A delegation of 27 Members of European Parliament (MEPs) are currently touring Kashmir, starting October 29, after meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This visit has already sparked a huge controversy, as it is for the first time that a foreign delegation has been allowed to visit Kashmir since Article 370 was abrogated on August 5. Additionally, the visit is set to conclude on October 30, which is just one day before Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh become union territories.
A statement issued by Prime Minister's Office stated:
Their visit to Jammu and Kashmir should give the delegation a better understanding of the cultural and religious diversity of the region of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh; apart from giving them a clear view of the development and governance priorities of the region.
Here are five questions that covers everything about the issue.
What is the controversy surrounding this visit?
Being the first visit by foreign leaders, members of the Indian opposition have attacked the government's move and called it a hypocrisy. The opposition claims that this move goes against the government's own stand on Kashmir as being a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.
They also called the government out on their reluctance to allow the opposition to Kashmir, but permit such visits by international leaders so sportingly.
Who is part of the delegation of MEPs?
The delegation consists of MEPs that are from various countries across the European Union - Poland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom (UK), Belgium, the Czech Republic and Spain.
However, the Telegraph has pointed out around 22 of the 27 members were from far-right and eurosceptic parties, including the Alternative For Germany party, the Brexit Party of the UK and Marine Le Pen's National Rally Party of France.
They met the PM and reportedly the National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, in New Delhi. In Kashmir, sources say that the Indian Army briefed them on the security situation of the state and the role of the "neighbours" in spreading terrorism. The delegation also interacted with local women, business and youth groups.
Later, the MEPs gave a statement that they support Modi's move on Kashmir, endorsed Kashmir as a place for tourism and condemned Pakistan for promoting terrorism and its treatment of Christians, along with denouncing any reference to them being Nazis. This can be read here.
Is this visit official?
Reports tend to suggest that the visit by MEPs is not official, implying that they are doing so in their personal capacity and are not representing their positions of European lawmakers.
A UK MEP from the Labour Party has stated that this visit is not official.
This was confirmed by the Director-General of Communications of the European Parliament to the Telegraph. The New York Times stated that while many European embassies were aware of the visit, others were kept in the dark and were only appraised of their visits through media reports.
Who has organised this visit?
The organisation of the trip was done by one Madi Sharma, which was revealed by an UK MP Chris Davies. Davies was invited to join the MEP delegation, but his invite was withdrawn after he asked for unrestricted access to speak to whomsoever he pleased and his Kashmir visit being without a chaperone. The withdrawal of his invitation has been covered by various Indian media outlets.
Sharma's name came up in the e-mail where she extended the invitation to visit India to Davies. She promised a high-level meeting with Modi, in addition to a fully-funded stay in India, along with the visit to Kashmir.
Sharma can be seen in this picture below, which is also a thumbnail to a post on the PMO's website.
Sharma describes herself as a social entrepreneur and an "international business broker" as described by here Twitter handle @madisharma1 and on her website. Questions are being raised about Sharma's credibility and how she managed to offer a 'VIP meeting' with the PM if the visit was not official.
Newslaundry written more about Sharma's past ventures.
Is this the first attempt by a foreign leader to visit Kashmir?
While the visit by the MEPs may be the first visit by foreign lawmakers since August 5, an attempt was made earlier to make this happen. In early October, the Government of India reportedly denied permission to United States Senator Chris Van Hollen of the Democratic Party to visit Kashmir to examine the situation on the ground.
Van Hollen has been among a critic of the government's move on abrogating Article 370, which can be read here.