A foreign envoys’ safari to Kashmir for validation?

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Two weeks after denouncing international “interference” in India’s internal matters in the wake of intense protest by the country’s farmers, the Modi-government is currently hand-holding foreign envoys from twenty-four nations on a two-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir (J-K).

This is the fourth time foreign envoys have arrived in “Naya Kashmir” — a dystopian reality manufactured in the past eighteen months since the revocation of the limited autonomy of the region. 

Ahead of the foreign envoys’ arrival in Kashmir on Wednesday, a handful of the ghastly bunkers from which armed troops kept check on the natives were dismantled. Overnight, flags of India and foreign countries were installed on street lamps on the banks of the Dal Lake.

After their arrival at heavily guarded Srinagar International Airport, the visitors were chaperoned to Magam town in central Kashmir for a scheduled meeting with delegations of the local civil society and politicians. But little acts of defiance betrayed the Potemkin reality. The small town on the road to the famed Gulmarg ski-resort otherwise observed a shutdown.

The general shutdown was also observed in parts of Srinagar. The shutdown — the only means of collective protest so far not criminalised by New Delhi — continued partially on the second day of the visit even as the foreigners were airlifted to the Jammu division. 

In the decorated tent displaying the curated collection of natives before the foreigners, the usual script was played out. Nazir Khan, chairperson of the Budgam District Development Council told a news agency that the foreigners were briefed on the rural governance system, the area’s poverty, and their local demands of “bijli, sadak, pani”.

Another member of the group claimed that he had told the foreigners that “we want the pre-August 5 [2019] Kashmir to be restored.” Still, others — specifically those with Bharatiya Janata Party’s local rivals, the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration — were allegedly detained.

‘Good for economy’

The foreign delegation’s visit was denounced by several Kashmiri leaders on both sides of the political divide. The National Conference reserved its comment to issue a detailed statement after the conclusion of the two-day visit, said the party’s spokesperson Imran Nabi Dar. 

“My personal opinion is that they are not offering us anything. If they offer us Article 370, I would be the first person to visit them,” Dar told The Kashmir Walla. The party will issue a detailed statement on this.”

At the sidelines of a public gathering in north Kashmir’s Handwara, Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party, who has often claimed to be under house-arrest in last few weeks, asserted that “delegations will come and go but the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is not good.”

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq also reacted in disapproval: “[The] curated tour of foreign dignitaries to showcase ‘normalcy’ in the valley to the outside world is misleading. Peoples spontaneous strike, the only means of protest left to them, speaks volumes to the world of what people feel and want.”

However, Ghulam Hasan Mir of the Apni Party, the only regional party not opposed to New Delhi, saw the foreign envoys visit to Kashmir as a good sign. “If the ambassadors come, they will give a message that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir is conducive for tourists,” he said. “It is a good thing if advisories of several nations are lifted… it will give a boost to our economy.”

A group of local editors and journalists told the foreigners that the media is “working in a free atmosphere”, according to the news report by Brighter Kashmir, whose editor Farooq Wani was part of the select group of journalists who met the envoys. The group, as per the report, included Rasheed Rahi, Syed Basharat, Bashir Manzar, Saleem Pandit, Javid Malik, Riyaz Malik, Shabir Ibn Yusuf, Zeenat Zeeshan Fazil and Muhammad Aslam Bhat “among others”

After a day-long tour of Kashmir, where the foreigners were also taken to the Hazratbal shrine on the banks of the Dal Lake, the foreigners landed in Jammu for the final leg of tour on Thursday.

Bipolar New Delhi?

A diplomatic source in New Delhi said that even as it is known that such trips are “scripted” and “guided”, it still provided foreign embassies an opportunity to assess the situation on ground on various parameters including the level of security presence, such as the number of checkpoints on the roads.

The visiting envoys in general are briefed on Kashmir and “are cognizant of the fact that the [locals assembled for interactions] are handpicked”, “mostly pro-government”, and “often pro-BJP”. Simultaneously, the source added, because the Government of India also wanted these trips “to be taken seriously”, it makes “available those who were somewhat critical of the government” and presented a relatively “more neutral point of view.”

The source added that there have been discussions within the diplomatic community in New Delhi since the first invitations were sent out in 2019. “Western embassies in particular do not want to be perceived as being used for propaganda or as evidence that everything is perfect [in Kashmir],” the source said, adding that a final call on accepting the invitation was taken after “determining if there is enough value to get a better sense of the situation. Later some agreed to [the subsequent visit organized by GoI]… It’s about finding a fine balance.” 

On the timing of this latest visit, the source opined that it could be to “relieve pressure” on one front at a time New Delhi is under international scrutiny. “We keep hearing that foreign intervention is unacceptable so the current timing of taking [foreign delegations] to Kashmir is not quite clear as it could essentially be considered internationalizing the issue,” the source said. “In a perfect world, we would travel up there [to Kashmir, unrestricted]… We hope that it [Kashmir] opens up soon.” 

A Jammu-based political scientist, Ellora Puri, observed that “there’s always been a dichotomy in India’s stand on foreign powers and their role when it comes to J-K.” “One doesn’t know how to understand what kind of role they see and envisage for [foreign] countries,” she said.

Touring foreign dignitaries, Puri noted, was to replace the picture of a clampdown with people’s acceptance of New Delhi’s unilateral impositions in J-K since 5 August 2019. If foreign nations support the Indian stand, she said, New Delhi “gives them access and engages with them… Soon as they seem to be negating India’s position, they [GoI] put their foot down: you are outsiders, you should not be intervening.”

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