Strasbourg: 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 They were the first international delegates to visit Kashmir since the government unilaterally rescinded the region’s autonomous constitutional status, placing several former elected representatives under arrest on August 5.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.