Strasbourg (France): As the European Parliament met at its plenary session in Strasbourg to elect the new European Commission (its executive body) and approve the EU budget for 2020, a number of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) criticised the recent visit of largely right-wing EU MEPs to Kashmir as “partisan” and “one-sided”, and failing to engage with all sides on the issue.
A few MEPs even expressed concerns that their colleagues may have been “naive” and manipulated. Speaking to The Wire, several MEPs expressed concerns at the ongoing internet ban in Kashmir Valley’s ten districts, which has now lasted for nearly four months.
Between October 28 and November 1, a delegation of 27 MEPs, including a large contingent of members of the far-right ‘Identity and Democracy’ group elected from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Italy visited India, and 23 of them then went on a supervised visit to Srinagar. They were the first international delegates to visit Kashmir since the government unilaterally rescinded the region’s autonomous constitutional status, placing several former elected representatives under arrest on August 5.
Though it was organised by a New Delhi-think tank, the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies owned by the Srivastava Group of Companies, as a private visit, questions were raised as the delegation met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu. They received official security cover in Srinagar. They were hosted at a lunch by the National Security Advisor, and over dinner by the Minister of External Affairs.
The EU MEPs visit also prompted outrage as Indian politicians have not yet been allowed to travel to the region, and the United Nations has also not been allowed to send any observers or fact-finding missions there.
Bernard Guetta, an elected MEP from France, member of the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament, who is on the parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) and Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI), said though the MEPs had organised it as a private visit and not by the parliament, it was “very questionable”.
“It was very questionable, because it was obviously organised by the Indian authorities, and so it was completely partisan,” he said in an interview at his office last week. “The MEPs did not hear both sides, but only one side, and unfortunately, there is very good reason to be concerned by what is happening in this part of Kashmir.”
He added: “The MEPs should have also listened to the people who opposed the decision of the Indian authorities regarding their part of Kashmir, to the local politicians, intellectuals, civil servants and generally speaking, moral authorities.”
Guetta said that since the MEPs had organised it as a private visit, the European parliament had not organised any discussion in the last week’s plenary session, the first plenary after their return: “Their visit has no impact at all, fortunately. No one has listened to them.”
He also expressed concerns at the internet ban in ten districts in Kashmir Valley ongoing since August 5. “Even in Iran, during large demonstrations, even in Iran which is not a democracy but a theocracy, the ban on internet lasted 4-5 days, and not nearly four months like in Kashmir,” he said. “If Indian ministers claim an internet ban is for preventing terror or violent protests, I would like independent people to be able to check that, such as human rights bodies and organisations. India is a member of the United Nations, which is created on the basis of the universality of human rights, liberty and democracy.”
Dinesh Dhamija, a British-Indian businessman who founded an online travel business, and is a Liberal Democrat politician and an MEP from the Renew Europe Group and Chair of the Delegation for relations with India(D-IN), however, defended the MEPs visit. “I do not want MEPs from here to go and praise Pakistan. What the ambassador here could not do, Madi Sharma (an Indian-origin director of a Brussels-based think-tank, who sent out invites for the paid-for trips to the MEPs) managed to do. Good for her!” said Dhamija.
He said he had received an invite too a week before the trip, but was unable to go as he had other commitments. “It was informal, a government invite would have been a formal invite. I know Sharma, but I do not know exactly what she works on. I thought Modi will not meet them, but he did, the moment the prime minister met them, it became an official trip.”
He explained the restrictions in Kashmir as a result of “the insurgencies coming in from the Pakistani side.” Dhamija argued that if the internet ban was affecting businesses and other online transactions for residents they could move out elsewhere.“Why cant they people move out of the ten districts of Kashmir valley and then do it?”
Responding to the criticism that Indian and local politicians have not been allowed by the government to travel to Kashmir while EU MEPs were allowed, Dhamija said as a foreigner he did not have views on the issue and it was a matter of “contacts” in New Delhi. “The EU MEPs could go in because it is a question of contacts. If I have better contacts – my father-in-law was the chief of Indian army, my father was an ambassador for India all around the world, my contacts in Delhi are as good as that…”
He added: “I can tell you this that you have to see both sides. As a foreigner, and I am a foreigner as I have a British passport, if Rahul Gandhi is stopped at the airport and sent back, and other people as well, do I care? I care about my 23 or 27 MEPs, that is all. The (Indian) government needs to focus on increasing opportunities and it is doing that.”
MEP Mohammed Chahim of the Netherlands, a Member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the second largest group with 154 MEPs in the European Parliament, who is also on delegation for relations with India(D- IN), said he may have received this invite as well but had not confirmed it. “I get a lot of invites and I probably received this one as well, but I always decline because I prefer to pay for my own travel,” said Chahim. “We have to be very transparent there, because we don’t want to be used as a token, especially when it comes to political, sensitive topics. Usually when I see lobby groups inviting, I tend to decline.
“If I want to visit Kashmir or India I will pay for it myself, I have many friends in India, I would travel around, meet people, I would talk to not only current government but also opposition parties in India. I think that is good to do.”
Chahim added: “If MEPs go they have to have a balanced visit, so they have to visit all players and discuss to look at an issue from all perspectives. If there is tension in an area we should try get rid of that tension, not add on that tension. I think such a visit should always be first discussed with local authorities, governments.”
He said, “If it is a private vacation then you could go, but if it is private but at the same time you are doing a lot of political actions and meetings, that is not the way diplomacy works.”
Martin Horwood, an MEP and a Liberal Democrat politician from the United Kingdom, who is Vice-Chair of the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament and also a member of the Committee on Development (DEVE), said it was “regrettable” that the Indian government used a constitutional loophole to change the constitutional status of Kashmir. “I think it is regrettable and sad and we need to call out the Indian government on what they have done.”
Commenting on the EU MEP delegation to Kashmir, Horwood said if MEPs had visited a contested region, it was important that they heard both sides or heard dissenting voices as well. “There is always a risk that people can be a little naive and being shown what their hosts want them to see.”
He added, “There are multiple points of views in Kashmir – there may be some who want to join Pakistan, and maybe some in Ladakh who think it has worked out quite well as Ladakh has got its own status, there are those who prefer Kashmir independence, then there are mainstream politicians from National Conference and so on who are under house arrest now, and that is not the way the world’s leading democracy should be behaving.”
Horwood described the internet ban as extremely regrettable. “When you have an economy moving increasingly online, and when social benefits are increasingly online, then cutting people off from the internet is a very bad thing,” he said. “The government had said this is in some way supposed to be enhancing the rights of the Kashmiris, but it seems to be doing exactly the opposite.”
Marek Evison, who is the Head of the Legal and Home Affairs Working Group working on migration and refugee integration for the European People’s Party (EPP), the largest group with 182 members in the European Parliament, emphasised that the MEPs visit did not in any way have the sanction of the European parliament. Evison is not an MEP but a senior policy functionary of the largest group in the EU Parliament.
“We also had at a certain moment in our history friends of Saddam Hussein, who used to go to illegal trips, or rather its not illegal, a member can do whatever they like with their travel budget, but this was never approved by the parliament. The same way, some of the MEPs went to Damascus, to lend support to the Syrian regime, there is not much we can do about that.”
Evison added, “They are some socialist members who are friends of the regime in North Korea and go there on a regular basis, I am not going to comment on that, they can do whatever they want. It is a bit strange but they do not represent the views of the parliament in this respect.”
“The situation in Kashmir has been what it has been since 1948. I think people who understand the subcontinent know very well that this is not something you can treat lightly, and whatever you say you will end up being on one side or the other, or what kind of language you have to use, because it is such a sensitive issue with so much history involved in it.”
“Some of the members are new, some of them I think have been a bit manipulated, but their visit does not reflect the views of the European parliament,” continued Evison. “We would have to look at some of these trips as views of members who have particular interests in particular regions. There have been a number of resolution over the years in the parliament that are open to viewing, and those reflect the views of the parliament.”
Dennis Radtke, MEP from Germany who is also a Member of the Group of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament and on its committee on employment and social affairs (EMPL) said he was surprised that MEPs from the “extreme right wing” had made a visit to Kashmir a part of the agenda.
“Some of the MEPs such as those from the Alternative For Germany(AfD, from which two MEP were part of the delegation) profess to Nazism back home, and I do not know why they went to Kashmir,” he said. “Can you not keep them in Kashmir for us?”
Radtke described the continuing internet ban as being against all human rights and against freedom of information.
Morten Lokegaard, an MEP from Denmark, who is Vice-Chair of the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament, and on the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO), said there was no justification in using terror as a reason to ban the internet for the entire region. “We condemn these things and the implications of these actions.”
European Parliament meets in Strasbourg in France once every month for the plenary session where the parliament formally sits to vote on EU legislation and adopt its position on political and policy issues.
The plenary that met last week confirmed Ursula von der Leyen as the new president of the European Commission, its executive body, for the next five years.
Anumeha Yadav is an independent journalist.