EU delegation.
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