SRINAGAR – A delegation of 23 European Union MPs arrived here on Tuesday for a “first-hand assessment” of the situation in Kashmir following the revocation of the state’s special status under Article 370.
During the two-day visit, the EU MPs, majority of them belonging to extreme right or right wing parties were briefed by government officials and army top brass on the situation in the Valley as well as other parts of Jammu and Kashmir, officials said.
The team originally comprised 27 parliamentarians, but four did not travel to Kashmir and have reportedly returned to their respective countries, officials said.
This is the first high-level foreign delegation visiting Kashmir after the August 5 decision of the Central government announcing the abrogation of provisions of Article 370 and the decision to bifurcate the state into the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh amida complete lockdown.
The delegation was greeted in Srinagar with sporadic protests and a complete shutdown.
All the major roads were seen blocked and private transport largely remained off the roads throughout the day. Protestsand clashes with security forces were witnessed at dozens of places across Kashmir. Pitched battles were fought by protestors with paramilitary forces in many parts of the capital city Srinagarand other parts of Kashmir where forces resorted to tear gas shelling to disperse the protestors.
The delegation members before leaving for Kashmir said in New Delhi that they wanted to see the ground situation in Kashmir valley themselves.
Delegation was driven amid heavy security to Lalit Grand Palace in Gupkar area from Srinagar airport through nearly deserted streets.
Official sources said that delegation first visited nearby headquarters of 15 Corps at Badami Bagh Cantonment where it was briefed by senior Army officers about the situation in the valley and on the Line of Control (LoC). They were also served lunch by the army there.
The delegation later returned to hotel where they met a motel group of traders and houseboat owners, officials said adding a group of young activists also called on the group members and expressed their support for the actions taken by the central government.
Sources said some newly appointed Block Development Commission (BDC) members besides panches and sarpanches were also present at the hotel to meet the EU MPs.
Earlier reports said some leaders of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) were also meeting the delegation members. However, PDP has distanced itself for authorizing anyone from the party to meet the EU MPs.
A group of MEP’s later in the evening went on a boat ride in the world famous Dal Lake.
The tour was conducted amid heavy security.
However, the move has invited sharp criticism from the opposition parties as several leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Ghulam Nabi Azad, have asked why a foreign delegation is being allowed to visit the state, when even Indian Parliamentarians were not permitted to visit Kashmir.
Opposition parties questioned the centres decision to allow EU delegation to visit Kashmir valley while leaders of different mainstream political parties, including Congress, were not allowed to leave the Srinagar International Airport and sent back to Delhi in next flight.
“MPs from Europe are welcome to go on a guided tour of Jammu & Kashmir while Indian MPs are banned & denied entry,” Rahul Gandhi said in his tweet.
Although political leaders, particularly those who are still free, in the valley remained silent and did not issue any statement on the visit of EU delegation, opposition political parties in Delhi questioned the Government of India (GoI) decision to sponsor such a visit to Kashmir when local leaders are still barred from visiting the part of the country.
“Our senior leaders, including Rahul Gandhi and Ghulam Nabi Azad, besides leaders of different other political parties were sent back from Srinagar airport,” Congress alleged.
It was further alleged that Azad was not even allowed to visit his family members in Kashmir and Jammu. However, he was later allowed to visit Srinagar, Anantnag and Baramulla following Supreme Court order.
The daughter of former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, Iltija Mufti said the EU delegation members should be allowed to meet common people on streets, detained leaders of different political parties, lawyers and media persons.
Iltija Mufti said she had approached the EU Embassy officials in New Delhi for a meeting with the delegation. But, she said, ‘I was told that it was a private visit of the delegation and they have nothing to do with it’.
“Let the government allow the delegation to meet leaders, including three former Chief Ministers—Dr Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti… besides leaders detained in SKICC for the past three months, she said.
The delegation on a private visit was briefed by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval about the situation in the Kashmir valley after the special status of the state was withdrawn.
The delegation also called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi at New Delhi on Monday before starting their two-day Kashmir visit from Tuesday.