Disinformation

Far-right European politicians help India push an image of normalcy in isolated Kashmir

A tightly controlled October visit set a precedent for how India wants the world to view the situation in the restive state

Photo: Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Last October, nearly two dozen members of the European Parliament were taken on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Indian-administered side of the disputed region of Kashmir. It was the first time foreign nationals had been allowed into Jammu and Kashmir since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped India’s only Muslim-majority state of the special status it had enjoyed for more than 70 years, two months earlier. 

After winning a second term in office in April 2019, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led administration moved fast to consolidate its Hindu nationalist agenda. On August 5, the government abrogated Article 370 of India’s constitution, which gave Kashmir the ability to formulate its own laws on all matters but defense, communications and foreign affairs. 

While this legal maneuver was executed, Kashmir was locked down tight. Overnight, hundreds of political leaders were placed under house arrest. Landline, cellphone and internet connections were severed. Businesses ground to a halt, shops were shuttered and schools closed. The most militarized zone on the planet turned into a prison, filled with seven million people.

At the same time, the Indian government blocked the entry of outsiders to the state. On October 3, U.S. Senator Chris van Hollen’s request to visit Srinagar – Kashmir’s largest city – as part of a delegation to observe conditions there was declined. Foreign correspondents were also barred, leaving much of the international media’s reporting to be done by local journalists, who put their stories on USB sticks and gave them to those leaving Kashmir. Even leaders of India’s opposition parties were denied entry.

News that a group of MEPs from Italy, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland had been allowed to enter Kashmir sparked intense public scrutiny. While details of the visit were sketchy, almost all of the group’s members belonged to the right and far-right of the European political spectrum. They were also not visiting Kashmir in any official capacity, but as VIP guests. The Delegation of the European Union to India in New Delhi denied any involvement with the trip.

“You had a situation in which the leader of India’s opposition party was turned back from the airport,” said Altaf Hussain, a veteran Kashmiri journalist and former BBC North India correspondent. “At the same time, foreign politicians were being allowed in – their schedule was set in Delhi and they were taken through Kashmir in a highly orchestrated fashion. Everyone here saw the trip for what it was: a government-managed public relations exercise.”

The visit was covered favorably by most of the Indian media. “Govt signals shift in stand, allows MEPs to visit Srinagar,” said one headline published in The Hindu newspaper. The story did, however, mention the collective political outlook of the visitors. The group included representatives of Italy’s Forza Italia, France’s Rassemblement National, Poland’s Law and Justice party, Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AFD) and the UK’s Brexit Party. 

Invites and agendas

The invitations to the MEPs were sent out by a woman named Madi Sharma and the trip was sponsored by a think tank named the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies. Sharma, who is also known as Madhu, is a British member of an EU advisory body named the European Economic and Social Committee. She is also president of an organization called the Women’s Eco-Nomic and Social Think Tank (WESTT). This body claims to be “a leading women’s organization with global dimensions, focusing on the economic, environmental and social development of women.”

Sharma paints herself as a successful entrepreneur. In 2001, she founded a now-defunct company named Original Eastern Foods Ltd, which sold Indian snacks. At its peak, the annual turnover of the business stood at £200,000. According to Companies House in the UK, she is listed as the director of Madi Limited. She is also the co-author of a self-published book titled “Madi – No Excuses.” Her website sells commitment beads, the profits from which are purportedly used to help support exiled Tibetan women.

Sharma’s website says little about what she actually does, but mentions a number of companies and social enterprises that she runs. They include a consultancy named Madi Magnesium and an import/export business called The Ethnic Trail. On the website of an organization named the Women Economic Forum, she is described as the leader of the Madi Group and WESTT. 

Last year, Sharma was identified in a report by the Brussels-based NGO EU Disinfo Lab, which examined a global grid of 265 fake websites and think tanks managed by an “Indian influence network” focused on shaping decision-making in Europe. According to the document, the network targeted MEPs with content that served Indian geopolitical interests, covering events and demonstrations criticizing Pakistan’s role in the Kashmir conflict, via plagiarism, syndication and republication of propaganda pieces and dubious articles from sources including Russia’s RT.

The network includes news sites like EP Times, which is aimed at members of the European Parliament, the Times of Geneva and the weekly newspaper New Delhi Times. It also comprises NGOs and think tanks such as the European Organization for Pakistani Minorities and the Pakistani Women’s Human Rights Organization. It operates across 65 countries and has been traced back to a New Delhi-based company named the Srivastava Group, which also runs the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies. 

Sharma has written for EP Today and is named as EU correspondent of New Delhi Times.

Many of the websites were found to use the names of defunct publications, in order to provide a veneer of credibility. For example, one of the sites is named Manchester Times. Its “About Us” section uses text copied from a Wikipedia entry for a UK-based newspaper of the same name, which last published in 1922.

There is no evidence linking any of these websites with the Indian government.

The skeptic

One of the people invited to travel to Kashmir was Chris Davies, a member of the UK’s Liberal Democrats, who represents North West England in the European Parliament. Sharma wrote to Davies saying that she was organizing “a prestigious VIP meeting with the Prime Minister of India, His Excellency Narendra Modi,” who had won “a landslide victory in the recent elections” and was “planning to continue on his path of growth and development for India, the country and its people.” 

The Prime Minister “would like to meet influential decision-makers from the European Union,” the invitation stressed. 

The “draft agenda” outlined a trip of breakneck speed. MEPs would arrive in Delhi on October 27, just in time for Diwali, “the Hindu festival of lights.” They would meet Modi the following day, then visit Kashmir on October 29. The group would hold a press conference on October 30, and depart on the same day. 

In an email to Coda Story, Davies said he was interested in visiting Kashmir because tens of thousands of his constituents are of Kashmiri heritage, and many have relatives there. But, he added, Sharma’s email did not inspire confidence. He thought the visit sounded like a PR junket, designed to present an image of peace and normalcy in Kashmir. 

Davies told Sharma that he wanted to visit Kashmir, but only if he was able to move around freely, without hindrance from security forces. Sharma replied, saying that, given the presence of “armed groups” in the region, such concessions would compromise his safety. Davies invited Sharma to a meeting to discuss the visit further. Sharma cancelled the meeting and the invitation was rescinded. Davies later tweeted his concerns about the trip.

Sharma did not respond to questions sent via email by Coda Story.

The Kashmir trip follows an emerging pattern of right-leaning European parliamentarians undertaking controversial trips to areas experiencing conflict or unrest. Last year, a delegation of MEPs, all belonging to Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, traveled to Damascus to meet with Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad. One of the MEPs, Thierry Mariani, was also on the Kashmir trip. 

The visit to Kashmir

Sharma travelled to India with 27 MEPs on 28 October. Six were from Rassemblement National, five from Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice party, four from the UK’s Brexit Party. Two each came from the far-right Lega party of Italy, the anti-immigrant Alternative fur Deutschland and the Czech Republic’s conservative KDU-CSL. The rightwing populist parties Vlaams Belang of Belgium, Vox of Spain and Italy’s Forza Italia sent one each. 

All of these parties share well-documented anti-immigration positions, many clearly aimed against Muslims. 

On October 28, the group met Modi at his official residence in Delhi. There, its members discussed India’s relationship with the EU, the ease of doing business in India and the need for international cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

After a photoshoot that was widely circulated on social media, the MEPs had lunch with India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. In the evening, they met with Vice President Venkaiah Naidu at his official residence. Dinner was taken with Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, then the group retired to the colonial splendor of a five-star hotel in New Delhi.

The next day, around noon, the MEPs traveled to Kashmir. But four out of the 27 went back to their respective countries from New Delhi, skipping the visit. 

From Srinagar airport, the group left straight for the Army cantonment, where they were briefed by the commander of the XV Corps of the Indian army – the division responsible for military operations in Kashmir. They later met local civic leaders at Lalit Grand Palace, a five-star hotel in Srinagar, overlooking the picturesque Dal Lake, where the MEPs stayed. 

As the sun began to set over the water, the MEPs went for a ride in a traditional wooden shikara boat. The evening was spent at the Raj Bhavan or Government House, meeting Governor Satya Pal Malik and his advisors. The next day, they held a press briefing. Local journalists were not allowed to attend and the only questions were asked by select members of the Indian media. 

In the press conference, the MEPs sidestepped the crisis in Kashmir. “If we talk about Article 370, it is India’s internal matter,” said Henri Malosse of Rassemblement National. “What concerns us is terrorism, which is a global menace, and we should stand with India in fighting it.” 

“There are two narratives about Kashmir,” Kapil Sibal, a member of the opposition Indian National Congress party and India’s former minister of law and justice, told Coda Story. “One is about the history and legality of Article 370 and its abrogation, and the other is about the government’s claim that everything is normal in Kashmir. The former can be debated but the latter has no basis in reality. But the government is pushing that narrative and the mainstream media is amplifying it. This trip of the MEPs only served to further that narrative.”  

But not all of the MEPs were compliant. Nicolaus Fest of AFD later told a reporter  that the amount of security forces at Srinagar airport reminded him of “a state of war” and that “if the government allows politicians from the European Union to visit Kashmir, politicians from India should be even more entitled to do so.”

However, Rassemblement National’s Thierry Mariani tweeted in support of the Indian government’s policy in Kashmir. He also told reporters that “we stand with India in its fight against terrorists.” 

AFD’s Lars Patrick Berg told the Hindustan Times that the media had misrepresented European right-wing populist groups. “Contrary to popular perception … conservative groups in the European Parliament are not Muslim-hating Nazis,” he said. 

But any meaningful criticism was overshadowed by video footage of the European parliamentarians relaxing and enjoying a tranquil boat trip in Srinagar. Over the next few days, the images of apparent calm in Kashmir were replayed endlessly on national television and on social media. 

In recent weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic has diverted attention from the situation in Kashmir, residents of the isolated region have faced more fear and anxiety. In Kashmir, 85 cases of COVID-19 have been reported so far, and hospitals face an acute shortage of doctors and medical supplies. Schools, colleges and universities, which briefly reopened last month, have closed once again, as part of isolation measures. While the internet was partially restored earlier this month, data transfer speeds are limited to 2G. 

Last Monday, India’s health ministry invited local doctors to an online training session on managing ventilators for patients with COVID-19. Most, however, were unable to attend – they couldn’t connect to the internet.

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Atul Dev

Atul Dev is a staff writer at The Caravan magazine in Delhi.