An Indian soldier stands guard in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, on August 11. Photo: AFP

The Indian government’s attempt to win some favorable global opinion on Kashmir fell apart after a British member of the European Parliament (MEP) pulled out, calling it a “public relations stunt for the [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi government.”

Ever since the Indian government abrogated Article 370, a constitutional provision that gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status and the right to make its own laws, it has been battling rising international concern over the denial of basic human rights. The night before the decision was announced in India’s Parliament, the government shut off all communication across the state and deployed 30,000 additional federal policemen. The state has been under lockdown since then.

Inquiries by Asia Times have revealed that the invitation and the offer to fund the trip to Kashmir by 27 MEPs came from two little-known groups who seem to have access to the Indian government and claimed an association with Prime Minister Modi. The European Union delegation in India was quick to state that this was not an official visit and that the MEPs were traveling on a strictly personal basis. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs also refused to issue any statement, but top officials pointed out privately that this trip is being handled by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The visit comes at a time when members of India’s parliament have been restricted from traveling to Kashmir. The elected members of the state’s erstwhile legislative house remain under house arrest. The Supreme Court has also been allowing visits by a select few political leaders under strict conditions. Under such circumstances, a visit by European MEPs has generated a lot of heat in India and abroad.

“As far as we are concerned, this trip is not being arranged by the External Affairs Ministry. This is a private trip and not an official delegation,” a senior Indian diplomat confirmed to Asia Times.

Jammu and Kashmir is India’s lone Muslim-majority state and has been home to an armed insurgency since 1989 that has claimed nearly 40,000 lives. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the region, which is considered the most heavily militarized zone in the world.

Mysterious PR stunt?

Under pressure from various quarters, the Indian government marshaled 27 members of the European Parliament to visit the state of Jammu and Kashmir in a carefully curated trip. However, Chris Davies, who is a Liberal Democrat MEP, pulled out of when his request to meet ordinary citizens in the state without any official presence was turned down. He was informed by the Indian government that he was no longer welcome to join the trip.

“I am not prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government and pretend that all is well. It is very clear that democratic principles are being subverted in Kashmir, and the world needs to start taking notice,” Davies said in an official statement.

“What is it that the Indian government has to hide? Why will it not give journalists and visiting politicians free access to speak with local people? I represent thousands of people in the northwest 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 said in an official statement released to the media.

“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,” Davies added.

What has also raised eyebrows are the mysterious origins of the trip and its funders.

A spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats party, Pablo O’Hana, told Asia Times by email that the invitation to visit Kashmir came from a little-known group. “The invitation came from supporters [the so-called Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank – WESTT] of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, and made clear that the arrangements were being made with the full support of the Indian authorities,” O’Hana said in an email response to Asia Times.

The invite was sent by Madi Sharma of WESTT, who claimed that her think tank had been working with the European Union and members of the European Parliament for a while. She also promised exclusive access to India’s prime minister in her invite.

Sharma describes herself as an “international business broker” who also runs a for-profit group of companies. Her website says her business activities include a “business brokerage,’ “import-exports” and facilitating “local holiday experiences.” Another website claims that she is a member of the Women Economic Forum, which strongly resembles the World Economic Forum. However, this is run out of a locality in Delhi. According to Indian government sources, she was born in the UK, and her mother is Austrian and father is Indian. However, there is no work listed that links her to the Kashmir issue.

In September, a month after the Indian government removed Article 370, Sharma wrote a piece in the online magazine called EP Today discussing the impact of the move. EP Today describes itself as a “monthly news magazine for European Parliament”. However, it turns out that it had nothing to do with the European Parliament.

The European Union’s Task force on disinformation investigated it and in a report pointed out that the online magazine used the name of the European parliament in a “misleading way and without any legal authorization”. It also found that the Facebook page of the online magazine had four administrators based out of India.Its analysis also found that it was primarily sourcing its articles from Russia Today, a media house “funded by the Kremlin”.

O’Hana also added that the “costs would be covered by the ‘International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies’. I have no idea what the source of funding for this body is.”

File photo of Chris Davies, a member of the European Parliament who refused to be part of the Kashmir entourage. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Inquiries by Asia Times have revealed that while such an organization does exist in Delhi, there are no details of its funding available. A call to the organization was taken by a person who identified himself as “Shailendra.” He refused to divulge any details. “Only my seniors will be able to throw more light on this issue and the founder of the think tank is currently traveling,” Shailendra told Asia Times.

The organization’s website is even more interesting, claiming that it was created in 1980. Most of the publications listed on the site deal with the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping created by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. How it managed to find funding for the trip by the MEPs is not clear.

‘Right-wing’ MEPs

What has also come as an embarrassment to the Indian government is the fact that the majority of the MEPs have been drawn from right-of-center political parties who have traditionally been anti-immigration and have a hardline stance on Islam.

MEPs Gianna Gancia and Silvia Sardone from Italy, Tom Vandendriessche from Belgium, and Bernhard Zimniok and Lars Partick Berg from Germany are some of the members who belong to right-of-center parties.”This means this is not a bipartisan group and has been carefully chosen,” a senior Indian government official said. Privately, Indian officials point out that the high-profile nature of the visit and the controversy has now nullified any gains that the government was hoping to make from the tour.

Prime Minister Modi personally hosted and briefed the MEPs before leaving for an official visit to Saudi Arabia. Davies pulling out of the visit has now raised more questions about the trip causing further embarrassment to India’s cause.

India has maintained that the decision to abrogate Article 370 in the state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral issue. However, reaching out to carefully selected MEPs has now given the issue further international focus, undermining India’s long-term foreign policy objectives.

The pressure on India on its controversial Kashmir move has been rising in the last few weeks.

A week ago, a US Congressional committee held an unprecedented meeting in Washington, DC, to raise concerns about the conditions in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Chaired by Brad Sherman, a Democrat representing the San Fernando Valley, asked a number of questions about the communication shutdown in the state. Last month, Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia had also raised the issue at the United Nations General Assembly.

Also read: Kashmir row sparks Malaysia, India palm oil tensions

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