Photo: Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times
Photo: Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times

Opinion | It’s time to widen the valley’s welcome mat

It’s a good sign that the Centre is letting lawmakers from abroad visit Kashmir to assess the situation. To win favourable opinion globally, however, we should invite the most sceptical

It is a measure of the government’s acknowledgement of global concern over Kashmir that it has slowly begun to lift the veil over the valley. Accordingly, a group of 23 members of European Parliament landed in Srinagar on Tuesday to assess the ground situation. This visit is not official, as it has taken place at the initiative of a non-governmental body, though it’s clearly under the Centre’s auspices. It comes roughly a dozen weeks after Jammu and Kashmir’s official autonomy on internal matters was revoked and a legislative push was made to split the state into two Union territories—set to take effect on Thursday. In the period that has elapsed since the 5 August announcement of the state’s revised status, the Valley has been under a lockdown, with clamps on local interactions. Landline and postpaid phone services, snapped off at first, have been restored, but internet access is still barred and several Kashmiri leaders remain in detention. News has been scarce and suspicions high. While India’s move to fully integrate the state has found popular approval within the country and been explained at various global forums, the rest of the world, exposed to Pakistan’s fulminations over it, appears to have reserved its judgement for the time being. This being the case, it is a good idea to have elected representatives visit Kashmir and check for themselves.

One worry was that terror groups might see in such high-profile visits a chance to strike and discredit claims of normalcy in the state. On Tuesday, for example, terrorists did open fire at Indian security personnel at a school in Pulwama, but New Delhi should make it clear that such attempts to thwart its plans will not work. Visits must and will go on. There is a bigger apprehension, however, that does need to be addressed. This relates to the alleged selectivity exercised in issuing invitations. Opposition parties have protested the European Union (EU) group’s visit, asking why the same courtesy has not been extended to Indian parliamentarians. Concerns have also been expressed over the composition of the group, which is alleged to be too rightist to represent a full spectrum of Europe. Reports say that the contingent is smaller than the original number invited. Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat from the UK and a member of the EU parliament, has reportedly claimed his welcome was withdrawn after he sought permission to move around on his own and speak freely to people without an escort. Such statements from foreign lawmakers do little for what New Delhi hopes to achieve.

India cannot avert global attention. This is clear from a hearing on human rights in South Asia held recently by the United States Foreign Affairs Committee and a rare discussion held by the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in Brussels. Both touched upon freedoms in Kashmir. This in itself does not mean New Delhi’s outreach effort is faltering. But doubts do linger over India’s narrative, and so it’s crucial to engage those who are most sceptical of it. It would help to invite a wide cross-section of leaders both within and outside India. Members of the US Congress who requested a valley visit and were asked to wait, for example, could be asked to fly down; diplomats and foreign journalists, too. Some of the gloom they might encounter would be economic. J&K needs a revival of commerce. For that, it needs prospective investors visiting as well. It’s time to widen the welcome mat.

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