Srinagar: A group of foreign envoys arrived in Srinagar amid a shutdown here on Wednesday in the third-such visit of foreign diplomats since the ‘special status’ of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was abrogated on August 5, 2019.
As many as 24 envoys from countries including the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Ireland, Italy, Brazil, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Malaysia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi and Bangladesh arrived in the summer capital at about 10 am. The team of foreign delegates was led by EU Ambassador Ugo Astuto.
The envoys who travelled to central Kashmir’s Budgam district were briefed about the Panchayati Raj elections and other developments before they returned to the heavily fortified Gupkar area. The delegation met with recently District Development Council (DDC) representatives and other officials.
The Mayor of Srinagar, Junaid Azim Mattu, who also met with the diplomats, told Newsclick that the visiting dignitaries we informed about the DDC and urban local body elections held recently in the region.
“They wanted to know the ground realities. Elected representatives from all sides of the political debateand parties participated. The key issue discussed was the decentralisation of power and planning and empowerment of grass-root representatives,” Mattu said.
Mattu added that the foreign envoys spoke to elected representatives from all political parties. “The common denominator was that all of them said that there were free and fair elections. Free and fair elections are the biggest attestation to the empowerment of democracy,” Mattu said.
However, the general secretary of the National Conference (NC), Ali Muhammad Sagar, feigned ignorance about the diplomatic tour. The senior politician claimed that the party was not invited to meet with the delegates. “We don’t know about the tour; whether we would have met them or not is secondary,” Sagar said.
Sagar also alleged that the DDC members from his party were in fact detained during this time.
“It is a manipulated tour to create a false projection through the administration’s lackeys,” Sagar added.
The two-day visit of the dignitaries, however, was carried out amid a shutdown observed by locals, especially in the old Srinagar city and the commercial hub Lal Chowk, where all shops and business establishments remained closed as part of the protest against the visit which many called is a “guided tour.” Traffic remained sparse as limited public transport plied on key routes.
The visit comes only days after the high-speed internet was restored in the region after it remained suspended since the revocation of the Article 370 and subsequent bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories. Ahead of the tour, several checkpoints and military bunkers were removed within the city.
The separatist amalgam All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) led by Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, while questioning the visit, also called the tour an exercise to “showcase normalcy” and “misleading.”
In its statement, the APHC appealed to the delegation to help “facilitate dialogue between India, Pakistan and people of the region for the resolution of the dispute.”
Earlier, in a first such visit as many as 27 foreign diplomats visited Kashmir in October 2019, a month after the government’s move to abrogate Article 370. Most of the visitors were from the right and far-right side of the political spectrum and their visit drew much flak.
In February last year, another group of 25 foreign envoys visited the union territory including those from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Hungary, Netherlands and Bulgaria. They met with a select group of civil society members, businessmen and traders.
“This is merely an eye-wash to portray normalcy but, everyone knows the truth about Kashmir and the violence we face here,” Zubair Khan, a Srinagar local said.
Meanwhile, armed assailants, believed to be militants, have carried out an attack on Vikas Mehra, a restaurant owner's son, in Srinagar. The victim, in his early 20s, was rushed to the hospital where his condition is said to be critical.