Indian government forces stand guard as a foreign delegation, including representatives of the United States but not the European Union, arrives in Srinagar on January 9, 2020. (Photo by TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images)

A team of 15 envoys including the US Ambassador to India Kenneth I Juster arrived in Srinagar on Thursday on a two-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir, the first by diplomats since August last year when the state’s special status was revoked and it was downsized to a union territory.

The envoys were brought in a chartered aircraft and landed at technical airport in Srinagar from where they were taken directly to the army cantonment for a briefing, officials said here.

Top officials from the newly carved out union territory of Jammu and Kashmir received the delegation, which will be going to Jammu later in the day and stay the night there.

This time there was no hartal call and shops and business establishments were functioning and civilian traffic was seen on the roads unlike the October visit of a delegation of Members of European Parliament, which was organised by a private NGO.

The delegation, accompanied by Secretary (West) of Ministry of External Affairs Vikas Swarup, was briefed by a team of top army officers led by Lt Gen K J S Dhillon, who heads the strategically-located XV corps in Kashmir, they said.

During the briefing, the army highlighted the trouble from the Pakistan side and their efforts to destablise the security situation in the Kashmir Valley, the officials said.

The envoys had a meeting with civil society members from the valley during which the US ambassador was seen having a long chat with owner of Real Kashmir Football Club Sandeep Chattoo.

Chattoo conveyed to the US envoy the importance of sports in building a strong youth and also highlighted the achievements of his club. The three-year-old football club has braved heavy odds to make a lasting impression on Indian football, its fascinating narrative attracting youths from the valley and rest of the country.

Later the envoys met political leaders including an eight-member delegation led by former minister Altaf Bukhari during which the local leaders apprised them about the possible future course of action after abrogation of Article 370, which gave special status to the erstwhile state.

Bukhari had earlier this week met Lt Governor of Jammu and Kashmir G C Murmu and submitted a memorandum seeking domicile for people of the union territory.

The envoys also had a meeting with some of the editors of the local newspapers including Fayaz Kaloo of Greater Kashmir.

The visit of envoys has evoked sharp reactions from opposition parties with Congress accusing the government of adopting double standards by resorting to “guided tours” for foreign envoys, but not allowing Indian politicians to go there.

Senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said in New Delhi that the party demands that the “government allows unfettered access to Jammu and Kashmir to all politicians and not resort to guided tours for envoys”.

The National Conference issued a statement saying that it was disappointed with the way the foreign envoys were brought to the Valley to endorse claims of the centre about normalcy.

“The party wihses to ask these envoys if the situation is normal, why are scores of people including former chief ministers Farooq Abdullah, Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah under detention for last 160 days,” it said.

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) said the visit of envoys of various countries was an attempt by the government to “normalise its clampdown” in the Valley, daring the Centre to allow the dignitaries to meet the detained political leaders.

Today that @PMOIndia lets a 2nd batch of envoys to “see” the situation in #Kashmir, it only seems like an attempt to normalize the Govts own clampdown. The dare is on @PMOIndia will they ever let these Foreign Envoys meet political detainees who are jailed since 160 days now?” the PDP said on its official Twitter handle.

The External Affairs Ministry, meanwhile, said the objective of the visit by foreign envoys was for them to see first hand efforts to normalise the situation.  Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said a similar visit to Kashmir can be organised in future including by EU envoys.

Kumar said the visit was facilitated by the government and the envoys met security officials, political leaders, civil society groups and media.

He also said that the criticism that this is a guided tour is unfounded.

The envoys, who are here as part of the government’s diplomatic outreach to rebut Pakistan’s propaganda on the Kashmir issue, would be hosted a reception by Lt Governor G C Murmu in the evening at Jammu, the winter capital of the union territory.

Besides the US, the delegation includes diplomats from Bangladesh, Vietnam, Norway, Maldives, South Korea, Morocco, and Nigeria. They would return to Delhi on Friday.

Brazil and Uzbekistan’s envoys Andre Aranha Correa do Lago and Farhod Arziev were also scheduled to visit Jammu and Kashmir. However, they backed out because of preoccupations.

Envoys from the European Union (EU) countries are understood to have conveyed that they will visit the union territory on a different date and are also believed to have stressed on meeting the three former chief ministers, who are under detention.

Officials said envoys of several countries had requested the government for a visit to Kashmir to get a first-hand account of the situation in the Valley following the August 5 decision to abrogate provisions of Article 370 and bifurcate it into two union territories, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

This is the second visit of a foreign delegation to Jammu and Kashmir since August 5. Earlier, Delhi-based think tank International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies, a Delhi-based think tank took 23 EU MPs on a two-day visit to assess the situation in the union territory.

The government had distanced itself from the visit with Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy informing Parliament that the European parliamentarians were on a “private visit”.

(PTI)