Internationalising the Kashmir issue

Now that the visit of European Union parliamentarians to Kashmir has ended its time to assess what it achieved. Was it a clever gambit that could change the discourse in the European parliament or was it a foolish risk that has left egg splattered on many Indian faces? Let’s attempt an answer by analysing its different but significant parts.
First, only 23 EU MPs visited the Valley. Four chose not to. These 23 did so in their individual capacity as the European Union Mission in Delhi has made clear. They were drawn from parties like France’s National Rally, Germany’s AFD, UK’s Brexit, Italy’s Forza Italia and Poland’s Law and Justice Party. These are right-wing parties best known for their anti-immigrant stand, which often means they’re anti-muslim. Equally importantly, these parties do not represent the political mainstream in their countries. They’re minority voices.

However one MP, Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat from Britain, says he was disinvited when he said he wanted to meet ordinary people without police and army security. “I am not prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government and pretend that all is well”, he said. Another British EU MP, Theresa Griffin, tweeted along similar lines. Do these discordant voices suggest the others were willing to be co-opted as part of a thinly-disguised PR exercise?

A second concern are the organizers. It was arranged by Brussels-based British PIO Madi Sharma, who runs an NGO called Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank. She describes herself as an “international business broker”. In her invitation letter she offered a visit to Kashmir and a meeting with Prime Minister Modi who, she claimed, “would like to meet influential decision-makers from the European Union”. Does this suggest some form of prior contact with the PM, whether direct or indirect? Newspaper reports say the cost of the 3-day visit (flight and accommodation) was sponsored by the hitherto little-known Delhi based International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies, whose gates are inexplicably locked. This raises the further question how has Madi Sharma become so influential and where does IINS get its resources from?

The EU MPs had access right to the very top which is, in fact, a third intriguing issue. They met the Prime Minister and Vice President, lunched with the National Security Advisor and dined with the External Affairs Minister. In Kashmir, they met the Governor, GoC-in-C of 15 Corps and Chief Secretary. Clearly the Indian establishment went out of its way. Does this suggest Madi Sharma and IINS are fronts for the government?

A fourth issue is the Kashmiri people they met as well as those they were not permitted access to. Reports say they interacted with 15 delegations comprising traders, panchayat leaders, students, ex-servicemen, a women’s group and some civil society members. They did not, however, meet officials of the state’s Chamber of Commerce & Industry, houseboat owners or top rank politicians.

At least one report claims their conversations were carefully monitored. The Economic Times says “a group of businessmen who raised (the) issue of abrogation of special status and business losses due to the ongoing clampdown were interrupted by local administration officials and cued to change the topic.”

Equally telling is what happened in Srinagar and the Valley on the day the EU MPs visited. Militants shot dead five labourers in Kulgam, perhaps the worst terror incident since August 5th. In Srinagar, according to the Times of India, “there were reports of massive stone pelting” and “intense clashes … where security forces fired tear gas”. The paper also reports “protestors targeted private vehicles set(ting) some on fire”. Finally, there was a complete shutdown of shops and business establishments. Would this look like normalcy to the visiting EU MPs? After all, that’s what the NSA had told them to expect.

At least two of the MPs accepted they were given a sanitized view. Hermann Tertsch and James Heappey said they were “kept away from some people”. Another, Bernhard Zimniok of Germany, said the European community should be willing to mediate between India and Pakistan if asked by the two countries. Were these responses Mr. Modi anticipated?

On their last morning at a carefully controlled press conference, where only select journalists were invited and the questions vetted, the EU MPs maintained a discreet silence over the controversy their visit has created. They said they had come to get facts and information. They claimed they are not interfering in India’s politics but terror is a common problem. If this suggests they’re interpreting developments in Kashmir in terms of the impact on terror that would be only part of the government’s justification for what it’s done. And we don’t know whether they accept the government’s line that the majority of Kashmiris are happy with the constitutional changes. However, some of them publicly advised the Modi government to talk to Pakistan. But is that what it wants to hear?

On the key issue of human rights, which is a cause for concern in western chancelleries and media, we don’t know what impression the MPs took away. Their visit happened on a day when the UNHRC said “there have been several allegations of excessive use of force including … pellet-firing shot guns, tear gas and rubber bullets by security forces … unconfirmed reports of at least six civilian killings … (and) a number of allegations of torture and ill-treatment of people held in detention”. Will the EU MPs rebut this?

Finally, there’s a question of paramount domestic interest. Whilst India as a democracy should welcome anyone who wants to visit Kashmir, has this visit internationalized the state to the country’s disadvantage? It happened at a time when Indian MPs, foreign journalists and Delhi-based diplomats are not permitted to visit the Valley. This is not unknown outside India. One of the MPs, Nicolaus Fest, said opposition MPs should be permitted. So, now, if European foreign offices ask is India inviting or, at least, welcoming the endorsement of their politicians what would be our answer? After this visit won’t our traditional ‘no’ seem contradictory or, at least, overtaken by events?