Protesters wearing ‘Stand with Kashmir’ T-shirts take part in a demonstration in Bangalore on Saturday against India’s decision to strip the disputed Kashmir region of its special autonomy and impose a lockdown.—AFP
Protesters wearing ‘Stand with Kashmir’ T-shirts take part in a demonstration in Bangalore on Saturday against India’s decision to strip the disputed Kashmir region of its special autonomy and impose a lockdown.—AFP

NEW DELHI: Senior Indian opposition leaders were forcibly turned back from Srinagar on Saturday after the Indian government claimed they were interfering with the battle against alleged cross-border terrorism in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, heading the 12-member delegation from different parties invited to Kashmir by Governor Satyapal Malik, said the denial of entry to the MPs and senior opposition representatives showed the government was hiding something that was not normal.

The aborted visit and opposition comments have come at a critical time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is due to meet major leaders, including US President Donald Trump, at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France.

Mr Modi has already met French President Emmanuel Macron who has called for protection of the rights of civilians in occupied Kashmir.

CPI-M says it’s daylight robbery of constitutional rights

The opposition leaders said they wanted to visit the held valley to take stock of the situation there after the Modi government scrapped the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir by diluting Article 370 of the constitution.

Following their brief detention at the Srinagar airport, the delegation wrote a letter to the Budgam District Magistrate, raising a strong objection and terming it “prima facie undemocratic and unconstitutional”.

The opposition leaders wrote: “We are responsible political leaders and elected representatives and our intentions are entirely peaceful and humanitarian. We are here to express solidarity with the people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh as well as to expedite the process of return to normalcy.”

Referring to the government’s order asking the delegation to return, the statement said: “The tone and tenor of the order read out attributes to us motives which are baseless and lack substance.”

Talking to reporters at Srinagar airport, Mr Gandhi said: “The government has invited me. The governor has said that I am invited. Now that I have come, they are saying you can’t come. The government is saying that everything is normal here, so if everything is normal then why are we not allowed to go in. It is surprising.”

The CPI-M said the delegation had planned to visit various parts of the disputed region over the next few days, talking to people to ascertain the situation existing on the ground and the difficulties they are encountering as a result of the shutdown in the Kashmir valley since Aug 5.

“The denial of entry to well-known leaders of recognised political parties is an outright attack on the rights of political parties to meet and address their constituents. Denying entry is daylight robbery of rights guaranteed by the constitution,” the CPI-M said in a statement.

The leaders included Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and K.C. Venugopal of Congress, CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury, Tiruchi Siva (DMK), Sharad Yadav (LJD), Dinesh Trivedi (TMC), D. Raja (CPI), Majeed Menon (NCP), Manoj Jha (RJD) and D. Kupendra Reddy (JD-S).

Hours after the leaders announced their decision to visit the region on Friday, the Jammu and Kashmir administration had asked them “to cooperate and not visit Srinagar”.

Following the imposition of restrictions and curfew in the region, the Centre’s move had come under severe criticism from the opposition, especially when several leaders in the valley — including Omar Abdullah of National Conference and Mehbooba Mufti of the Peoples’ Democratic Party — were placed under house arrest and their communications snapped.

Amid the controversy and the criticism that followed, J&K Governor Satyapal Malik had “invited” Mr Gandhi to Kashmir, saying he would send an aircraft for him. But after the Congress leader had accepted the “invitation”, Mr Malik accused the latter of politicising the matter and said he had put forth many conditions for visiting the region, including meeting mainstream leaders under detention.

To this, Mr Gandhi replied that he was ready to visit the state without any conditions.

After the team was denied entry into Srinagar, Mr Gandhi said: “We wanted to get a sense of what people are going through and help the situation if we could. But unfortunately we were not allowed to go beyond the airport. The press people with us were mishandled, beaten. It’s clear that things are not normal in Jammu and Kashmir.”

Aaj Tak TV channel showed footage of the roughing up of the media at the airport.

“I had invited him out of goodwill but he started doing politics. It (the visit) was nothing but a political action by these people. Parties should keep in mind the national interest at these times,” Governor Malik was quoted as saying later.

Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2019