Foreign envoys begin 2-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir to assess situation

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Srinagar, Feb 17 (PTI) Envoys from several countries including member states of the European Union and the OIC began a two-day visit to Jammu and Kashmir on Wednesday to assess the ground situation in view of the efforts made to restore normalcy by strengthening democratically-elected local bodies.

This is third visit of foreign envoys to Jammu and Kashmir in last 18 months after the Centre withdrew the special status of the erstwhile state besides bifurcating it into two union territories by carving out Ladakh.

The significance of this visit was participation of four countries who are a part of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation which has been often used by Pakistan for propagating false narratives against India, officials said.

They said the visit provided the envoys an opportunity to interact and hear directly from the people and representatives on the functioning and empowerment of grass-root democratic institutions, devolution of power and developmental activities.

The envoys arrived here amid heightened security as shops and business establishment remained shut following a strike call given by separatists in most part of the city.

They were taken to Magam in central district of Budgam and given a traditional welcome where panchs and sarpanches had gathered to celebrate 'Block Diwas', a public outreach initiative organised by the union territory administration with the foreign dignitaries.

It was a free-flowing exchange of ideas by the delegation with the locals, the officials said.

Chairperson of DDC Budgam Nazir Ahmad, who interacted with the envoys, told reporters that he raised the need for the government to provide basic amenities like food, clothing shelter, electricity and good roads.

'Budgam is a downtrodden district which needs development. Our discussion was centered around it,' Ahmad added.

Later the envoys had a luncheon meeting with representatives of Municipal Committee, DDC and Block Development Council members who were in unison in sharing a view that democracy has taken stronger and deeper roots in Kashmir, paving way for an era of peaceful and inclusive development, officials said in Delhi.

They also sought assistance from foreign envoys to boost tourism and bring investments into Jammu and Kashmir for further job creation besides pitching for sharing of best practices and advanced technologies in the field of horticulture including apple cultivation, environment sustainability and women empowerment, the officials said.

The elected representatives unanimously conveyed that the 'historic' DDC elections was conducted in a peaceful, transparent and fair manner, they said.

The delegation had representatives from OIC member states Malaysia, Bangladesh, Senegal and Tajikistan.

The report of the OIC Secretary General on its activities submitted to the 47th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers last November had referred to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and said, 'The decision of the Indian government on 5 August 2019 towards changing the demographic and geographic composition of the territory, and the continuous blockade and restrictions together with human rights abuses, had awakened renewed efforts of the international community towards a resolution of the conflict.' However, India, without naming Pakistan, had said that it was 'regrettable that OIC continues to allow itself to be used by a certain country, which has an abominable record on religious tolerance, radicalism and persecution of minorities, to indulge in anti-India propaganda.' Other envoys included in the delegation were from France, the European Union, Brazil, Italy, Finland, Cuba, Chile, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Kyrgyzstan, Ireland, Ghana, Estonia, Bolivia, Malawi, Eritrea and Ivory Coast.

The visit came days after restrictions on Internet were withdrawn earlier this month and the speed was enhanced from existing 2G to 4G.

The envoys also visited the famous Hazratbal Shrine, the holiest and the only domed mosque in Srinagar.

They were received by the Imams of the shrine and were briefed on its historical significance as the holy relic of revered Prophet Mohammad is preserved in the mosque.

The historical mosque, dating back to 17th century, is an epitome of love and devotion of Muslims for the Prophet Moi-e-Muqqadas, sacred hair from his beard, is preserved here.

The delegation is scheduled to visit Jammu on Thursday where they are likely to meet the officials of the Union territory and call on Lt Governor Manoj Sinha.

Parts of Srinagar observed a shutdown to mark the arrival of the envoys' delegation to Jammu and Kashmir. Shops in Lal Chowk and surrounding areas of the city remained shut as authorities deployed extra security personnel to ensure that the visit of the envoys passes off without any incident.

However, the traffic was normal on the roads.

Senior Congress leader Saifuddin Soz said the visit by the envoys takes place almost every year and is a futile exercise as the government has no benefit from it.

'The envoys come here and enjoy the courtesies of the government and go back. Only some of them read the truth behind this exercise. Government of India has advantage of this exercise, it is a futile exercise. It would be better that the government opens a dialogue with the mainstream parties of Kashmir,' Soz said.

Hurriyat Conference led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said the visit of the envoys was a curated tour for misleading the world.

'A curated tour of foreign dignitaries to showcase 'normalcy' in the valley to the outside world is misleading. People's spontaneous strike, the only means of protest left to them, speaks volumes to the world of what people feel and want,' the amalgam said in a statement.

Last year, envoys from 17 nations, including the United States, had visited Jammu and Kashmir and the team also comprised ambassadors from Vietnam, South Korea, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco, Guyana, Argentina, Philippines, Norway, Maldives, Fiji, Togo, Bangladesh and Peru.

Immediately three months after the Centre withdrew special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated it into two union territories, a delegation of 23 EU MPs was taken on a two-day visit to assess the situation in the Union Territory by the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies, a Delhi-based think tank. PTI MIJ MPB SKL ZMN