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International relations

India invites envoys on Kashmir tour that critics call a sham

Modi maneuvers to project normalcy amid international outcry over human rights

The scene in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Sept. 20, 2019. Critics wonder if India has since turned this part of Kashmir into a Potemkin village.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- A group of foreign envoys are visiting Jammu and Kashmir, in India's north, in what opposition leaders are slamming as a two-day "guided tour" and what analysts are describing as an exercise in image management by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The 15 New Delhi-based diplomats who started their visit on Thursday at the invitation of the Indian government include ambassadors from the U.S., South Korea, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Norway, the Philippines, Argentina and Nigeria.

It is the first such visit of diplomats to the portion of Kashmir administered by India but also claimed by neighboring Pakistan since Aug. 5, when Modi revoked a temporary constitutional provision granting semi-autonomous status to the northern Himalayan region. Kashmir has since been subject to internet shutdowns, and many of its top political leaders to detention.

India's top court on Friday asked the government to review all restrictions relating to internet services in Kashmir within a week, saying these curbs cannot be imposed arbitrarily, according to local media.

Modi says revoking Jammu and Kashmir's special status will rid the restive region of decades of terrorism and invite development.

"The objective of the visit is for the envoys to see firsthand the efforts being made by the government to bring the situation [in Kashmir] to normal," foreign ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar told a media briefing, adding that on the first day of their trip the diplomats met security officials, members of civil society and a group of political leaders.

A convoy believed to be ushering foreign diplomats rolls through Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on Jan. 9.   © Reuters

He also rejected media reports that ambassadors from the European Union did not join the delegation due to the restrictive nature of the trip. "We had invited some EU envoys," Kumar said, "but they wanted to go in [an EU] group. Some couldn't accept [the invitation] because of the short notice. We are looking at the possibility of [a future] EU ambassadors' visit."

Analysts suspect the tour is a government attempt to alter the negative image that the crackdown has projected around the world.

"Ever since the Modi government took the controversial decision," said Ajay Kaul, a political analyst and senior Indian journalist originally from Kashmir, "it has come under sharp criticism, and there have been critical commentaries, particularly in the Western media, over the curbs" in Kashmir.

He said the government in October had taken some members of the European Parliament to Kashmir, "but that led to further controversies after reports surfaced indicating that it was just a conducted tour and not a real exercise to show the ground reality.

"Even during the latest exercise, the envoys are unlikely to be allowed to interact with separatists or dissident mainstream leaders, most of whom are under detention."

A woman in September 2019 stands next to a message graffiti'd onto a wall after Jammu and Kashmir had its contitutional protections revoked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.   © Reuters

The junket comes amid an international outcry over alleged human rights violations, the curtailment of civil liberties and the taking of political prisoners in Kashmir, according to Manish Chand, a foreign affairs analyst and CEO of India Writes Network. The envoys' visit, he said, is part of a wider "image and perception management" campaign that the Modi government has kicked off in the face of international criticism.

The criticism grew louder last month when Modi announced a controversial law that grants citizenship eligibility to non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who migrated to India before 2015.

"In the Western liberal press," Chand said, "India is being portrayed as an authoritarian, majoritarian country, so there is a serious image problem the government has to control."

Shamshad Ahmad Khan, a visiting associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute of Chinese studies, said the government's aim is to assuage persisting concerns regarding violations of basic democratic rights in Kashmir.

"Given the fact that the previous such effort [of taking a foreign delegation to Kashmir] was viewed as a guided tour, I am afraid this too will be seen as a similar one."

The country's main opposition Indian National Congress has also called the diplomats' current excursion a "guided tour."

"Our own political leaders, parliamentarians are not allowed to visit Jammu and Kashmir," INC senior leader Jairam Ramesh said. "So what is the point of taking these envoys there?"

He said the government is applying "double standards."

Aisha Farooqui, a spokesperson for Pakistan's Foreign Office, voiced hope that the visit would take place without any restrictions, that the envoys would have access to all areas and that they would be allowed to interact with Kashmiris "in an atmosphere free from intimidation and coercion."

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