A man watches a television news channel broadcasting news of a European parliament delegation during their visit to Indian-administered Kashmir, in New Delhi on October 29, 2019. (Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images)


by AMIT ROY

A LIBERAL DEMOCRAT MEP (Member of the European Par­liament), who has just returned
from a trip to Kashmir, appears to have rejected negative portra­yal of the policies of India’s
prime minister Narendra Modi.

Bill Newton Dunn, who repre­sents the East Midlands, told the BBC’s Today programme that hav­ing spoken to a number of people, he had concluded that the “gen­eral feeling was Delhi is trying to help Kashmir”.

At one point, the programme’s presenter Mishal Husain express­ed her exasperation with Newton Dunn that he had gone to Kash­mir with 22 other MEPs on a trip where they had to be escorted by the Indian Army.

“It seems as though you don’t have much of a problem with the restrictions under which this visit took place?” she said.

“Well, I think I understand them,” he responded.

“When there is killing and ten­sions and civil unrest, I think Modi, the prime minister in Delhi, and the army are trying to calm things down. So, the shops are now open, the internet is open, the telephones are open, things are easing off and getting better.
But there is still a long way to go.”

Last Friday (1), Husain had in­terviewed Iltija Mufti, daughter of Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Kashmir who is cur­rently under detention. Mufti said that Modi’s govern­
ment “has lost all moral authority”.

“My mother is extremely dis­tressed about the unilateral and illegal decision that the gover-n­ment of India has imposed on the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” said Mufti. “And she thinks it’s terribly unfair that our rights, our wishes, our consent has been vio­lated and it is something that the entire country is gloating about and getting some sort of sadistic
pleasure, I would say.”

The government’s point of view was put forward by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesman Nalin Kohli, who was asked for “the justification for keeping Kashmir
in a state of partial lockdown”.

Kohli responded: “Life has star­ted coming back to normalcy. Tel­ephones lines in terms of land­lines were first restored.

“Internet services are still to be reviewed in terms of whether it should be permitted or not imme­diately, because we know that ter­rorists tend to use those networks through the internet and social media which obviously the state has a responsibility to protect the
lives of its citizens.

“With regard to political leaders the vast majority of people who were taken in preventive custody, they have been released since then. Now it would be down to maybe 200 or 300 as compared to over 1,000 in August.”

Newton Dunn appeared on the programme last Sunday (3) when he was reminded by Husain: “An­other MEP Chris Davies (who pre­sents North­West England), who was initially due to go on this trip, said his invitation was rescinded after he sought unfettered access
to go anywhere and speak to anyone he wanted.”

Newton Dunn made it clear he saw the Kashmir situation rather differently: “Well, the trouble with Chris … I know him well, he is my pal …but you can’t do that in such
a tense area. The very night we were there six young Bangladeshi workers were lined up and shot. So security is still very tense. Of course, it would be nice to talk to everybody but you can’t do that.”

He was lyrical in describing the beauty of Kashmir: “Well, [it is] a beautiful country. It’s a little bit like Switzerland in the Himalayas: wonderful scenery, trees, lakes but a very troubled difficult thing and a real hotspot.

“What I hadn’t realised before was Kashmir is partly occupied by China, partly by India and partly by Pakistan. So three major coun­tries all competing for this beauti­ful lush place where the soil is rich. So a lot of tension – a poten­tial world trouble spot.”

He talked of one meeting that the MEPs had in Kashmir: “We were surrounded by security, vast numbers of soldiers protecting us, but I think also keeping order in the street, so that restricted us a bit. But the shops were open part of the time, and we had one very good session in the grounds of a big hotel when civic society were invited to come and meet us.

“And about 200 shopkeepers, teachers, lawyers, businessmen, all sorts of people (came)…we could talk to whoever we liked… it was very much in the open air and there was nobody listening with microphones… I think they were real people.”

Newton Dunn added: “The teachers said they got very excited about their school, they were tell­ing me (about) the kids.

“One businessman said ‘the re­al problem is Delhi is trying to help us but there is a vast amount of corruption and the money from Delhi doesn’t reach us. It goes off into sticky hands somewhere.’

“But I think the general feeling was Delhi is trying to help Kash­mir. It’s had a very hard time for 60, 70 years. [People said] ‘They [Dehi] want to make things better. But we are waiting to see will it actually work or not.’”

Asked by Husain whether the MEPs had asked to talk to opposi­tion leaders in detention, such as two former chief ministers of Jam­mu & Kashmir, Newton Dunn said they had. But “the general in charge of the army whom we met said, ‘I am not going to allow it,’ so
there was no possibility to argue with him. I would love to go back, but it’s not possible. We were lucky to even get there – we were the first parliamentarians. We were there for just 24 hours. It was something but not nearly enough.”

This point was reiterated by Newton Dunn when he spoke to Eastern Eye: “We didn’t get to talk to many ordinary people because we were surrounded by the army. I asked the general, ‘Is it neces­sary?’ and he said, ‘Yes, if we lose one of you that would be a major
incident. We don’t want to do that. So we are taking every precaution.’”

However, he said of the meeting with the 200 civic members of so­ciety: “I got a feeling that they were optimistic and hopeful that the change that Modi had made might make life better for them.”

The MEPs had a meeting with the Indian prime minister in Del­hi, which Newton Dunn said had gone “very nicely”.

“He was very proud that after his first term, he had been ree­lected. He said proudly that 600 million people had voted which one cannot but be impressed by. More women than ever before (had voted), more women MPs than ever before (had been elect­ed). He said, ‘My ambition for the next five years is a roof for every Indian, electricity for every Indian
and clean drinking water for every Indian.’ And these are very good goals. He is trying hard, I think.

“But, of course, he has got a lot of opposition. It’s very difficult when you have a state of emergency since August, where a lot of peo­ple in Kashmir have been locked up or prevented from carrying out their normal business. It’s very dif­ficult for him but having started, I hope he succeeds in finishing.”

Newton Dunn denied he was doing propaganda for Modi: “I am a seeker after truth.”