European parliamentarians' visit to Kashmir attracts controversy

In a photo taken on Oct 28, 2019 and released by India's Press Information Bureau, shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) posing for a group shot with members of the European Parliament in New Delhi.
In a photo taken on Oct 28, 2019 and released by India's Press Information Bureau, shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) posing for a group shot with members of the European Parliament in New Delhi.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - A group of 23 European Union parliamentarians, mainly from far-right parties, said at the end of their visit to Kashmir that they did not want to interfere in Indian politics and just wanted a chance to see the situation in the volatile region.

The two-day visit, the first by a foreign delegation since the Indian government restricted travel to Kashmir, was aimed at blunting international criticism over a communication blockade that accompanied the removal of the special status or autonomy enjoyed by the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

But Indian opposition politicians criticised the visit, pointing out that they were restricted from visiting Kashmir, and that the EU delegation consisted of mainly far-right parliamentarians, from the UK, Poland, Germany and Italy.

The EU delegation included MPs from Britain's Brexit Party, a Eurosceptic political party in the UK, Poland's right-wing Law and Justice party, Italy's Northern League party, and German nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland, which are all known for their anti-immigration stand.

"What concerns us is terrorism which is a global menace and we should stand with India in fighting it. There was an unfortunate incident of the killing of five innocent labourers by terrorists. We condemn it," said Mr Henri Malosse, a parliamentarian from France.

Five migrant workers were killed on Tuesday (Oct 29) during the delegation's visit, pointing to the volatility of the region.

The parliamentarians were taken on a boat ride on Dal Lake and were briefed on the situation by the Indian Army.

The trip attracted criticism from different quarters, with Indian opposition leaders asking the government to allow opposition MPs to visit Kashmir.

"I don't have an objection to the European Union Parliament delegation visiting Jammu and Kashmir. What I object to is that the MPs of this country are not being allowed to go to Jammu and Kashmir...It's a conducted tour...," said Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad.

 
 
 
 

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who was denied permission to visit Kashmir in August, said there is "something very wrong'' that Indian MPs were not allowed to visit Kashmir.

At least one visiting parliamentarian noted that Indian opposition leaders should have been allowed to visit Kashmir.

"I think if you let in European Union parliamentarians, you should also let in opposition politicians from India. So there is some kind of disbalance; the government should somehow address it,'' said Mr Nicolaus Fest, one of the delegates.

The visit also comes ahead of the government on Thursday (Oct 31) formally splitting the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two, a decision taken along with the removal of autonomy.

Kashmir, which is at the heart of a conflict between India and Pakistan, has a troubled history with thousands of people killed by violence fuelled by a separatist insurgency which began in 1989. India has accused Pakistan of fuelling militancy, a charge Pakistan has denied.

The area has remained volatile with militant attacks and violent protests. Since autonomy was removed on Aug 5, there have been sporadic attacks by militants.

Militants have targeted the apple trade by killing truck drivers transporting apples and attacking apple traders. More than 20 people were injured following a grenade attack in North Kashmir on Monday (Oct 28).

On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval met members of the delegation. The Prime Minister's Office said the visit "should give the delegation a better understanding of the cultural and religious diversity of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh" and said the Prime Minister highlighted the importance of close international cooperation to fight terrorism.

The visit comes even as the Indian government has restricted access to Kashmir. Early in October, US Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said he was denied permission to visit Srinagar. Foreign journalists, too, have not been given permission to visit Kashmir.

The visit attracted mixed commentary. Some called it a PR disaster while others thought the visit could help in countering criticism that India has been facing over the communication blockade, which has attracted charges of human rights abuses, including from the United Nations. India has denied the charges of human rights abuses.

"This opens the door for more access to Jammu and Kashmir. This is the first delegation, others will also be allowed to get in," said former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, who maintained this would have a positive impact for India in the EU.

But Mr Khalid Shah, associate fellow at the Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, said: "I don't understand the logic of having the visit. You can't have a far-right defence of India's position on Kashmir. There should have been a bipartisan representation on this delegation. This has been counter-productive. I don't think it has helped government but riled up other political parties in Europe... the liberals and conservative parties will have strong reaction. It's a great risk."