New Delhi: At the end of their 24 hour-long stay in Srinagar, members of the group of European parliamentarians said that they considered the nullification of Article 370 “an internal matter of India”, but held that terrorism was a “global issue” which required more attention from the rest of the world.
The first ever group of foreign legislators to visit Kashmir since August 5 had arrived on Tuesday at Srinagar to a citywide shutdown and protests. They had met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar in Delhi on Monday.
EU authorities have made it clear that the visiting MEPs were not an “official delegation” and the trip was in their “private capacity”.
According to state government officials, they met around 15 delegations comprising youth activists, panchayat members and a women’s group. They also met with Indian army officials and later in the evening, took a round of the Dal Lake on shikaras.
PTI reported that the foreign visitors were briefed by state government officials for two hours over a dinner meeting, which was attended by state Chief Secretary B.V.R. Subrahmanyan and DGP Dilbag Singh.
The press conference at the conclusion of their Srinagar stay had been part of their scheduled three-day visit to India. It was addressed by three out of the 23 members of the European parliament (MEPs) who had decided to travel to Srinagar. Four of their colleagues had returned from Delhi and not travelled further.
— Doordarshan News (@DDNewsLive) October 30, 2019
One of them was Tomas Zdechobsky from the Czech Republic, who apparently first issued a statement that he didn’t travel onwards to Kashmir due to his differing schedule. He had also stated that his main aim was to meet with Indian PM, as his earlier planned meeting with Modi was cancelled in August. The statement was, however, retracted shortly as it gave an inaccurate reason for the August meeting to have been scrapped.
The press conference began with four members of the group – two from France and one each from UK and Poland – delivering their initial remarks. Out of them, three are members of the European parliament from the three countries.
The fourth, Henri Malosse, a French national, is the head of a Brussels-based think tank, Vocal Europe and a former president of an EU advisory body. Malosse was one of the coordinators of the trip, along with WESTT’s Madi Sharma – both of them posed for a photograph with Modi when he met with the group on their “private visit” on Monday. Even though he addressed the press conference, he is not named in the delegation list of 27 members made public by news agency ANI.
Unusually for a press conference, each of their short statements were greeted by applause from the audience. The press conference shown on television was not live, but recorded.
As per local journalists, questions were vetted and only selected journalists from some mainstream Indian channels were invited. The questions were asked by reporters from Aaj Tak, Republic TV, WION and India TV. Most of the local Srinagar-based media did not get invitation to the interaction. When inviting the first journalist to ask the question, the emcee specifically prefaced the former’s description as “our guest”.
The questions ranged from their experience to whether the visitors thought western media was largely propaganda to the state of minorities in Pakistan. During the 45-minute presser, there were no queries on the communication clampdown in Kashmir or the future of the political detainees.
While landlines have been restored and mobile services partially returned, internet services have remained shut since August 4. Hundreds of political detainees, including three former chief ministers, are still locked up.
Henri Malosse said that the group had come to Kashmir only to “collect information” and “check facts”. He said that the main takeaway from the youths who met them on Tuesday whas that they had “big hope that the future would be better”.
Malosse had earlier written an article in a publication in EP Today, where he compared India’s actions on article 370 to Spain’s decision to suspend Catalonia that was approved by European leaders. EP Today, linked to Srivastava Group that owns International Institute of Non-Aligned Studies (IINS), was identified by a non-profit group to have targeted EU lawmakers with content critical of Pakistan and drawn largely from Russian-owned RT.
The MEPs were invited to India by WESTT, who told the participants that the tickets and accommodation are being paid by IINS.
French MEP Thierry Mariani took umbrage to being described as “Nazis” by certain media reports. Mariani is from the far-right National Rally, earlier known as the National Front, which has usually taken anti-immigration and ultra-nationalist positions.
— Thierry MARIANI (@ThierryMARIANI) October 28, 2019
He said that it was offensive to be called ‘Nazi lovers’. “If I were so, I would not have been elected 14 different times. It is offensive,” stated Mariani, asking reporters to do a “little more reading”.
Malosse had also said that there were “no Islamophobes, no fascists” in the delegation.
Mariani echoed his countryman in stating that they were not in India to interfere in an internal issue, but to collect information. The French politician also noted that he had been to India over 20 times in the past.
Asserting that terrorism is a global issue, Mariani said, “I am here [as] I know how terrorism can destroy a country. I remember when I was in Afghanistan. Then in Syria. I know terrorism is a world problem I don’t want Kashmir to become a second Afghanistan”.
All of them also condemned the killing of five labourers by terror groups on Tuesday night.
Mariani stated that there had been an “interesting discussion” with “civic society” representatives. “Maybe it was most interesting what they said… we are Indian citizens and we want to be Indian citizens like other citizens”.
Mariani, who sported an Indian flag on his lapel, said he felt that the changes to Article 370 of Indian constitution would be helpful in the development of the region. The Indian government has similarly argued that the reading down of Article 370 would help foster economic development in Kashmir and launch effective counter-terrorism operations.
He also criticised Pakistan for violence against the Christian community, mentioning the case of Asia Bibi who was put behind bars for several years on charges of blasphemy. He also added that most of the terrorism in Kashmir was “sourced from Pakistan.”
The UK MEP, Bill Newton Dunn, who is from the Liberal Democrats, said that one man told him that there is “too much corruption in Kashmir and India”, as much of the central aid was apparently consumed by middlemen.
He added that the “excellently organised visit” was an “eye-opener”. “We are here to find out how to help, how to improve the situation. That is our job here”.
Following Dunn, Polish MEP Ryszard Czarnecki also asserted that terrorism is not a “problem only of India”. “I think it is our problem. Also of our international community and we need to support India in finding,” he said.
He asserted that their understanding of the situation would help them inform their colleagues in European Parliament and institutions about the “real situation”. Czarnecki was among the two MEPs in the current delegation who met with Modi and who had defended India in the special debate on Kashmir at the European Parliament. Mariani had added that they may write a report to present to their respective political groups.
To a couple of questions on the western media painting a “dark picture” of Kashmir, Czarnecki said the international coverage was “biased”.
While there were no questions about Indian opposition’s criticism of Indian MPs not being allowed to visit Kashmir, news agency ANI carried a byte from a visiting MEP that did allude to the issue.
“I think if you let in European Union parliamentarians in, you should also let in opposition politicians from India. So there is some kind of disbalance, the government should somehow address it,” said German MEP Nicolaus Fest with the Dal Lake in the background.
Nicolaus Fest, European Union MP, in Srinagar on his visit to Jammu & Kashmir: I think if you let in European Union parliamentarians, you should also let in opposition politicians from India. So there is some kind of disbalance, the government should somehow address it. pic.twitter.com/PJZ6Vjs8sv
— ANI (@ANI) October 30, 2019
Opposition leaders from Congress and Left have severely criticised the government for having organised a “conducted tour” for foreign parliamentarians, while not allowing Indian MPs to meet their detained colleagues.
Till now, the Centre government has not only barred Indian legislators, but has kept out all foreign nationals, whether diplomats or journalists, from visiting Jammu and Kashmir.