India grants diplomats access to Kashmir for first time in months

A convoy believed believed to be transferring foreign diplomats is seen in Srinagar, January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

SRINAGAR/NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Foreign diplomats visited Kashmir on Thursday for the first time since New Delhi stripped the region of special status in August, but some European nations and others declined to go after being refused permission to travel independently.

India’s portion of the Muslim-majority Himalayan region, also claimed by Pakistan, has been under severe restrictions – including one of the world’s longest internet shutdowns – after India revoked decades-old laws granting Kashmir autonomy and statehood, leading to widespread unrest.

Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry, said diplomats of 15 countries, including the United States, were on a two-day trip “to see first-hand the efforts that have been made by the government to normalise the situation”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government wants to blunt international criticism of its moves in Kashmir and said the situation was fast returning to normal.

The trip includes meetings with the army, politicians, civil society groups and journalists selected by the security services, two officials familiar with the plans said.

The diplomats will not be given access to Omar Abdullah or Mehbooba Mufti, the leaders of the two political parties that have historically dominated Kashmir.

Both were among hundreds of political and civil society leaders detained during the August crackdown and remain in custody, and their plight was raised with the delegation, said Ghulam Hassan Mir, a politician that met the group.

“We told the visiting delegation the people’s sentiments were deeply hurt with the revocation of special status,” said Muhammad Saleem Pandit, one of the eight journalists that met the ambassadors. “They were emotionally attached to it.”

RESTRICTIONS

Many ambassadors came from smaller nations such as Togo, Niger and Guyana. Countries in the European Union and India’s allies in the Middle East did not go on the trip.

Some countries declined their invitation because of the restrictions imposed, according to the officials familiar with the plans and two foreign diplomats in New Delhi.

Kumar said India was considering a separate visit for EU nations, and put other absences down to the short notice given to embassies and other scheduling matters.

India says its actions in Kashmir are necessary to combat a three-decade-long armed insurgency against its rule which it accuses Pakistan of fomenting. Islamabad denies this.

The August crackdown drew international criticism, and diplomats from several countries say they have raised concerns about human rights in Kashmir with foreign ministry officials.

Access to the region for foreign observers, including diplomats, rights groups and journalists, is tightly controlled.

Foreign envoys are rarely granted permission to travel outside of Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar. Foreign journalists have not been granted permission to visit since August.

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