RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The “private” visit of 24 predominantly right-wing European Union parliamentarians to Kashmir was planned and largely executed at the direction of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval with the blessings of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Office, two well-placed government sources told this reporter.
This visit, a BJP leader said, was only the first of several such proposed visits to Kashmir.
At the surface, the visit was orchestrated to look like it was organised by a private British citizen called Madi Sharma, founder of the Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT), and supposedly paid for by another Indian think tank called the International Institute of Non-Aligned Studies, according to an invitation to sent to British politician Chris Davies.
In reality, Indian officials said the visit was a carefully choreographed junket to push back against a perceived “liberal bias” of much of the international community’s reception of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to scrap Article 370 of the Constitution (which granted Kashmir special status), blanket the region with thousands of troopers, and arrest large numbers of civilians including several prominent politicians. A Reuters report dated September 12 has put the number of arrests at at least 3800.
While India’s foreign minister Dr S Jaishankar was in the loop, officials in the Ministry of External Affairs were largely un-involved in the visit, these sources said. A third source pushed back at this characterisation, stating that Jaishankar had floated the idea of bringing members of the European Parliament to Kashmir when he visited Brussels on August 30 this year.
“The NSA has no presence in Europe, so the MEA would have to have been involved,” this source said. Yet, the Indian government’s decision to use Madi Sharma and her NGO — who clearly stated she was organising a “prestigious VIP meeting with the Prime Minister of India” in her email to EU parliamentarians — suggests much of the outreach was handled by Ajit Doval and the Prime Minister’s Office, rather than Indian diplomats.
The purpose of this delegation, the sources said, was to cultivate voices to “shout back” at critics of the Modi government’s Kashmir policy. The fact that some of these voices belonged to xenophobic, Islamophic and anti-Semitic European politicians, a source in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said, was largely irrelevant.
In August 2017 for instance, Polish MEP, Bogdan Rzonca — who is part of the delegation — tweeted, “I wonder why there are so many Jews among those performing abortions, despite the Holocaust.” Rzonca subsequently apologised for the remark.
Amongst the 24 MEPs who finally boarded a plane to Delhi, are representatives of the UK’s Brexit Party, France’s National Rally, Poland’s far-right The Law and Justice (PiS) party, and representatives of Italy’s Lega Nord. The Italian delegation also has representatives from Forza Italia and the social-democrat Democratic party.
Senior BJP leaders appeared unconcerned that courting such controversial supporters could chip away at India’s image — carefully crafted over decades of diplomacy — as a pluralistic, diverse, democracy.
“Liberal biases are strong. We need to catch some low hanging fruits. Western media has a bias. It cannot worsen further. We have nothing to lose,” said the BJP leader on conditions of anonymity. The government is clear that the ‘coordinated tour’ is a first among several regardless of the political storm.
“We should continue doing such efforts. We have to give a perspective to the right people who matter without having any expectations. Only cumulative efforts will lead to positive outcomes,” another BJP leader said.
The decision to orchestrate this private visit of MEPs, government officials said, was sparked by need to push back against what they characterised as “robust lobbying” by European politicians of Pakistani origin.
“The Pakistanis have Labour by the balls,” said one official, in an attempt to explain why none of the United Kingdom’s mainstream Tory or Labour parties sent a representative. In a press note shared with HuffPost India, the office of Chris Davies of the UK’s Liberal Democrats said he had initially agreed to come, but his invitation was rescinded when he insisted he be accompanied by independent journalists.
“From the very first moment the visit sounded to me like a PR stunt intended to bolster Narendra Modi,” Davies said in the statement circulated by his office. “I think the actions of the government of India in Kashmir are betraying the best principles of a great democracy, and I believe the less notice that the rest of the world pays to the situation the more pleased they will be.”
“Davies wanted to meet the separatists,” claimed a BJP leader dismissing Davies’ absence as inconsequential.
Many of the MEPs who agreed to come, another official said, came from countries where small and dispersed Pakistani expatriate populations are not a solid voter block.
Ultimately, a BJP leader admitted, that the primary purpose of the visit was not to convince the international community, as much as to give the BJP’s domestic audience the impression that foreigner leaders supported Prime Minister Modi’s decision to abrogate Article 370.