Srinagar: A man sleeps beside parked boats on the banks of Dal Lake.—Reuters
Srinagar: A man sleeps beside parked boats on the banks of Dal Lake.—Reuters

NEW DELHI: Invitations to press conferences in India are often sent to journalists with a promise of lunch or dinner to follow. Occasionally, there are gifts to take home, and it is up to the journalist to accept the dinner and gift, or just do a professional day’s work at the event and go home.

Some European MPs invited to visit Kashmir by the Indian government accepted the invitation and were given official briefings followed by joy rides on Srinagar’s scenic Dal Lake. Others declined the controversial hospitality, while still more simply slammed it as a PR exercise in poor taste.

At a press conference for “selected journalists” in Srinagar on Wednesday, some visitors expectedly highlighted terrorism as the key issue in the besieged state. There were those too that urged the Modi government to extend to Indian MPs the same facility they were accorded.

That more than a third of the delegation is from openly far-right parties in Europe, which are regarded as anti-Muslim, partly explains the purpose of the exercise. Among them are MEPs for the Alternative For Germany (AFD) and from France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally.

The timing of the visit has sought to disrupt discussion on the official bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two federally ruled union territories taking effect from November 1.

UN and other human rights bodies have expressed concern that India’s Supreme Court has been tardy in taking action on habeas corpus appeals of citizens facing the unabated curfew.

Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez told the BBC the MEP’s visit smacked of double standards. “Embassies of EU countries in Delhi have been seeking permission to visit Kashmir for the past two-and-a-half months, but Delhi is adamant that it doesn’t want outside intervention of any manner in Kashmir. Now that (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi chose to invite his friends from the EU, how can he stop Americans, United Nations and other European countries from coming to Kashmir if they wish an unguided tour?”

According to a report from Srinagar in The Hindu, some MEPs said “terrorism is severe problem in Kashmir”. They were quoted as saying India’s move to abrogate provisions of Article 370 that gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir was an internal issue.

“It should not be used [against India],” they said.

Another MEP, Nicolaus Fest, however, said the Indian Opposition parties should also be allowed to visit the Kashmir Valley. “I think if you let in European Union parliamentarians, you should also let in Opposition politicians from India. So there is some kind of imbalance, the government should somehow address it.”

The MEPs who addressed the press were Bill Newton from the UK, Ryszard Czarnecki from Poland and Mariana Thierry from France. Henri Malosse from France, a businessman and a former president of the European Economic and Social Committee, also spoke.

They claimed, according to reports of the press conference, that they interacted with youth, politicians, women and traders during their two-day stay in Kashmir and termed it a “beginning of their engagement” with the civil society there.

“We are here to get information. We are well equipped now and can go back and share this with our colleagues and respective countries. The situation is not as bad as we thought. People here want peace, better life and better vocations, and want jobs.

Terrorism has destroyed such dreams,” they said.

Mr Newton said the United Kingdom also faced the problem of Northern Ireland, where Christians fought Christians.

“Fighting is not a solution. India has a long procedure of talks, agreeing to talk and listening to each other. It is for talks that Northern Ireland is a peaceful place now.

My advice is talk and don’t fight,” he said. The visit has not gone unchallenged. On Tuesday, it became evident that the invitation to a British MEP was withdrawn for insisting on unfettered access.

The involvement of a self-professed “international business broker”, in organising the visit also came to light, The Telegraph said.

Chris Davies, the Liberal Democrat MEP, said the invitation from the Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT) was withdrawn after he insisted on moving unaccompanied in Srinagar.

Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2019

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