Envoys from 15 nations begin two-day Jammu and Kashmir tour
The external affairs ministry spokesperson said the objective of the visit was for the envoys to see first hand the government’s efforts to normalise the situation and “and how normalcy has been restored to a large extent.”Updated: Jan 10, 2020 05:57 IST
A group of 15 envoys and diplomats on Thursday interacted with security officials, politicians and civil society representatives in Srinagar as part of the first such visit organised by the government since Jammu & Kashmir’s special status was revoked on August 5, 2019, restrictions on movement and communication imposed, and many political leaders detained.
The group, which is making a two-day visit to Jammu & Kashmir to assess the ground situation, includes US ambassador Kenneth Juster, South Korean envoy Shin Bong-kil and Norwegian envoy Hans Jacob Frydenlund. The diplomats had “frank interactions” during their meetings, ministry of external affairs (MEA)?spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in New Delhi.
Soon after their arrival, the diplomats went to 15 Corps headquarters, where security officials and army commanders briefed them on the situation in Kashmir after Article 370 of the Constitution was nullified last August, and the challenges in maintaining security, including the threat of terrorism and the situation along the Line of Control (LoC).
The external affairs ministry spokesperson said the objective of the visit was for the envoys to see first hand the government’s efforts to normalise the situation and “and how normalcy has been restored to a large extent”, but members of the Opposition, such as leaders in the Congress, said that similar opportunity to visit the region should also be given to Indian politicians.
The diplomats had a luncheon meeting with former legislators and ministers led by Altaf Bukhari, former Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) minister. There were also interactions with civil society representatives from all over Kashmir and the local media.
“We discussed issues related to Kashmir with the diplomats,” said Bukhari. Another former minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir, who heads the Democratic Political Party, said the envoys wanted to learn about the situation.
“We told them after the state was degraded into a Union Territory, the Centre promised development here but there are still no signs of development. We told them about [the need for] internet restoration and release of political prisoners, including three former chief ministers, whose detention is not required now,” Mir said. While many of the restrictions imposed on August 5 have since been eased, a significant number of political leaders continue to remain in detention
Congress leader and former legislator Shoaib Lone, who said he met the diplomats in a personal capacity, added that the political leaders had asked the envoys to “play a positive role for ending hostilities between India and Pakistan”.
Budgam municipal council chairman Hakeem Rohullah said the diplomats posed several questions about communications, the economy and the situation in the Valley. “It was a very fruitful discussion,” he said.
After their arrival, the diplomats travelled in bulletproof SUVs to reach Lalit Hotel near the Dal Lake. Roads leading to the hotel were closed to traffic. The convoy passed through some main markets of Srinagar, where shops were open and transport was plying normally.
According to officials who asked not to be named, the diplomats were shown videos of infiltration across the LoC to highlight the threat of cross-border terror.
The diplomats also met members of panchayat and urban local bodies, members of NGOs, social activists, musicians and artists. Most of these people had also met members of the European Parliament (MEP) who travelled to Kashmir as part of a controversial private visit organised by a think-tank in October.
However, prominent civil society activists and the two sitting MPs of the National Conference — Hasnain Masoodi and Akbar Lone — were not invited to meet the diplomats. “We are the elected representatives and still the government didn’t invite us. Last time, we came to Srinagar from Delhi only to meet the delegation but at that time also we weren’t allowed. We are the real representatives of people,” Masoodi said.
Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Sheikh Ashiq, who too wasn’t invited to meet the group, said: “Whenever any foreign delegation visited Kashmir in the past, they always called us. This time we didn’t even know when they arrived in Kashmir.”
A group of journalists too met the delegation, the officials quoted above said, adding that the media called for lifting of internet restrictions.
“Overall, visit has gone off well so far,” said one of these officials.
The diplomats in the group are from the US, South Korea, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Fiji, the Maldives, Norway, the Philippines, Morocco, Argentina, Peru, Niger, Nigeria, Guyana and Togo.
On Thursday evening, the group left for Jammu, where they will meet Lt Governor GC Marmu and other officials on Friday.
“The programme was drawn up keeping in mind the threat posed by terrorism and taking adequate precautions for security,” spokesperson Kumar added. Envoys of European Union states, who wanted to visit in a group, are expected to travel to Kashmir at a later date.
“This is a beginning after almost five months and there was an appreciation that this visit was being organised. With progressive normalisation of the situation, more free interactions could be organised for visiting ambassadors,” Kumar said.
The earlier visit by the MEPs had triggered sharp criticism from opposition parties and local residents. That visit also triggered a spontaneous shutdown in Kashmir during their stay. This time, secrecy was maintained about the visit and many people in Kashmir were unaware about the actual dates.