A delegation of the foreign diplomats from 22 countries, which arrived in the valley on Wednesday for a two-day visit of Jammu and Kashmir, toured several areas in Central Kashmir and interacted with political activists, journalists, traders and members of the civil society. This is the fourth such delegation to take the first-hand account of the situation and political developments after the erstwhile State was split in the union territories of J&K and Ladakh and its special constitutional status was withdrawn in August 2019.
The delegation conducting a tour of the union territory under tight security arrangements reached Srinagar by a chartered flight. After meeting over 30 delegations in Srinagar and Budgam and staying there for a night, it would be meeting political parties, civil society members, traders and senior government functionaries, including Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, in the summer capital of Jammu on Thursday.
Senior envoys of the 22 countries in the delegation include diplomats from Brazil, Cuba, Estonia, Finland, Tajikistan, France, Ireland, Netherlands, Portugal, European Union, Bangladesh, Malawi, Eretria, Cote d’ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, Sweden, Italy, Malaysia, Bolivia, Belgium and Kyrgyzstan.
Three of such delegates had visited Jammu and Kashmir, particularly Srinagar, in October 2019, January 2020 and February 2020 on the invitation of the Union Ministry of External Affairs in coordination with the UT government. Main objective of these organised visits, according to the government officials, is to “showcase peace and development achieved after abrogation of Article 370” to the world. Officials complain that sections of the international media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Aljazeera TV and the BBC, have damaged India’s democratic image with their “subjective reporting” in and after August 2019.
“They are still reporting that Kashmir is reeling under lockdown, nobody is moving out and politics has been crippled. According to them, the Kashmiris have been alienated with the actions of August 2019 and their leaders and representatives have been languishing in jails. We have decided to let the world diplomats see the ground realities for themselves. We are simply taking care of their security”, said a senior official.
After their arrival in Srinagar, the diplomats drove straight to the Government Degree College at Magam, a township on the Srinagar-Gulmarg road, where groups of the girl students received them while showering flower petals and singing welcome songs. They had an extensive interaction with chairpersons and members of the Panchayati Raj Institutions, Block Development Councils (BDCs) and the District Development Council.
Even as the markets closed and the Police and security forces discouraged the public movement for “security reasons” in the town, Chairperson of DDC Budgam, Nazir Ahmad Khan, explained to the diplomats how the government had associated common people with the democratic exercises and how the democracy at the grassroot level was benefiting the people after August 2019.
At a similar session in Srinagar, the diplomats were briefed on the political situation, development and economy by a number of the delegations from Panchayats, BDCs, DDC Srinagar and Srinagar Municipal Corporation. Mayor of Srinagar, Junaid Azim Mattu, explained how the democratic institutions were functioning at the grass-root level after the Jammu and Kashmir (Reorganisation) Bill was passed by the Parliament in August 2019.
Over a dozen delegates of the local traders and businessmen, particularly those associated with the tourism and hospitality industry, also met the foreign diplomats amid sessions of interaction with the government officials. A select group of Srinagar-based journalists also briefed the diplomats about the situation developing after August 2019. Sources said that some more delegations, including two from BJP and Apni Party, would be meeting the diplomats in the evening and in the forenoon on Thursday.
On Wednesday evening, the diplomats were also planning a visit to J&K’s most revered Muslim shrine of Hazratbal besides a brief Shikara ride on the Dal Lake.
Like on almost all occasions after 9/11, the foreign diplomats decided against meeting any of the separatist politicians. Until the evening on Wednesday, it was not clear if a meeting had been scheduled with the traditional ruling parties like the National Conference (NC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or the Congress. Significantly, the NC and the PDP were tight-lipped and none of their senior leaders—Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti—issued any statement about the diplomats’ visit.
Omar, who was seen enjoying skiing in Gulmarg, and Mehbooba did not post anything about the diplomats’ visit on their Twitter handles. Former Union Minister and senior Congress leader, Saifuddin Soz, was the only mainstream politician who issued a press release and dismissed the diplomats’ visit as State-sponsored and ‘nothing but sight-seeing”.