Srinagar, February 19:
Following a visit to Jammu and Kashmir by a group of 24 envoys, the European Union (EU) on Friday called for more political and economic steps, including the early holding of assembly elections, to restore normalcy in the region.
EU ambassador Ugo Astuto and envoys of ten EU states, including key players such as France, Italy and the Netherlands, were part of the third group of heads of foreign missions to travel to Jammu and Kashmir since January 2020. The visit was aimed at allowing the diplomats to make an assessment of the ground situation.
While taking note of recent steps by the Indian government, such as holding of elections to the District Development Councils (DDCs) in November-December and resumption of 4G internet services earlier this month, an EU official said: “We look forward to a number of other important steps to be taken in the political and economic sphere, including the early organisation of the legislative assembly elections.”
“The right to freedom of expression online and offline is a key value for all democracies,” the official said.
The visit by the envoys provided an opportunity to “see the situation on the ground and interact with local interlocutors as part of the EU’s outreach to all stakeholders”. The official added: “We look forward to continuing our dialogue with India on this.”
Besides the EU envoy, the ambassadors of Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden were part of the group. The remaining envoys were from countries in different geographical regions, such as Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ghana, Kyrgyz Republic and Malaysia.
The Union government has said elections will be held in Jammu and Kashmir following the completion of the delimitation process, which is underway. In his Independence Day address last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said: “As soon as the delimitation process is over, there will be elections in the future so that the union territory has its own government, which will undertake development work with renewed vigour.”
Other diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two-day visit, which ended on Thursday, was too brief to make a comprehensive assessment though there were indications of a relative improvement in the situation.
The diplomats also said most of the grassroots politicians, civil society representatives and businesspeople they had interacted with had stressed the need for more steps to ensure social and economic development, investments and creation of jobs.
EU ambassador Astuto was also part of the second group of envoys that had visited Jammu and Kashmir in February 2020, following the government’s decision in August 2019 to scrap the region’s special status and split it into two union territories. India has said the move was aimed at improving governance, boosting development and tackling cross-border terrorism.
However, the lockdown of Kashmir, snapping of internet connectivity and widespread detention of political leaders in 2019 had been criticised by the EU and other countries.
The external affairs ministry said the latest visit allowed the envoys to witness, first-hand, Kashmir’s “march on the path of inclusive development and the dynamism in the grassroots democratic institutions”. The envoys visited Srinagar, Budgam and Jammu and were also briefed on the security situation by senior army officials.