Kashmiri political activist Shehla Rashid has called the two-day long visit of 23 European Union lawmakers to Kashmir a “scam”, adding that the Narendra Modi government’s move was a “PR exercise being carried out in a shady manner”.
Rashid, a vocal critic of the government, said, “The delegation has not met with locals, incarcerated leaders or the families of the thousands of people who have been detained. They have not met with any victim of state repression.”
The government-orchestrated visit of the 23 EU lawmakers, almost three months after the government abrogated Article 370 and withdrew Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special status, has led to controversy in India and abroad, as it emerged on Tuesday that a relatively low-profile NGO and think-tank have been acting on behalf of the Indian government.
The 23 EU lawmakers who landed in Srinagar on Tuesday appear to have only met with government officials on the first day of their closely monitored trip, while Kashmiris observed a shutdown in the region.
In a press conference on the second day of their visit, the EU lawmakers said they supported India’s fight against terrorism.
“I have seen how terrorism can destroy a place, harm a country... Last month I was in Syria and I saw the destruction terrorism can cause... and we do not want Kashmir to end up like that,” one EU MP said, NDTV reported.
This is the first time the Modi government has allowed a delegation of foreigners into Kashmir since 5 August.
Another reason for the controversy around the visit is that the majority of the European lawmakers belong to far-right parties including France’s National Rally, the UK’s Brexit Party, Italy’s Lega Nord, and Spain’s Vox. They were invited by an NGO called WESTT (Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank), run by a woman named Madi Sharma, and organised by the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies, a New Delhi-based think tank.
In 2017, Bogdan Rzonca, a Polish lawmaker from the anti-immigration conservative Law and Justice Party, who was a member of the group, had tweeted, “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.”
Both the European Union and India’s ministry of external affairs have said they had nothing to do with the trip.
The delegation met with PM Modi and NSA Ajit Doval in New Delhi before heading to Srinagar, where they visited the Army headquarters, met with the J&K police chief, and took a boat ride on Dal Lake before heading to New Delhi.
Indian politicians of parties other than the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) questioned why their foreign counterparts were being given a tour of Srinagar when they are still not allowed to visit J&K. The vehicles carrying the EU lawmakers reportedly drove past the locations where Kashmiri politicians are currently being held under house arrest.
One EU lawmaker, Nicolaus Fest from Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, felt compelled to point out the “disbalance” in allowing foreign politicians while keeping out their Indian counterparts.
On the choice of EU lawmakers who are visiting Kashmir, Rashid said, “This is a conglomerate of right-wing leaders who are Islamophobic, anti-semitic and anti-immigration. It is a disgrace for the Indian government to associate with them.”
Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat lawmaker from the UK, spoke publicly on Tuesday, revealing that he was invited to be part of the delegation by WESTT, and then disinvited when he asked to move around freely in Kashmir.
“I am not prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government and pretend that all is well. It is very clear that democratic principles are being subverted in Kashmir, and the world needs to start taking notice,” he said.
If the Modi government had hoped to assuage the international community by shepherding a group of European lawmakers, including MPs widely regarded as Islamophobic, the move has backfired, as questions are now being asked about the think-tanks organising the trip and who is paying for it.
This has done little to reassure the international community’s concerns about the human rights situation in Kashmir.
On the same day as the visit of the EU lawmakers to Srinagar, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva Robert Colville spoke on Kashmir. “We urge the Indian authorities to unlock the situation and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied,” he said.
In a meeting with the EU lawmakers, J&K police chief Dilbag Singh claimed that no deaths have occurred since the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which guaranteed J&K a certain degree of autonomy when it came to formulating laws and owning property.
But ground reports have shown that this claim is not true. HuffPost India was the first news outlet to report the death of 17-year-old Osaib Altaf, whose family says that he drowned fleeing the CRPF on 5 August.
The families of at least four other people have claimed their deaths are linked to action by the security forces including asphyxiation from tear gas.
The J&K police has not carried out any investigation in these cases, but the Modi government continues to claim that no deaths have occurred after it revoked Article 370.
A day before the EU delegation arrived in Kashmir, a grenade attack in the volatile town of Sopore injured at least 20 civilians. Five labourers from West Bengal were shot dead in Kulgam on Tuesday night in the single deadliest attack since Article 370 was revoked in August.
The Indian government has attributed these attacks to militants.
Rashid said the government is using the issue of terrorism to “obfuscate” its own human rights record in Kashmir.
By inviting this delegation of far-right lawmakers for a “scam” tour, Rashid said the Indian government has to justify why it has not allowed other Indian and foreign politicians to enter Kashmir, and opened itself to further questions by the international community.
Any delegation which might come in the future should have members from varying points of view — liberals, conservatives and even the right wing — Rashid noted. “There should be an attempt to portray a fair picture,” she said.