A group of mostly far-right MEPs managed to do what U.N. officials, local politicians and diplomats have been unable to since August — get permission to visit the Indian-administered side of the disputed region of Kashmir.
A delegation of 27 MEPs, including a large contingent of members of the far-right Identity and Democracy group, met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, before making a supervised visit to Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir.
The MEPs say they went to “gather information” on the political situation in South Asia, but the circumstances of the trip itself — who sponsored it, how much it cost, why it took place — remain obscure or contested.
The visit has attracted fierce criticism in India. Anant Sharma, the deputy leader of the opposition in India’s upper house of parliament, called the trip an “ill-advised PR exercise, sponsoring individuals with questionable credentials.”
“EU MPs representing parties and ideologies in direct conflict with the mainstream. Diplomatic disaster which ended up internationalising what is essentially our internal issue,” Sharma said.
Many far-right MEPs who are not working in any formal capacity on South Asian affairs were part of the group who went.
MEPs said the trip — which was “organised in private capacity and does not represent the House,” the European Parliament stressed — was sponsored by the International Institute for Non-aligned Studies (IINS), a think tank based in New Delhi. Phone calls and emails to the IINS went unanswered.
IINS is owned by the Srivastava Group of Companies, which was recently found to have been behind EP Today, a news and opinion website that largely drew its content from state-funded Russian media RT. EP Today’s address, the group’s Brussels office, and the International Council for Inter-Religious Cooperation — another Srivastava outfit made to “create mutual understanding between Muslims, Christians and Jews” — are all listed under the same address: 37 Square de Meeûs in Brussels.
Since POLITICO’s reporting, incorporating research done by NGO EUvsDisinfo, both Facebook and Twitter shut down the website’s presence on their platforms. EP Today issued a statement saying it will no longer reproduce RT’s content, but did not address its relationship with the Srivastava group.
The invites for the paid-for trip came from Madi Sharma, a self-proclaimed “international business broker” and director of the Brussels-based Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT). She, along with her partner Henri Malosse, a former president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) accompanied the MEPs during their visit.
Malosse and Sharma have previously been under scrutiny for accompanying three MEPs — Maria Gabriela Zoană (of the Socialists and Democrats, from Romania), Tomáš Zdechovský (European People’s Party, Czech Republic) and Ryszard Czarnecki (European Conservatives and Reformists, from Poland’s ruling PiS party) — on a trip to the Maldives last year, ostensibly on an election monitoring mission. The Maldivian ambassador complained to the Parliament that the trip, conducted on tourist visas, was “in utter disregard and violation” of Maldivian immigration laws.
Both Czarnecki and Zdechovský were among the MEPs that also went to India. Czarnecki and Italian EPP MEP Fulvio Martiuscello also went to Bangladesh last year with Sharma and Malosse, where they met Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during another unofficial trip.
Chris Davies, a British Renew Europe MEP, said Madi Sharma invited him to the India trip, promising a “prestigious VIP meeting” with Modi, according to the email he received from her. Davies said his invitation was rescinded after he told Sharma he wanted to meet local Kashmiris unsupervised.
Sharma had reached out to Davies in her official capacity as the director of WESTT, but it is unclear how a think tank with an operating budget of less than €25,000 and one full-time staff member had direct access to the Indian prime minister’s office, its top military officials and its foreign minister — who featured on the trip’s itinerary.
“Outrageous that mostly anti-Muslim EU MEPs allowed to visit Kashmir when Indian MPs cannot. Glad that my invitation was cancelled when I insisted on talking with ordinary Kashmiris,” Davies tweeted late Wednesday. He called the visit a “PR stunt.”
— Vocal Europe (@thevocaleurope) October 28, 2019
Sharma’s work is also heavily featured on the website EP Today, including her trips to the Maldives and Bangladesh. Sharma herself has written op-eds for the website. In one article she called India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status — widely condemned by human rights groups — a “victory” for Kashmiri women.
Sharma did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
The European Parliament has a dedicated delegation to South Asia, and another to India — but only four MEPs from those groups actually went on the visit. Instead many far-right MEPs who are not working in any formal capacity on South Asian affairs were part of the group who went.
Six Polish MEPs from the Law and Justice party, six French MEPs from the National Rally party, four British Brexit Party MEPs, one Belgian MEP from Vlaams Belang, a Spanish MEP from Vox, three German MEPs from the AfD, and two Italian MEPs from Lega went on the trip.
The invitation to the European MP’s was sent out by someone called Madi Sharma. She promised a ‘prestigious VIP meeting’ with India’s Prime Minister, in addition to the Kashmir trip. (Screenshot of her mail exchange with MEP Chris Davies, released by his office) @OnReality_Check pic.twitter.com/6giTXCCjaq
— Sreenivasan Jain (@SreenivasanJain) October 29, 2019
Two other Italian MEPs, one from the center left and one from the center right; two members of the European People’s Party from the Czech Republic and Slovakia and one British Renew Europe MEP completed the group.
German AfD lawmaker Nicolaus Fest told POLITICO he went on the trip because he “always have been interested in the political hotspots of the world” and out of concern for India’s Christian community. Asked why he thought so many right-wing MEPS had been invited, he said: “While PM Modi considers the nation state as the precondition for a multicultural state, the European left aims at multiculturalism without any borders and without nation states.”
The British Renew Europe lawmaker Bill Newton Dunn also defended the trip, pointing out that it had not cost taxpayers anything. “You don’t believe in finding the facts on the ground? I do,” he tweeted in response to one critic, “Truth must be uncovered and reported.”