Nearly 30 European MPs, drawn mainly from far-right parties, will on Tuesday be the first international delegation to visit Indian-administered Kashmir since a security clampdown was imposed in the Muslim-majority region in August.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government withdrew Kashmir’s autonomy on August 5, a move accompanied by a crackdown on dissent by security forces there, to head off protests.
While the Indian government backs the visit, the European Parliament and the European Union hierarchy has not been involved, raising some diplomatic doubts. Several European embassies in New Delhi were unaware of the visit until Monday.
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Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan and in the grips of an armed rebellion for three decades, has been in the international spotlight since New Delhi’s move to tighten its grip on the Himalayan region.
“The delegation of MEPs is not on an official visit in India and came here at the invitation of a non-government group,” said an EU official in India, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We are not organising any of their meetings.”
EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini earlier raised the issue of “restrictions on fundamental freedoms” in Kashmir with India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar.
Pakistan has condemned the change of status of the territory and warned that it could drive more Muslims to extremism across the world.
The dispute over Kashmir has bedevilled relations between the two nuclear-armed nations and sparked two of their three wars.
The EU delegation of 27 politicians drawn from 11 countries will meet with government officials and residents to assess the situation in Kashmir, Indian officials said.
Interesting facts about the EU MPs visiting Kashmir tomorrow. My colleagues @KhyatiRajvanshi and @SreenivasanJain report that 22 out of the 27 MPs are affiliated to European far right parties including Le Pen’s party and the Brexit party.
— Nidhi Razdan (@Nidhi) October 28, 2019
The trip comes after US members of Congress expressed concern over a lack of access for diplomats and foreign media in the disputed region. US Congressman Chris Van Hollen was not allowed to visit Srinagar, the main city of Kashmir, earlier this month.
New Delhi has so far denied permission to foreign journalists to cover the situation in Kashmir after the August 5 decision, according to the Hindu newspaper. UN Special Rapporteurs at the Human Rights Council have also criticised New Delhi for denying them to visit the region.
On Monday, the EU legislators met Modi who said the visit would give them a clear view of the development priorities of the region, his office said.
Modi, making the biggest political move in Jammu and Kashmir since an armed revolt erupted in 1989, has said that special rights for Kashmir, such as a ban on outsiders buying property, had hindered its development.
The Jammu and Kashmir state, as it was officially known, was split into two federally-administered territories – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh – in August.
“Their visit to Jammu and Kashmir should give the delegation a better understanding of the cultural and religious diversity of the region of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh,” Modi said.
An Indian official said the EU group’s visit would open the door to visits by others. India is trying to counter Pakistan on the international stage. Islamabad has accused New Delhi of unleashing genocide in Kashmir.
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, one of the scores of leaders detained since August, said on Twitter she hoped the politicians would be allowed free access.
“Hope they get a chance to speak to the people, local media, doctors and civil society members. The iron curtain between Kashmir & the world needs to be lifted.”
Fearing unrest, the government cut telephone and internet lines and imposed a near curfew in many parts after the Article 370 that accorded Kashmir special rights was abrogated.
The measures were recently eased, with telephone lines restored, but the population still has no internet.
Thierry Mariani, a European MP for France’s far-right National Rally, told AFP “we are going to see the situation in Kashmir, at least what they want to show us”.