Two non-descript NGOs run by shady managers flew 27 far-right European MPs to Delhi for what experts say, “controlling to conversation”. After meeting the Prime Minister and the Vice President, having lunch with NSA, dinner with Foreign Minister and meeting Kashmir managers in Srinagar, everybody is seeking details of the gains of an unprecedented diplomacy, Muhammad Younis reports
“It is a good occasion to get some news of what is happening,” Hermann Tertsch, a Spanish parliamentarian told reporters as the visiting European lawmakers were hurriedly escorted by cops to get into the awaiting Shikaras for a signature ride in the Dal lake. “We are (also) conscious that we are kept away from some people.”
Their transit from their bulletproof cars, parked on the Boulevard, into the Shikaras waiting in the lake was perhaps the only time when the visiting European Union Members of Parliament (MEP) from 11 countries (only 23 out of 27 came to Kashmir), had an option of talking to commoners outside their tight schedule. A bunch of news’ cameramen waited for nearly two hours on the lake shore to get a few clicks of the high profile visit. Caught between over-protective cops and dim light, even they had to struggle for a good shot.
Given Delhi’s blanket ban on visits of foreign journalists, diplomats and civil rights activists to Kashmir since August 5, when the Parliament abrogated special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the EU lawmakers visit was projected to be an ice-breaker. However, the ‘guided tour’ proved controversial and a public relations disaster. Group’s composition and the way the visit was organized dominated the debate, even in sections of the Delhi media.
The First Stop
The delegation’s first stop was Delhi for a detailed meeting with the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and later, the Vice President. Foreign Minister met them at dinner.
“PM Modi expressed the hope that (the MEPs) have a fruitful visit to various parts of the country, including Jammu & Kashmir,” an official statement said after the meeting. “Their visit to Jammu & 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.”
Earlier, they had a 30-minute meeting with National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, who briefed them on a “number of facts” to counter Pakistan’s “false propaganda”. He told them the restrictions on movement stand withdrawn; the landline and mobile telephony is resumed; the hospitals are functional even though the “terrorists were trying to disrupt a return to normalcy by targeting innocent civilians.” Besides, he gave them a detailed background on the “temporary” nature of Article 370.
In the same luncheon meeting that Doval hosted, there were some Kashmiri faces as well. Apart from BJP’s Khalid Jehangir, there were three former ministers; two of them from PDP, Muzaffar Hussain Beig, Syed Altaf Bukhari and Congress’s Usman Majeed. Later, the trio told reporters that they participated in their personal capacities. Their participation, however, is being seen as their possible importance in the “new Kashmir” that BJP may roll-out in the Union Territory (UT).
Soon after landing in Srinagar, their first meeting was with the top army commanders at the 15-Corps headquarters, led by Lt Gen KJS Dhillon. Jammu and Kashmir’s powerful Chief Secretary, BVR Subramanium also participated. ANI reported that they were briefed about Pakistan’s role in fuelling terrorism in the Kashmir valley. Nothing much is available about the meeting except a group photograph.
They later met some Sarpanches and recently elected Block Development Council (BDC) chiefs. What transpired in the Lalit Grand Hotel meeting and who were the participants is still not known. However, The Telegraph quoted an eyewitness saying that he could hardly recognise a (prominent) face when 50 to 60 people were interacting with the delegation in the hotel lawns.
“Lt Gen Dhillon was sipping tea while around 50 to 60 people in groups were simultaneously interacting with groups of the European MPs. It was all hotch potch, with no order,” the eyewitness told the newspaper. “It lasted no more than 30 minutes. Some people talked about unemployment but when one group tried to discuss Article 370, they were interrupted by some officials who gently took them to a side.”
Later in the evening, the delegation members met the governor and his advisers and, separately, with the Chief Secretary.
The Indian Express reported the hosts were carrying with them a 5-page Briefing notes and background on Kashmir highlighting that 91 percent of Kashmir is free for movement; the “threat posed by terrorist organisations” was key to holding part of mobile and internet connectivity despite the fact that 76 out of 95 telephone exchanges were functional; some preventive detentions are for local law and order issues; the hospitals witnessed 250 thousand patients in all these months.
“Lord Mountbatten accepted accession as unconditional and complete,” The Indian Express quoted the document saying. “Article 370 was not mandated by any multilateral body or agreement. Its existence guaranteed neither economic debt nor social justice.”
In between, came the Shikara ride when the media could actually see them walking on the boulevard. There were various selfie moments too.
Interestingly, their arrival coincided with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issuing a detailed statement. “We are extremely concerned that the population in Kashmir continues to be deprived of a wide range of human rights and we urge the Indian authorities to unlock the situation and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied,” PTI quoted Rupert Colville, the Commission spokesperson saying. “The undeclared curfew imposed by the authorities in the region was lifted from much of Jammu and Ladakh region within a few days, but is reportedly still in place in large parts of the Kashmir Valley, preventing the free movement of people, as well as hampering their ability to exercise their right to peaceful assembly, and restricting their rights to health, education and freedom of religion and belief.”
The spokesman also criticised the non-state actors. “We have also received reports of armed groups operating in Kashmir, threatening residents trying to carry out their normal business or attend school, as well as several allegations of violence against people who have not complied with the armed groups’ demands.” He added: “We have also received a number of allegations of torture and ill-treatment of people held in detention. These must be independently and impartially investigated. Torture is totally and unequivocally prohibited under international law.”
The delegation had very limited movement. Within a radius of three kilometres, the delegation moved between Srinagar’s two 5-star hotels and the main cantonment, in addition to their long drive to the airport. Part of the story, they were supposed to ignore, was within the same patch they spent a night in. They actually rowed in Shaikars around the same hotel that, after being converted into a special jail, holds Kashmir’s political class since August 5. Their venue of the meeting is separated from another designated jail just by a wall. They actually drove around four times from the road where Dr Abdullah, Kashmir’s five times Chief Minister is imprisoned under Public Safety Act.
The arrival, however, led to an instant strike across Kashmir. Even the flea market, that has literally been the only market open in uptown Srinagar, was deserted. The shops did not open for the routine 2-hours in the morning and the roads remained deserted for most of the day. This was despite an estimated 65000 students sat for their first paper in the secondary school examinations, the timing for which was rescheduled from 11 am to 12:30 pm, barely 12 hours ago.
The day witnessed a series of protests, some of which clashed with the police. Officials in Srinagar’s hospitals admitted they received six persons in injured condition.
Moments after they landed in Delhi, the composition of the group snowballed into a controversy. “Interestingly, 22 of the 27 MPs represent the right-wing or far-right parties in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia,” The Indian Express reported. “They are broadly anti-immigration in Italy, in favour of Brexit in the UK, and against migration and belong to Marine Le Pen’s party in France, and the far-right and anti-establishment Alternative für Deutschland ((AfD) in Germany.”
The Telegraph reported that six of its members were from France’s far-right Rassemblement Party, five were from Poland’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, four belonged to UK’s Brexit Party, and two were from Italy’s far-right Lega Party and two from Germany’s AfD. Besides, there were members from the Czech Republic’s centre-right Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People’s Party (known as KDU-ČSL), Vlaams Belang, a right-wing party in Belgium, and Spain’s far-right party VOX. The parties are also known for making Islamophobic remarks. British newspaper The Independent reported that delegation included Polish MEP, Ryszard Czarnecki, “who was sacked as an EU vice-president in 2018 for using an insult with Nazi connotations”.
Most of these parties are strongly anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, supremacist and racial in their own way, and at least one is completely orthodox believing in preventing women to work outside their homes. Of them, at least two, according to the website of The Print, had supported India’s decision to impose restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir.
India Today that scanned through Twitter profiles of 17 delegation members found most of them had one thing in common: opposition to radical Islam.
The ‘ice-breaking’ delegation met the Prime Minister and the NSA but was on private visit! Instead of foreign ministry, they actually were invited by a little known European NGO, WESTT (Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank) run by Madi (Madhu) Sharma, an “international business broker”, according to the investigations by the NDTV. Another unknown NGO International Institute For Non-Aligned Studies is reported to have sponsored the event.
Investigation by the website Scroll.in about the sponsoring NGO got into a different story. The Delhi-based Institute founded by Dr Govind Narain Srivastava (died 1999); “a scholar and journalist” (who founded New Delhi Times, termed by investigators as “a nearly invisible newspaper”) claims it has offices in New York, Geneva and Vienna to coordinate with the UN. Though its governing body consists of “parliamentarians, academicians, experts, diplomats and media persons”, nobody is identified except the dead man. The Institute shares its address with the Srivastava Group, apparently a business entity, that was in the news in Europe after Politico revealed that its online presence “overlaps” that of EP Today, a website that, “targets members of the European Parliament and other policymakers with media content that is critical of Pakistan and drawn largely from a Russian media outlet known for disinformation”.
“The Geneva number listed on the company website did not exist, and the Edmonton, Canada address listed as an office of the group also turned out to be an address of a Punjabi wedding and event management business called In Vogue Weddings and Events,” investigations by The Wire website revealed.
Interestingly, Madi Sharma writes also. Her last article was published on September 14, titled: Why demolishing Article 370 is both a victory and a challenge for Kashmiri women, according to Newslaundry.
The European NGO, according to India Today is six year old, has no member accredited with the EU, has Madi group as its lone sponsor. “The NGO claims to have members or representation in multiple countries, including Belgium, Croatia, France, Poland, the UK, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Turkey,” The India Today reported. “But records show that the organization has a small team of five people, only one of them engaged full time and the rest are located in different areas globally engaging on volunteer basis.” As the media group visited NGOs Nottingham registered address, an “occupant came out, saying no NGO operates out of his home”.
The revelations created an embarrassing situation as people from the political class started asking uncomfortable questions. The general query was that if India has taken a stand against involving a third party, why a third party assessment of Kashmir situation is being done. There were no answers to the question that how can India trust a hitherto unknown NGO with such a high profile visit to a sensitive place and not its own foreign ministry?
Even BJP’s own MP Subramanian Swamy sided with the opposition. “I am surprised that the MEA has arranged for European Union MPs in their private capacity (not EU’s official delegation) to visit Kashmir area of J&K,” Swamy said. “This is a perversion of our national policy. I urge the Government cancel this visit because it is immoral.”
“The government embarked on an ill-advised public relations’ exercise, sponsoring individuals with questionable credentials…This was a diplomatic disaster which ended up internationalising what is essentially our internal issue,” Congress spokesman Anand Sharma said. “This is a national embarrassment. Those responsible should be held accountable.”
Adhir Chowdhury, Congress’s leader in Lok Sabha, termed it paradoxical that Modi “inherits colonial hangover” and seeks “accreditation certificate” to his Kashmir policy from EU lawmakers. “May I urge upon the government to send an all party delegation to J&K to take stock of the situation,” he added.
“MPs from Europe are welcome to go on a guided tour of Jammu & Kashmir while Indian MPs are banned & denied entry,” tweeted Rahul Gandhi. “There is something very wrong with that.” Gandhi had flown to Srinagar in August but was sent back from the airport.
Communist leader Brinda Karat alleged Modi wanted to show “everything is normal” in Kashmir. “BJP is trying to paint a picture to the world that everything is normal in Kashmir and they hope these kind of delegations will send that message,” Al-Jazeera quoted her saying. “There is nothing normal about Kashmir.”
“When the Kashmiri politicians are detained and the Opposition leaders are sent back from Srinagar airport, how is that the Modi-Shah regime is facilitating the EU politicians,” CPI’s D Raja said. “The government needs to explain why they were invited. It is clear that they are defensive in the face of world outrage on human rights violations in the State.”
Governor (now former) Satya Pal Malik’s administration in Srinagar stopped members of the parliament including Rahul Gandhi, D Raja, Sitaram Yechury and Azad at the Srinagar airport and sent them back. Two of them got permissions from the Supreme Court for their Kashmir visits.
“Who are they? Why should we show them Kashmir?” asked MP, Asaduddin Owaisi, insisting the whole world knows what is happening in Kashmir. “They are not an official delegation, but they are people who hate Islam and Muslims and love Adolf Hitler. Many MPs among them are fascists. What is the message you are giving to Kashmiri people?”
Though the local political class is in jail, there was lot of brick-batting. Iltija Mufti, who handles her mother Mehbooba Mufti’s twitter handle, termed the visit a “curated sanitised picnic to Kashmir” and Modi government’s indulgence in “normalcy acrobatics”. She asked if 28 European Parliament members are allowed to visit Kashmir, “why the same courtesy can’t be extended to American senators”.
NC termed the event a “PR exercise”. Its statement read: “(It is) clearly a public relation exercise … it is ironical that these EU law makers are visiting the Valley when the state’s leaders, including the former Chief Ministers, have been incarcerated for nearly three months now and hundreds of others are in jail across the country.”
While the sections of the media and India’s entire opposition was discussing the shady PR exercise, Chris Davies, UK’s Liberal Democrat added fuel to the fire by revealing that he was excluded from the delegation the last moment after he demanded to interact with the people in Kashmir.
“I am not prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government and pretend that all is well,” Davies was quoted telling BBC’s Gaggan Sabherwal. “It is very clear that democratic principles are being subverted in Kashmir, and the world needs to start taking notice.”
Davies, who claimed many Kashmir-origin voters are part of his constituency, said the invitation was withdrawn with little explanation after he insisted “he must be free to talk with local people, unaccompanied by police or security forces, and invite journalists without interrogation”.
“What is it that the Indian government has to hide? Why will it not give journalists and visiting politician’s free access to speak with local people? I represent thousands of people in the North West of England who have family associations with Kashmir. They want to be able to speak freely to their relatives. They want their voices to be heard,” Davies was quoted saying. “I fear that this is not going to end well. Governments do not win the hearts and minds of people by taking away their freedoms and imposing military rule. The risk of a violent backlash is all too evident.”
Interestingly, the EU’s Delhi office distanced itself from the visit, saying the lawmakers were travelling in their “personal capacity”. UK MEP Theresa Griffin tweeted that the group of “far-right” MEPs were not an “official” delegation and “didn’t speak for the European Parliament”.
In October, the European Parliament had debated Kashmir situation and expressed its concern over the “restrictions on fundamental freedoms”. This led External Affairs’ Minister S Jaishankar to visit Finland, the current EU chair.
Despite the entire controversy, some of the delegation members did speak.
“It (abrogation of Article 370) is India’s internal matter as Kashmir is its part,” Czech Republic’s Tomas Zdechovsky was quoted by PTI saying in Delhi. “It is the prerogative of the Indian government to take internal decisions. We are with India on this.” In October, Zdechovsky had written a piece in the European Parliament’s official publication saying abrogation of Article 370 will help in rooting out several terrorist organisations operating in Kashmir.
“Now, if Pakistan and India make a new attempt to normalise their relations, I believe that the European community should, if desired, act as an honest broker and mediator,” Bernhard Zimniok, an AfD member told The Indian Express. “Under no circumstances should we take sides, as this would be counterproductive for any rapprochement process.” He asserted: “Should India and Pakistan also seek a solution to the deadlock, I and my colleagues from the AfD, who I was travelling with, will promote and deploy for it. If both sides are keen in incorporating us a neutral mediator, we must not stand aside.”
“We are here looking for facts (about the Kashmir situation),” Hermann Tertsch (Spain) told the reporters at the lake shores in Srinagar. “It is an organised trip…We are here to get some news about what is happening.” He said he lacks enough of facts to draw a “conclusion” on the Kashmir situation as “some people” were being kept away from them.
French lawmaker Thierry Mariani told Quartz that Kashmir was in “an extremely tense” situation. “But the representatives we met were pretty positive in terms of, they didn’t know if it would change things… but since the situation in the past was catastrophic for them anyways, they were hopeful and were waiting to see how things could evolve,” he was quoted saying.
Officials said the lawmakers had to spend part of the second day in Srinagar but were flown out early morning. At the Srinagar airport, they spoke to a select media.
“We have not come here for political interference. We are here for fact-finding,” one of the 23 lawmakers was quoted saying. “We did not get enough time to meet a large number of people in the Valley. But a short visit better than no visit,” another member said.
“If we talk about Article 370, it is India’s internal matter,” French lawmaker Henri Malosse said. “What concerns us is terrorism which is a global menace and we should stand with India in fighting it. There was an unfortunate incident of killing of five innocent labourers by terrorists. We condemn it.”
“We belong to a place Europe which is peaceful after years of fighting,” Newton Dunn from UK said. “And we want to see India becoming the most peaceful country in the world. And for that, we need to stand by India in its fight against global terrorism. This visit has been an eye-opener and we would definitely advocate what we have seen on ground zero.”
Polish member, Ryszard Czarnecki, even said the international media coverage seemed biased. “Terrorists can destroy a country. I have been to Afghanistan and Syria and I have seen what terrorism has done,” Thierry Mariani said. “We stand with India in its fight against terrorism.”
AfD’s Nicolaus Fest gave a somehow interesting take to ANI: “I think if you let in European Union parliamentarians, you should also let in opposition politicians from India. So there is some kind of dis-balance, the government should somehow address it.”
Some of these lawmakers said they were interested in the region. At least one of them plans to visit Pakistan!
So what are the takeaways?
Reacting to the barrage of criticism, the MEA said the group was facilitated after the government realised that the delegation could serve India’s foreign policy objectives. Ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said similar visits in future could be considered depending on three specific factors: “content, intent and ground realities”. He said the visit was not “internalization” but was a “familiarization” trip.
“Many of them had expressed desire that they would like to know how terrorism is affecting India, how it has been a challenge for India,” Kumar was quoted saying. “Their statement after the visit to Kashmir reflected that they got understanding of the situation on the ground and got to know how terrorism possesses threat to India.”