New Delhi: The ban on Indian members of parliament from travelling to Kashmir is an “outrageous affront to democracy,” said UK MP Chris Davies, whose invitation to visit Kashmir was rescinded after he insisted on unsupervised meetings with locals.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with a group of 27 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) on Monday, ahead of their journey to Kashmir. This was the first ever visit to the Valley by foreign officials since August 5 when India nullified Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status. Kashmir has been off-limits to foreign nationals since then.
India had also imposed a security and communication lockdown on Kashmir — a fact which has been criticised by the United States, the UK and United Nations. Many of the restrictions have been slowly lifted, but there is still a complete ban on internet and data services.
The visit of the MEPs, 22 of whom are from right-wing populist parties, came out of the blue, as it was announced only on Monday afternoon following their meeting with Modi. The European Delegation to India clarified that this was not an “official delegation,” as the MEPs were travelling in their private capacity.
While the MEPs were on a private visit, they met the entire Indian leadership, including Modi, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and external affairs minister S. Jaishankar.
The visit kicked off a political maelstrom, with Opposition leaders questioning the ‘red carpet’ access to Kashmir given to foreign parliamentarians, when Indian MPs have been made to return from Srinagar airport.
It has now emerged that while several MEPs had been approached, at least one of them was dropped after he asked for free access to locals in Kashmir.
Liberal Democrat Chris Davies who had his invitation to meet Modi and visit Kashmir rescinded within two days of it having been extended, stated that it was outrageous that Indian MPs cannot visit Kashmir.
“I only heard today that Indian MPs are not being allowed to visit Kashmir. If this is the case it is an outrageous affront to democracy and I am deeply disappointed. India is a great country and we expect better from its government,” he told The Wire.
Opposition leaders, led by Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, were turned away from Srinagar airport on August 24 when they went to visit their detained colleagues. Left leader Sitaram Yechury had to move Supreme Court to be allowed to visit his ailing colleague, who was detained and then eventually transferred to AIIMS in Delhi.
In a separate statement issued to the media, Davies said that he was not “prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government to pretend that all is well”.
“It is very clear that democratic principles are being subverted in Kashmir, and the world needs to start taking notice,” he said.
Davies also asked whether the Indian government had something to hide. “Why will it not give journalists and visiting politicians free access to speak with local people?”
The senior UK politician added that he represented “thousands of people” in the northwest of England who have family associations with Kashmir and want to speak freely to their relatives. “I fear that this is not going to end well. Governments do not win the hearts and minds of people by taking away their freedoms and imposing military rule. The risk of a violent backlash is all too evident,” he said.
As per an email exchange seen by The Wire, Davies had been contacted by Madi Sharma, director of an NGO named WESTT on October 7.“I am organising a prestigious VIP meeting with the Prime Minister of India, His Excellency Narendra Modi and it is my privilege to offer this invitation to you,” she wrote.
She introduced her organisation, WESTT as one working with the European parliament and NGOs, mainly focused in south Asia on issues related to empowerment of women. Sharma describes herself in her Twitter bio as, “Social Capitalist: International Business Broker , Education Entrepreneur; Speaker You must be the Change you want to see – #NoExcuses #MadiEffect”. The last hashtag is an ostensible reference to her self-published book, Madi No Excuses.
To a question from The Wire, Davies said that he had never heard of the organisers before receiving the email.
“(I have) no idea why I was invited. I have spoken in the European Parliament about Kashmir – and to express concern about the government’s actions,” he said.
Davies was one of 45 UK politicians who had co-signed a letter in August urging the UN Secretary General to discuss developments in Kashmir in the Security Council.
Meanwhile, Sharma wrote that having won a landslide victory in recent elections in India, Modi was planning to continue on his path on growth and development for India.
“In that respect, he would like to meet influential decision makers from the European Union. I am therefore inquiring if you would be interested to visit Delhi, India, to meet with the Prime Minister. The meeting with the Prime Minister is scheduled for 28th October, with a visit to Kashmir on 29th and a press conference on 30th,” said the mail.
She described the visit as that of a “small group of cross party, pan-European politicians on a three-day visit”. It was added that flight and accommodation will be covered and sponsored by the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies.
After The Wire learned that WESTT and IINS had been involved in the organisation of the trip, questionnaires were sent to both the groups through respective key personnel. Additional reminders were send today, October 29, including the necessity to know how WESTT, an NGO based in the UK, could give the guarantee of a meeting with the Indian prime minister, but there has been no response so far.
“Your participation will be as our VIP guest and not in an official capacity as a delegation of Members of the European Parliament,” Sharma assured in the introductory mail.
Within three hours, Davies had replied to Sharma that he was willing to accept the invitation, but only if he was allowed to speak with locals in Kashmir freely and unsupervised.
“Thank you for your invitation, I am happy to accept, on the condition that during my time in Kashmir I shall be free or go wherever I wish, and talk to whoever I wish, unaccompanied by military, police or security forces, but accompanied by journalists and television crews.
Please provide this absolute guarantee in writing, and let us then discuss the timings of the visit,” Davies responded.
Sharma replied that the purpose of the visit “is that you can meet with the Prime Minister and also on the visit to Kashmir meet and speak to people freely”.
Not surprisingly, she pushed back on Davies’ conditions. “Obviously, it is our responsibility to make sure that you are protected, I know you are well aware that armed groups operate in the region so a little security may be necessary but I am sure they will not hinder your work. Do you already know journalists and media in the region or are you planning to bring a team with you?”
She offered to have a face-to-face meeting with Davies to discuss it further.
Davies’ aides then confirmed a meeting on October 10 at 5 pm. Another email followed which said that Davies’ fellow Lib-Dem MEP, Irina Von Wiese would also join the meeting.
Three and half hours before the scheduled meeting on October 10, Sharma cancelled the appointment and withdrew the invitation.
“I apologise that I cannot take any more MEPS at this stage and therefore I will cancel our meeting for Thursday at 17.00. When I return from India I will arrange a suitable time to pass by your offices in the hope that we can arrange a future visit,” she said.
In the end, the organisers had drawn up a list of 32 MEPs, but only 27 landed in Delhi. They were treated to a Diwali dinner, where they posed in front of a banner of International Institute of Non-Aligned States wearing Indian ethnic clothing.
As per its website, the institute was formed in 1980 and has “offices in New York, Geneva, and Vienna to coordinate its work with the UN”. Most of the articles on the website are unsigned and no events seem to have been updated on the page since October 2016.
The latest entry on the institute’s activities web page is an International Conference on “Human Rights Challenges in 21st Century” organised in collaboration of NGOs Coordinating Committee on Human Rights, Geneva on March 5-6, 1998.
The Wire had contacted the deputy director of IINS, Himanshu Sharma on Monday. When told that there were some questions related to the visit of MEPS and INSS’s role, Sharma had said that he would provide details to the director. The queries were also texted to him and he had responded that they had been forwarded to the “concerned person”.
Sharma is also listed as an editor of a publication called New Delhi Times. Several of the visiting MEPs had retweeted a New Delhi Times post of their meeting with the Indian prime minister on their timeline. New Delhi Times, as per its website, is part of the Srivastava group, formed by G.N. Srivastava – who is named as the founder of IINS.
All but one among the five members travelling from the UK are from the Brexit party, which is known for its Euro-sceptic and anti-immigration position. Davis noted that opinion among his MEP colleagues were divided on India’s move to change Kashmir’s status and put restrictions in place. “I assume that most of the MEPs who accepted the invitation are supporters of Indian government policy,” he said.
It is learned that four of the MEPs, who arrived in Delhi, decided not to travel further to Kashmir. However, this was not confirmed by Indian officials.