Srinagar: A cavalcade of about 30 cars arrived on Tuesday afternoon at a five-star hotel in Srinagar to meet the delegation of 23 European parliamentarians who arrived in Srinagar earlier in the day.
Those in the cars, after finding a crowd of mediapersons at the gate, responded in a nervous way — most of them covered their faces, some even ducked. There were a few who identified themselves — most of them were sarpanches, panches and corporators of local urban bodies.
After the cavalcade entered the premises of the hotel located near the famous Dal Lake, a car came out within a few minutes. BJP state spokesperson Altaf Thakur and his associate, Manzoor Bhat, came out of it and were immediately surrounded by cameras and asked a single question: What happened inside?
“We presented a written memorandum to the European delegation and told them that Kashmir is peaceful and people here want peace,” Thakur said. “The delegation also said there is peace in Kashmir and the people need development.”
But the police guarding the hotel were surprised by Thakur’s statements as there were no delegates in the hotel. In fact, they arrived around an hour later.
Thakur, while talking to reporters off the record later, said his name was not mentioned in the list of people who were supposed to meet the delegates, but he had to manage the show. Within a few minutes, television channels were, however, running his interview.
The two-day visit of the parliamentarians was organised by a European NGO three months after provisions of Article 370 were abrogated that granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir and the state was divided into two Union Territories. This is the first international delegation to visit Kashmir following the tensions in the Valley after the abrogation of Article 370 in August.
Amid criticism from several corners across the globe over the government’s move, the EU parliamentarians paid a visit to the troubled region to check the situation for themselves.
However, the visit has kicked up a controversy with opposition parties questioning why their leaders have been prevented from entering the state and the Congress calling it an insult to India’s Parliament and democracy.
BJP spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said the opposition's "frustration" over the issue is borne out of the failure of its "propaganda about the situation" there and nobody has stopped the Congress leaders from travelling to the Valley as the situation has normalised.
The EU panel, after arriving at the Srinagar Airport in the morning, were driven straight to Badami Bagh cantonment, which is the largest Army base in Kashmir. Official sources said the delegation had lunch there and was later briefed by the Army about the militancy scenario in Kashmir.
Around 4:55pm, the delegates were driven under tight security to Hotel Lalit where they met the local delegation. “We were pleased to meet and convey to them that we are not with the violence,” said Touseef Raina, a political activist from north Kashmir’s Baramulla who met the delegation along with his colleagues.
“The delegation responded in a positive way and cited different examples of conflict across the world. They talked about the Bosnian conflict and about the situation across the world,” he said.
A few individuals who were part of the local delegation claimed they were government officials and were there to only drop the delegates. “I am a magistrate and I have come here to drop two people who have to meet the delegation,” said the officer on condition of anonymity.
As the EU parliamentarians arrived on Tuesday, the situation in the Valley remained tense. Protests and clashes were reported from Srinagar and parts of south Kashmir. Youth pelted stones at the forces at a number of locations in the downtown area of Srinagar. Markets remained shut and public transport remained off the roads. Even street vendors at Srinagar’s Sunday Market, which usually remains abuzz, were missing from action.
A day before the delegation was scheduled to arrive, a migrant truck driver was killed in the Bijbehara area of south Kashmir, while 20 people were killed in a grenade attack in Sopore town of north Kashmir.
The situation in the Valley has remained tense since August 5 when the Narendra Modi-led government revoked Kashmir’s special status and divided it into two Union Territories. Internet and a number of phone services are yet to be restored.
People in Kashmir said the delegation’s visit was a “managed show” and no genuine person was allowed to meet the EU MPs. Opposition leaders have also accused the government of trying to conceal the “real” situation in the state that has been under lockdown for over 80 days.
“I had approached the authorities and requested them to allow me to meet the EU parliamentarians,” said National Conference MP Hasnain Masoodi.
“This visit doesn’t seem to be of any meaning. The delegation was confined to security premises and the people who met them were not the people’s representatives,” he said. “Those who represent Kashmiris are in jail. This is another drama,” he said.
The Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), whose leader and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti is under detention, has "officially distanced itself from any (of its) members who attended (National Security Advisor) Ajit Doval’s lunch on Monday" in Delhi ahead of the delegation’s visit to the Valley.
The delegates were taken for a tour of the Dal Lake after they held a meeting with the local representatives in the hotel. However, one of the delegates, who spoke to reporters on the banks of the lake, said “they are being kept away” from meeting many people.
“We are conscious of the fact that we are being kept away from some people,” Hermann Tertsch, a parliamentarian from Spain, told News18.
Meanwhile, a senior UK politician on Tuesday said that the Indian government withdrew with little explanation its invitation to him to be part of the delegation after he demanded to speak with local people without police escort.
Officials interact with delegation
After the visit to the lake, the delegates went to Raj Bhawan and met the governor.
The top police and civil officials of the Jammu and Kashmir administration on Tuesday told the EU delegation that people have been yearning for peace but the terrorists have been continuously threatening them by firing bullets.
Director General of Police Dilbag Singh said the situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been peaceful and the security forces have been handling the law and order effectively and "most importantly in a humane manner". In the last 84 days, not a single life has been lost, he told the EU parliamentarians.
Jammu and Kashmir Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmanyamgave also gave a detailed presentation to the delegation on the overall situation in the state, besides answering some questions by its members.
When an EU MP asked how the administration has been handling fake news, Inspector General of Police SP Pani said one of the reasons why the administration has shut down the internet service was to check the circulation of fake news.
"We don't want fake news and rumours. We have been taking up such cases with the Twitter and Facebook after presenting evidence and asking them to remove the disturbing contents, fake tweets and posts.
"But many a time they ask us to route the requests through the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) which is a time consuming affairs," he said.
Principal Secretary and JK administration spokesperson Rohit Kansal apprised the parliamentarians of the recent local body elections and the significance of removing Article 370, which he said was discriminatory.
Kansal said there were 98 incidents of intimidation by militants to people and more than 350 times, terrorists threatened people through posters.
The visit also coincided with the board examinations of Class 10. However, protests were reported from a number of examination centres. Students a centre in Ganderbal shouted slogans before appearing for their examination, officials said. “It was after a local magistrate intervened that the students agreed to sit for the exams,” the official said.
An incident of firing was also reported from Drubgam area of Pulwama district near an examination centre, with suspected militants firing at a CRPF patrol party guarding the centre.
(With inputs from agencies)