India takes foreign diplomats on tour of disputed Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Diplomats from more than 20 countries visited Indian-controlled Kashmir on Wednesday as residents of the disputed region’s main city closed their shops and businesses in a sign of protest.

This is the third visit by a group of foreign envoys stationed in India’s capital since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status in August 2019 and enforced the change with a harsh crackdown that for a time included a complete communications blackout.

The diplomats were driven by Indian authorities in a motorcade amid tight security from the airport in Srinagar city to the western town of Magam, where they met officials and a select group of recently elected village councilors. Shops and businesses in Magam also shut in protest.

“Will their visit mean anything in our lives? Is there any hope that they will be able to find how our lives are controlled and intervene?” said Shabir Ahmed, a laborer in Magam. “In any case, I lost my wages today because their visit forced us to close our businesses.”

The diplomats were also scheduled to meet a group of civil society members, traders, pro-India politicians and journalists. They were scheduled to fly to Jammu, the region’s winter capital, on Thursday and return to New Delhi after spending a day there.

Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety. Rebels in the region have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989.

Before the 2019 change, Indian-controlled Kashmir was a state and had a semi-autonomous status that granted its natives special rights in land ownership and jobs.

In anticipation of a backlash against the removal of that autonomy, Indian authorities sent extra troops into the highly militarized region and launched a harsh security clampdown that cut off phone and internet access, shuttered schools and left hundreds of thousands without jobs. Many of the restrictions have since been eased, but India’s security presence in the region remains high.

Outside access to the region remains limited, with no foreign journalists allowed except ones who are taken on government-guided trips.

Ahead of Wednesday’s arrival of the diplomats, authorities removed at least half a dozen security bunkers in Srinagar and its outskirts. Days before, India also lifted a ban on high speed internet on mobile devices, ending the longest internet restrictions in a democracy.

Many Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country. India has labeled the rebel movement terrorism. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict.

Wednesday’s delegation comprised envoys from Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Eritrea, Estonia, Finland, France, Ghana, Ireland, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, Malawi, Malaysia, Netherlands, Portugal, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Tajikistan and the European Union.

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