NEW DELHI - A group of foreign diplomats based in New Delhi visited Indian Kashmir on Thursday for the first time after India scrapped the region’s special status five months ago.
The visit to the troubled region comes as New Delhi says normalcy is returning to the region, where a strict clampdown imposed in August has been partially eased, but where hundreds still remain in detention and the internet continues to be shut down.
European Union envoys declined an invitation, apparently because the visit did not include meetings with three former chief ministers, who continue to be in detention and whose parties dominated Kashmiri politics.
The diplomats from more than a dozen countries, including the U.S., were driven in a motorcade from the airport amid tight security. Foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said they met several political leaders, military officials, members of civil society and local journalists. These are usually selected by Indian officials.
"The objective of the visit was for the envoys to see first-hand the efforts which have been made by government to normalize the situation," according to Kumar.
The government’s diplomatic outreach is seen as an effort to blunt criticism for not allowing outsiders to visit the region to assess the situation since August when it deployed thousands of additional troops, arrested hundreds and imposed a strict curfew and clamped down on communications, raising concerns about human rights in its only Muslim majority region.
India said its actions were necessary to end terrorism that has killed tens of thousands since a separatist insurgency led by Islamic militant groups erupted in the state three decades ago.
Although access for diplomats, rights activists and foreign journalists to Kashmir has always been controlled, India has further restricted travel to the region for both foreigners and Indian opposition leaders.
Opposition parties criticized the government for not allowing their leaders to visit the region while taking diplomats on what they called a "guided tour."
"Essentially, the government wants to demonstrate that everything is normal in Kashmir, which is far from reality," said Congress Party leader Manish Tewari.
In addition to U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Juster, the diplomats who visited Kashmir represented Norway, Vietnam, South Korea, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and Maldives.
Wajahat Habibullah, a former government bureaucrat, questioned why a diplomatic delegation needed to be taken around by the government. "The foreign diplomats should be allowed to see what they want to see, not necessarily see only what the government wants them to see," he said.
Habibullah, who has visited Kashmir twice since August as part of the "Concerned Citizens Group," recalls being "surrounded by policemen - and that is hardly the way one expects to visit one’s own country."
Analysts say the visit comes as Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces a heightened criticism about the human rights situation in Kashmir as well as a recent citizenship law passed by his government that has been slammed as anti-Muslim and triggered nationwide protests.
"It's all about trying to improve the optics," says Manoj Joshi, a foreign affairs analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. "Around the world, the government’s handling of the domestic situation has been getting huge amount of negative attention."