EU delegation’s unofficial Kashmir visit proving to be ‘PR disaster’ for BJP

Members of European Union Parliamentary delegation during a shikara ride at Dal Lake in Srinagar on October 29. Photo: PTI

Nearly three months after the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and statehood (abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A and re-organisation of the erstwhile state into two Union territories on August 5), a 23-member European Union parliamentarian delegation’s day-long unofficial visit to the Kashmir Valley on Tuesday (October 29) is now under fire.

Not only is the composition of the EU delegation being questioned, but even the very purpose behind the visit is under scanner.

Opinion makers in the Valley are describing the composition of the visiting delegation as “far-right Islamophobes” and dismissing the visit of the foreigners as a “PR stunt” for the Narendra Modi-led government.

On the other hand, political groups in the Valley are of the view that it is an “embedded delegation” which has been organised by the ruling dispensation’s propaganda machine for image building and propaganda purpose.

Moreover, opposition parties in New Delhi are criticising the Modi government for “internationalising the Kashmir dispute” by allowing the delegation comprising the European Union member countries, but not allowing the same courtesy to Indian parliamentarians like Rahul Gandhi.

However, the criticism from Kashmir is for other reasons.

The streets in the Valley wore a deserted look on Tuesday. As a form of protest against the visit by EU delegation, all shops, business establishments and schools and colleges remained shut as they have been since the scrapping of the Articles 370 and 35A.

Also read | ‘Friendly’ EU team to whitewash Modi govt actions in Kashmir

One, the composition of the delegation is a subject of ridicule, for, strong perception remains that most of the visiting delegates represent the far-right ideologies from France, Poland and Britain.

Two, the fact that the delegates are not allowed to meet ordinary Kashmiris, journalists, independent thinkers, members of Kashmir’s civil society coalitions and important leaders of main regional parties (the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party) or other political groups which are outside the electoral fold like the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.

Three, the argument is that since three former chief ministers — Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti — and leaders like Shah Feasal and several hundreds of political workers, traders, civil society actors, activists and human rights defenders are behind bars, what is the main aim behind the visit?

Salman Soz, Kashmiri Congress leader based in the US argued that the “world won’t buy Modi’s high-profile diplomacy if he sends far-right EU members to Kashmir. India’s calling card abroad is Gandhi and democracy, not Modi’s majoritarianism.”

Soz wrote a scathing piece in The Print in which he said, “Is PM Narendra Modi’s high-profile diplomacy obscuring serious foreign policy challenges for India? A recent hearing at the United States House of Representatives Sub Committee on Human Rights should give pause to policymakers in New Delhi.”

Iltija Mufti, daughter of jailed former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, said that that there has been massive stone pelting and unprecedented shutdown in Kashmir to protest the visit of a far-right EU delegation.

“Wondering what outcome GOI expected by sending a group of mostly right-leaning Islamophobic EU MPs to Kashmir? Were you expecting nine million oppressed Kashmiris to lay out a red carpet for them?” Iltija argued.

Ordinary Kashmiris too are spewing fire

Tariq Ahmad, a Valley resident, said that his kids have not been to school since August 4 and haven’t been able to use prepaid mobile phones and internet for almost 100 days now.

“What is the BJP trying to prove to the world? First, allow your own leaders like Rahul Gandhi to visit Kashmir and then summon the courage to let Kashmiris express their anger and opinion freely,” Ahmad said.

The Madi Sharma connect

There is little doubt that the visit has been choreographed by the BJP government. It now turns out that the invitation to the EU delegates was sent by an obscure NGO headed by a Modi fan named Madi Sharma. She identifies herself as an “international business broker.”

Ironically, the “public relation stunt” is proving to be a disaster for the Modi-led government.

Chris Davies, Liberal Democratic MEP for the North West of England, said that he was happy not to be part of the “PR event for the Modi government.”

“I am not prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government and pretend that all is well. It is very clear that democratic principles are being subverted in Kashmir, and the world needs to start taking notice.”

Also read | Not part of ‘Kashmir PR stunt’, EU MP asks what India is hiding

“I was happy to accept (the invitation) on the condition that during my time in Kashmir, I would be free to go wherever I wish, and talk to whoever I wish, unaccompanied by military, police or security forces but accompanied by journalists,” he said in a statement shared on his Twitter handle. Expectedly, the NGO withdrew his invite immediately.

Several Members of European Union Parliament (MEP) including Davies’ party colleague, Bill Newton Dunn are currently in India visiting Jammu and Kashmir. No MEP from the Conservative or Labour parties is in the delegation; most of the British MEPs are from the Brexit party.

Meanwhile, the delegates were stationed at a hotel at Srinagar’s Gupkar, where, ironically, most political leaders are under illegal detention since August 4.

The EU delegates met the Indian Army commanders at the sensitive 15 Corps Badamibagh Cantonment in Srinagar. Officials of J&K Police and are also scheduled to be the guests of J&K secretary at the dinner.

They also met a select group of sarpanches and enjoyed a boat ride in the famous Dal Lake. Few metres away, all main political leaders are jailed in Sher-i-Kashmir International Convention Centre situated in the middle of the lake which is in the lap of Zabarwan hills.

Television anchor Sana Khan said, “So Kashmir is ‘business’ after all. Broker ‘Madi Sharma’ roped in to paint a rosy picture of the Valley to the world. The visit is shabby. Bunch of excited foreigners (not official) can’t believe their luck to be in a shikara at the beautiful Dal Lake.”

Before leaving Kashmir, the EU delegates who have arrived in Kashmir in private capacity are expected to address the media on Wednesday at Srinagar’s old airport.

Also read | EU MP delegation arrives in Kashmir to assess ground situation