India grants diplomats access to restive Kashmir for first time in months

A convoy believed to be transferring foreign diplomats in Srinagar on Jan 9, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

SRINAGAR/NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Foreign diplomats visited India-ruled Kashmir on Thursday (Jan 9) for the first time since New Delhi stripped the region of special status in August, although some European nations and others declined the invite after being refused permission to travel independently.

India's portion of the Muslim-majority Himalayan region, also claimed by arch-foe Pakistan, has been under severe restrictions, including one of the world's longest internet shutdowns, after India revoked decades-old laws granting Kashmir autonomy and statehood, leading to widespread unrest.

Mr Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India's foreign ministry, said diplomats of 15 countries, including the United States, were on a two-day trip "to see first-hand the efforts that have been made by the government to normalise the situation".

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has been keen to blunt international criticism of its moves in Kashmir and said the situation was fast returning to normal.

The trip includes meetings with the army, as well as some politicians, civil society groups and journalists selected by the security services, two officials familiar with the plans said.

The diplomats will not be given access to Mr Omar Abdullah or Mr Mehbooba Mufti, the leaders of the two political parties that have historically dominated Kashmir.

Both were among hundreds of political and civil society leaders detained during the August crackdown and remain in custody and their plight was raised with the delegation, said Mr Ghulam Hassan Mir, a politician that met the group.

"We told the visiting delegation the people's sentiments were deeply hurt with the revocation of special status," said Mr Muhammad Saleem Pandit, one of the eight journalists that met the ambassadors.

"They were emotionally attached to it."

Many ambassadors came from smaller nations such as Togo, Niger and Guyana. Countries in the European Union and India's allies in the Middle East did not go on the trip.

Some countries declined a visit due to the restrictive nature of the trip, according to the officials and two foreign diplomats in New Delhi.

Mr Kumar said India was considering a separate visit for EU nations, and put other absences down to the short notice given to embassies and other scheduling matters.

India maintains its actions in Kashmir are necessary to combat a three-decade-long armed insurgency against its rule there, that it accuses Pakistan of fomenting. Islamabad denies this.

But the August crackdown has drawn international criticism, including from German leader Angela Merkel, who said in a November visit to India the situation in Kashmir was "not sustainable".

Diplomats from several other countries said they have privately raised concerns about human rights in Kashmir with counterparts in the foreign ministry.

Access to the region for foreign observers, including diplomats, rights groups and journalists, is tightly controlled.

Foreign envoys are provided with police escorts, ostensibly for their own security, a diplomat who frequently visited the region before August said, and rarely granted permission to travel outside of Kashmir's main city of Srinagar.

Foreign journalists are required to submit detailed itineraries and to seek approval to visit Kashmir as much as eight weeks in advance - permissions New Delhi has not granted since August.

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