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Home / India News / ‘We had opportunity to ask most critical questions’: German envoy on J-K visit

‘We had opportunity to ask most critical questions’: German envoy on J-K visit

Germany’s ambassador to India, Walter Lindner on visit to Jammu and Kashmir said “we had our first meeting with some local politicians, apple farmers, hoteliers, local media members and a swathe of members of civil society from border dwellers to rights activists. Each of us had an opportunity to ask everyone even our most critical questions.”

india Updated: Feb 15, 2020 09:03 IST
Padma Rao Sundarji
Padma Rao Sundarji
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Germany’s ambassador to India, Walter Lindner
Germany’s ambassador to India, Walter Lindner(@AmbLindnerIndia/Twitter)

Germany’s ambassador to India, Walter Lindner, spoke to Hindustan Times on his impressions during the two-day trip to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) organized by the Government of India for 25 global ambassadors earlier this week. In August, the Centre revoked the special status of J&K and decided to bifurcate the state into two Union territories --J&K and Ladakh.

You just returned from a trip to India’s newest Union Territory (UT), J&K, organized by the Government of India to counter global criticism of some administrative and security measures it took there. Your fellow travellers tweeted pictures of the snow-capped Pir Panjal and of shikara rides on the lakes of Srinagar. Did you enjoy yourself ?

Nice joke. But let me make this clear. This was not some tourist trip. I was invited by India’s ministry of external affairs (MEA). I went to interact with local authorities, members of civil society and the business community and gather an impression of the situation there. And that’s what I did.

What did your itinerary consist of ?

On the way from the airport to the hotel, we got our first little glimpse of what’s out there. The shops were open, things seemed normal. We didn’t see a ‘lockdown’. But it’s difficult to say for sure, because we were in a high security convoy, so it’s not the same as strolling through a market. Baramulla fell through because of fog so we were taken for the shikara rides on the lakes instead. Then, we had our first meeting with some local politicians, apple farmers, hoteliers, local media members and a swathe of members of civil society from border dwellers to rights activists. Of course, all these people may have been pre-selected. But each of us had an opportunity to ask everyone even our most critical questions.

What were your critical questions?

How they feel about the current situation, about Article 370 being abrogated, what they think of the previous governments in J&K, what their main worries are, and so on. And we questioned the authorities too, for instance the army corps commander, Lt. Gen KJS Dhillon, who is an impressive person and told us about incursions and terrorist attacks along the Line of Control (LoC). We flew to Jammu, where we met informed people like the chief secretary, and the UT’s first woman judge and chief justice, Gita Mittal, who explained India’s laws in an international context very impressively. Everyone we met explained how the situation was before and after the abrogation of Article 370, which laws were valid then and now. They gave us concrete figures. We also met Kashmiri Pandits and Valmikis.

Does all this mean that you had a positive, informative trip and got a fair idea of the situation on the ground?

As I told you, I didn’t pre-select the people we met. Because I couldn’t talk to everyone, it could, at best, be a limited impression. But in political parlance, I can say that the trip to J&K was not a Potemkin village, an external façade to make people believe that all is hunky-dory.

You have been ambassador for Germany all over the world. Have you ever been on a trip sponsored by a government to a given area to counter global criticism of its moves there?

It is difficult to compare countries and situations. I went because I was invited. What I saw was informative. We could ask what we wanted. Within the limitations of security and the pre-selection of the people we met, we were allowed to interact totally freely with them, even one-on-one. For private questions, we could take them to another room. Officials of the foreign ministry were with us and none tried to influence us.

The international media is criticizing the house arrest that two former chief ministers of J&K {Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti, who were detained under the Public Safety Act last week} have been under for six months, the snapping of communication, and other moves. India points to its democratic credentials and retorts that the international community has no say in domestic decisions in its own UT. What do you think of these decisions ?

Look, you will have to ask the government of India all these questions. Am I satisfied with this trip? I will say that I wanted to go there, see the state with my own eyes, get an impression of the situation, see who is in charge. I could do all that and ask questions about all those under arrest and why they are in jail. And I could listen to the Indian authorities’ arguments. Please note: as an ambassador, it is important to be objective. I am not an activist and I am not a member of a party. Of course, I would have loved to go to J&K on my own, but due to security reasons, that’s not yet possible. J&K is not an easy part of the world. You have a border situation there. You sometimes have terror attacks. And then you also have fake news propagated to instigate people to take to the streets. I didn’t go on this trip to stand in judgment.

And were you convinced by the arguments presented?

It was good that I could go and talk to everyone.

What is going to be the outcome of this trip ? A report for your headquarters in Berlin ?

We are experienced diplomats. The trip was certainly also a PR exercise but I learned what people want. They want a complete lifting of restrictions on the Internet. There is some connectivity – 2 G for instance, and one can access broadband Internet over landline phones, but not on prepaid mobiles. When we asked why not, they explained that it is the tool used by terrorists to do their job. I am not passing a judgment here. But some curbs have been lifted, some people have been released from house arrest. Then, the people told us that they need jobs, an economic roadmap of where J&K is headed and how the government will help along their livelihoods. And of course, they don’t want terror attacks any more but peace. All this was said irrespective of the individual opinions they held on the abrogation of Article 370 itself. For us, it’s important to see whether we can help in any way. But for that, there has to be a roadmap, security and conducive conditions for investors.

Heavy troop presence across J&K has also come under fire in your media. Did you question it too?

We asked about those supposedly astronomical figures. But J&K’s police chief himself told us that there is no military deployed anywhere in the state other than along the international borders, and that all uniformed persons we saw in the cities were police. They declined to give us numbers because it was classified information but did say that the figures cited in the media are totally exaggerated.

What are the positive signs of development that you saw there?

Officials told us that most of the money spent on J&K is from the UT’s own coffers; that the Centre had sent a lot of money but that 90% went into the pockets of some people and not towards the development of J&K and that this was the reason for J&K’s underperformance. They are now trying to put in place an efficient administration. It’s been six months now. But once the snow melts, I think people will ask the government where the promised goodies are.

Former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti are under house arrest. Did you ask why ?

Yes. But the discussions took place behind closed doors so let’s leave it at that.

You are very active on the social media but were totally silent while in J&K. Why?

Yes, I didn’t tweet or agree to any interviews there because my intention was to not arrive there with a pre-fabricated opinion, but only listen. Kashmir is really heaven on earth. I was there in June last year. George Harrison, the hippies in the 70s and many others of my generation were there. I really feel for Kashmir. It’s such a beautiful place. But this trip, my friends, was no tourist junket.

One of your predecessors organized a Beethoven concert in heavily barricaded J&K. It came under considerable criticism. You are a classical and rock musician. Do you also intend to engage culturally with the UT?

I love Kashmiri Sufi music for sure. But the reason for this trip was to learn what is happening in J&K. Can we do anything to make life better for the people there? What do they want? Can we invest and are the conditions conducive to do so? I can’t say I would recommend it straightaway because there are still security issues and normalcy is not there yet. But in the long run, I would urge everyone to come to Kashmir. The sunset over Dal Lake is like nowhere in the world.