Nearly three months after its decision on Article 370, the Union government has allowed a delegation comprising 27 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from Italy, Britain, France, Germany, Czech Republic and Poland to travel to Srinagar on Tuesday to see the situation there.
This is the first time the government has allowed such a visit to the Kashmir Valley since August 5, when hundreds of leaders were taken into custody and communication lines cut.
On Monday, the MEPs met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu. At a lunch hosted by National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, they met a few mainstream Kashmiri leaders, including former Minister Muzaffar Beigh from the PDP and winners of the Block Development Council polls in Jammu and Kashmir last week. They also met External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar for dinner.
PDP leader Altaf Bukhari and Usman Majeed of the Congress also interacted with the EU members.
“Urgent action must be taken against all those who support or sponsor terrorists or support such activities and organisations or use terrorism as a state policy,” the Prime Minister told the delegation in a reference to Pakistan, and hoped their visit to Srinagar would acquaint them with the development priorities of the region.
To visit schools
The delegation’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir was being coordinated with the NSA’s office, said officials there, as Mr. Doval has been the government's point person on the move to dilute Article 370 and bifurcate the State into Union Territories on August 5. While in Srinagar, the MEPs are expected to visit schools, where class 10 exams begin on Tuesday, and receive briefings on the security situation.
Significantly, the majority of MEPs belonged to far-right, anti-immigration parties in the European Union, including Italy’sForza Italia, France’s Rassemblement National, Poland’s Justice and Law party, Germany’s Alternative Fur Deutschland (AFD) and UK’s Brexit Party.
However, a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) official, who said other foreign groups may also be facilitated with a visit to Kashmir, ruled out any political bias in the invitations that went out, adding that they were “identified on the basis of their convenience to visit”.
The European Union (EU) Embassy in Delhi has clarified that the MEPs were in India in their “personal capacity”, and not as part of an official delegation. MEA sources said the Ministry was not involved in planning or funding the visit, and that the delegation had been invited by an NGO called WESTT, which is hosting them.
The decision to allow the MEPs to visit J&K marks a significant turnaround in the government's policy after it faced considerable criticism in the EU and in the US over the Article 370 move. The government has thus far refused permission to any foreign journalist to cover the situation in J&K post August 5, and turned down requests from diplomats based in Delhi to visit as well. On October 3, it declined a request by visiting US Congressman Chris Van Hollen to visit Srinagar, and it was brought up by the State Department at a special hearing of the US Congress subcommittee on Human Rights that looked into concerns over Kashmir. UN Special Rapporteurs at the Human Rights Council have also issued statements protesting the denial of applications to visit.
The MEPs’ visit, which comes just a few days before the Presidential ordinance on reorganisation of J&K goes into place on October 31, follows concerns expressed by the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs that held a rare discussion on Kashmir in Brussels. In September, the European Parliament at Strasbourg held a debate, and MEPs met the “Friends of Kashmir group”. However, the Parliament refused to pass any resolution against India.
In a speech, delivered on her behalf, EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said the EU had taken up its concerns over “the situation on the ground, with its restrictions on fundamental freedoms,” directly with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar when he visited Brussels prior to the meeting. “It is crucial that freedom of movement and means of communication are fully restored as well as access to all essential services,” the speech added.
(With inputs from Vijaita Singh )