Envoys In Srinagar

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The latest visit by 24 foreign diplomats to Kashmir and Jammu coincided with various other developments in the region, a Team KL report

Lt Governor Manoj Sinha holds interaction with Foreign Envoys on Thursday, February 18, 2020.

On February 17, the Ministry of External Ministry flew a group of 24 foreign envoys, the fourth since the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, to showcase efforts to restore normalcy and boost development in Jammu and Kashmir. The group included the European Union (EU) ambassador Ugo Astuto and ambassadors of key European states such as French envoy Emmanuel Lenain, Italian envoy Vincenzo de Luca, Swedish ambassador Klas Molin, Irish envoy Brendan Ward and Dutch diplomat Marten van den Berg. The delegation included at least four members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

The 2-day visit was organised following the conduct of District Development Council (DDC) elections in November-December and restoration of high speed 4G mobile internet early February after 550 days.

In Kashmir, the envoys were put up at The Lalit, a 5-star hotel offering a panoramic view of Dal lake. There the envoys met a number of delegations to get a sense of the situation in Kashmir. Srinagar’s Mayor Junaid Azim Mattu also met the envoys and briefed them about the recently concluded DDC elections. The visiting dignitaries, he said, were “apprised of the landmark elections and all of them agreed it was a free and fair process.”

Interactions

Among others who met the diplomats included the DDC and panchayat members from Srinagar and other parts of Kashmir, officers of the civil administration, and more than a dozen editors and correspondents of local and national newspapers and television networks.

Foreign Envoys at Badami Bagh cantonment with the senior army and police officers on Thursday, February 18, 2021.

According to reports in the media, the editors who met the envoys told them that the Kashmir press was free. “In Kashmir, the press is free and the journalists are working in a free atmosphere. Though there were some concerns that the media fraternity was facing when Article 370 was abrogated but they have been addressed,” one editor was quoted to have said by a local daily.

Similarly, another editor is said to have underlined the need for “starting the political dialogue in Jammu and Kashmir and holding of Assembly elections”. He has also demanded the restoration of statehood.

But at the same time, the other set of journalists who were waiting outside the hotel were not allowed to meet the envoys.  Some of them complained that they were kept at a safe distance from the hotel. “We were not even allowed to reach the gate. It was difficult to even shoot,” a video-journalist who didn’t want to be named said.

Foreign envoys coming down from stairs at Budgam college on Wednesday, February 17, 2021. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

The visiting diplomats also held a brief interaction with a small group of Kashmiri artisans, poets and writers at Sher-i-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC). They were briefed by the top army commanders about the security issues at the headquarters of Srinagar based 15-Corps. Besides, the envoys had detailed meetings with the Chief Justice in Jammu and a visit to the Dargah in Hazratbal.

Motive

Anurag Srivastava offered details of the visit and the objectives involved. “The idea behind facilitating these visits was to enable Foreign Heads of Missions to get a better sense of the ground situation and the prevailing normalcy in the union territory,” Srivastava told reporters in Delhi. “Subsequently, there has been an enhanced interest in the ongoing political and democratic process, including the strengthening of grassroots democracy in Jammu and Kashmir.”

The visit, he said, was in the context, to allow foreign envoys to witness, first-hand, “Jammu and Kashmir’s march on the path of inclusive development and the dynamism in the grassroots democratic institutions”.

Reactions

In Srinagar, the delegation was also briefed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police about the various programmes including community engagements, counter-radicalisation measures and also about the Army’s role in convincing militants to surrender and countering Pakistan’s infiltration activities while conducting DDC elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

JK Police, Army Brief Foreign Envoys On Counter-Radicalisation, Community Engagements

However, no one from the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) was invited to meet the envoys even though two days before the envoys arrived in Kashmir, orders to restrict the movement of two former chief ministers – Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah were withdrawn. Similarly, the EU delegation didn’t meet anyone from the Congress party.

Later Omar took a dig on the visit of foreign envoys to Kashmir, asking them to send real tourists from their countries to Jammu and Kashmir.

“Thank you for visiting Kashmir. Now please send some real tourists from your countries to visit J&K. #envoysvisitJK,” Omar tweeted.

Mehbooba too slammed the government for the envoys’ visit: “So much done to woo foreigners who have no stake in the Kashmir issue while the main stakeholders i.e. the people of J&K are disregarded & brutalised into silence,” she tweeted.

State Congress president Ghulam Ahmad Mir termed the envoys’ visit “a stage-managed show”.

“The EU members didn’t meet any designated member from Congress and National Conference as projected by the media. They met those who speak BJP language and praise BJP,” he told a local news agency. “Why EU delegations aren’t sent to rape capital of India which is Uttar Pradesh, why Kashmir only. Why the PM Narendra Modi led government is itself internationalizing Kashmir issue by bringing foreign envoys to Kashmir.”

Parts of Srinagar, including Lal Chowk, observed a complete shutdown in protest against the visit of the EU delegation.

The envoy visit actually took off from their detailed interactions with some of the DDC members in a Budgam college. There, they were briefed about the conduct of DDC polls and the tasks that are mandated to the newly created developmental set-up. Nazir Ahmad Khan, who was elected as the head of the DDC Budgam, briefed the delegation. There, the envoys also had interactions with other civilians who were permitted to be in the college premises.

Foreign envoys interacting with a delegation of civil society members in the Magam area of Budgam on Wednesday, February 17, 2021. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Srivastava told reporters in Delhi that in Magam (Budgam), the visiting diplomats participated in Block Diwas, “a grassroots level democratic outreach initiative organised regularly by the local administration in Jammu and Kashmir, as part of efforts to promote good governance.” There, the interaction provided them “an opportunity to hear directly from the general public and local level people’s representatives on the functioning of empowered grassroots democratic institutions, devolution of power and developmental activities.”

The Jammu Visit

The delegation later left for Jammu where they held meetings with the Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Manoj Sinha, and the security establishment, including the officers of Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Army.

Later talking to media in New Delhi, the European Union (EU) ambassador Ugo Astuto termed his visit to Jammu and Kashmir an “opportunity” to see the “situation on the ground”.

Foreign envoys visit the Hazaratbal shrine on Wednesday, February 17, 2021. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

“In our interaction, we have taken note of recent steps taken such as the election of the district development council, the resumption of 4G internet services. It is very important obviously, right to freedom of expression online and offline is a key-value for all democracies,” said Astuto.

“Overall, the visit presented the opportunity to see the situation on the ground and interact with some local interlocutors as part of the European Union’s outreach to all stakeholders and we definitely look forward to continuing our dialogue with our Indian interlocutor”. He was quoted by The Indian Express saying: “We look forward to a number of other important steps to be taken in the political and economic sphere (in J&K), including the early organisation of the Legislative Assembly elections.”

UN Statement

As the delegation took off from Jammu, two UN Rapporteurs issued a statement expressing their concern over special status revocation and enactment of new laws, asserting these changes risk undermining minorities’ rights and lead to potential discrimination in employment and land ownership.

“The state of Jammu and Kashmir was established with specific autonomy guarantees to respect the ethnic, linguistic and religious identities of its people. It was also the only state in India with a Muslim majority,” the joint statement issued by Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur on minority issues, and Ahmed Shaheed, special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said. Post revocation of Article 370, it said, “Domicile Rules which removed protections given to those from the territory. Subsequent changes to land laws are further eroding these protections.”

“The loss of autonomy and the imposition of direct rule by the Government in New Delhi suggests the people of Jammu and Kashmir no longer have their own government and have lost power to legislate or amend laws in the region to ensure the protection of their rights as minorities,” it added further. “The number of successful applicants for domicile certificates that appear to be from outside Jammu and Kashmir raises concerns that demographic change on a linguistic, religious and ethnic basis is already underway.”

MEA spokesman rebutted the charges and termed it deplorable. “The press release disregards the fact that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral and inalienable part of India and the decision of August 5, 2019, regarding the change in the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into a Union Territory of India was taken by the Parliament of India,” Srivastava said. “The press release has ignored the positive impact of extending laws applicable to the rest of India to Jammu and Kashmir, enabling the people of Jammu and Kashmir to enjoy the same rights as available to people in other parts of India.” Literally rebuffing the two UN experts, Srivastava said: “We expect the Special Rapporteurs (SRs) to develop a better understanding of the issues under their consideration before jumping to hasty conclusions and issuing press statements.”

Pangong Tso agreement

The visit came days after India and China reached to a breakthrough moment in the ninth round of talks to resolve the lingering 9-month stand-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh, the two countries began “synchronized and organized disengagement” on the North and South banks of Pangong Tso lake. The agreement was reached in the ninth round of talks between the military commanders of two sides held on January 24.

Some of the howitzers on display for the media coverage in Ladakh on September 15, 2020. KL Image: Special arrangement.

After completing the withdrawal of troops and weapons from the Pangong lake, India and China are now negotiating to take forward the disengagement process in Hot Springs, Gogra and Depsang in eastern Ladakh. The Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said in a recent statement that “there are still some outstanding issues that remain regarding deployment and patrolling on LAC” and mentioned that “our attention will be on these in further discussions”.

These other friction points are all north of the Pangong Tso and the troops have been face-to-face since last year.  And through sustained negotiations, they certainly can find a way out. For a peaceful neighbourhood, it’s important that India and China reach a modus-vivendi.

The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi paying tributes to the valour of the soldiers, during his visit to Nimu in Ladakh on July 03, 2020. A PIB Photo

“Everything that was agreed upon at the ninth round of talks (on January 24) has been achieved. At Pangong Tso, we have achieved status quo ante. On the north bank, China has pulled its troops east of Finger 8 (which India says marks the LAC) and India is holding its position behind Finger 3 at the Dhan Singh Thapa post. All temporary structures, erected by China in the (temporary no-patrolling) stretch between, have been levelled,” a government official was quoted saying in The Indian Express. “We too have vacated the heights at Rechin La and Rezang La on the south bank as per the agreement. In fact, China has shown unexpected alacrity in vacating the positions it held. This has raised hopes of results in the forthcoming meetings on outstanding issues.”

This is a major development after a yearlong stand-off that brought the armies of the two countries eyeball to eyeball. At times it appeared that the neighbours were on the verge of going to war. One such occasion was on June 16 last year when 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives in a bloody skirmish. There were other uneasy times as well when the two countries brought tanks to the border. But as it has turned out now, the restraint and the dialogue has paid off.

Meanwhile, in the first admission of its kind, China has revealed that four of its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers were killed during a bloody hand-to-hand battle with Indian troops on the two countries’ disputed border high in the Himalayas in June 2020.  These included a Colonel rank officer.

China’s military authorities have honoured two officers and three soldiers, including four who received the awards posthumously, for defending the country’s western border, the official Xinhua news has agency reported.

The two countries were engaged in the tenth round of talks at Moldo, on the Chinese side of the LAC, when this report was filed.

Exiting Afghanistan

Another major development that almost coincided with the envoy visit was NATO’s decision to reconsider its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Joe Biden government in the US is in the process of reviewing the agreement with the Taliban reached in February 2020 that called for a permanent ceasefire, peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and a withdrawal of all foreign forces by May 1.

The Taliban delegation in the US-brokered Intra-Afghan Talks in Doha. PiC; Wikimedia commons

Now the new Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has said that Washington will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. He stressed that violence must decrease in the war-torn country and more progress needed to be made in the Afghan-led negotiations for the US to move forward with its withdrawal. There are about 2,500 US troops currently in the country. The US deadline to leave Afghanistan is May 1.

“I told our allies that no matter what the outcome of our review, the US will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts their forces or the alliance’s (NATO’s) reputation at risk,” Austin told reporters at a Pentagon news conference on Friday. “At this time, no decisions about our future force posture have been made.

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad with and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, after the two signed the peace agreement at Qatar in Doha on February 29, 2020. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo witnessed the signing.

Earlier on February 18, NATO Defence Ministers reiterated their commitment to the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission – with training and funding for the brave Afghan security forces – and their strong support to the Afghan peace process, which, according to them, is the best chance to end years of suffering and violence and bring lasting peace to Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the military alliance will only leave Afghanistan when security conditions allow. NATO has under 10,000 troops in the war-ravaged country helping to train and advise the Afghan security forces.

“Our presence in Afghanistan is conditions-based, and the Taliban has to meet their commitments,” Stoltenberg told reporters after chairing a meeting of NATO defense ministers, including new US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “The main issue is that the Taliban has to reduce violence, the Taliban has to negotiate in good faith and Taliban has to stop supporting international terrorist groups like Al Qaeda”.

NATO took control of international security operations in Afghanistan in 2003, two years after a US-led coalition ousted the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the Taliban is continuing with its military campaign. In recent weeks, the militia has taken outposts and military bases. In neighbouring Pul-i-Khumri, they have seized important highways threatening main lifelines to Kabul. In the city of Kandahar, Taliban fighters have pummelled the surrounding districts and moved closer to reclaiming the provincial capital. This has further complicated the situation.

Also, over the past year, there has been little progress in the intra-Afghan talks. On a positive note though, the Afghan government and the Taliban have agreed framework rules for peace talks. The talks hosted by Qatar’s capital Doha are hoped to lead to the end of the ongoing two-decade-long war in the country. But the peace efforts have hardly reduced violence.  Besides Taliban attacks, ISIS too has reportedly increased its footprint in the country.

Critics of the peace efforts believe this would embolden the Taliban and persuade it to play for time and try toppling the regime once all the US troops have left the country. Such a prospect can plunge the country deeper into a civil war.

Biden will also want to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but he is expected to be a steadier hand. However, eventually, the peace and stability in Afghanistan will have to be the responsibility of the regional powers. And it is unlikely to happen if the regional powers pursue their disparate interests in the war-ravaged country.  The US will also need to make some subtle adjustment in its Afghanistan policy to make it work. In its current form, the policy almost entirely neglects the regional geopolitics, prevailing issues and the contending interests of the neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan, which essentially keep the conflict going in Kabul. So rather than an Afghanistan-centric policy, the US needs a broader regional approach to work for an integrated solution to the conflicts and the competing interests that in turn fuel the war in Kabul.

A Day Later

A day after the envoys visit, Kashmir witnessed a series of violent incidents. Three militants were killed in an encounter in Shopian. A special police official (SPO) was killed in Budgam where the militants fled from a siege. In Srinagar, two cops were killed by an insurgent from a very close range.

Senior police officers carry the coffin of slain cop Sohail Ahmad of Ashmuqam area of Anantnag on Friday, February 19, 2021. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Police said they have registered the case and started investigations. They said they have already settled a case in which one non-local businessman’s son was attacked on the very day when envoys were in Srinagar. Three persons involved in the case have been arrested.

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