Govt Flew EU MPs to Kashmir – How’d It Work Out? Experts Weigh In

Does the Centre’s damage control in Kashmir need its own damage control? Here’s how experts and ex-diplomats see it.

Updated
India
4 min read
Members of European Parliament taking a boat ride on Dal Lake in Srinagar. 
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As headlines break one after the other with more details of the unofficial trip by 27 EU Parliamentarians to a locked-down Kashmir, The Quint spoke to foreign policy experts and ex-diplomats about what the trip has achieved.

Asked about the upsides of this unofficial delegation of mostly right-wing Members of European Parliament (MEPs) visiting the locked-down Union Territory, out of the four experts we spoke to, only former ambassador to South Korea and former high commissioner to Canada Vishnu Prakash had an answer:

“We are living in a world where [ISIS chief] Baghdadi is called an ‘austere religious scholar’ by Washington Post – so you can make out what kind of a biased mindset we’re dealing with. Therefore, it is important that people who form public opinion be invited to see the ground situation. It has been a good visit, and from whatever I’ve seen, they’ve had observations which are quite positive.”
Vishnu Prakash, Former Ambassador to South Korea & Former High Commissioner to Canada

In Prakash’s estimation, members of the ‘left-liberal’ foreign press and politicians have bought into the version of events presented by Pakistan – “the self-appointed custodians of Muslims” – and so there is nothing wrong with choosing only to bring over MEPs who are “open minded” about India. Some might call this propaganda, but Prakash doesn’t.

Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, took a rather different view. When asked whether the MEPs’ trip to Kashmir had turned up benefits for India, tangible or perceived, he said,

“No, on the contrary. What this has done is that hereinafter, when they restrict people or when legislators want to go [to Kashmir] – say, if a US Congressman wants to go there – they will find it hard to give a reason for why that person is being refused. So, it’s been a disaster, that’s it.”
Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, ORF

The Main Controversies of the Trip

1. That the MEPs were disproportionately right-wing or far-right, and therefore not a representative sample of EU Parliamentarians. The perception being that the government of India, through a private organiser, is attempting to do damage control amid international concern, and it’s doing this bringing in only a section of MEPs who can be expected to look favourably upon the situation.

2. That the visit was organised by a lobbyist, Madi Sharma, through an NGO called WESTT, ostensibly an organisation for the promotion of women’s rights. However, this trip and other past events she has been involved in have had little to do with women’s rights. Questions are being raised on who is footing the bill for this high-profile visit.

‘Unusual, But Not Unprecedented’

Former foreign secretary Salman Haidar, speaking about whether such an arrangement between an NGO and heads of state is a normal occurrence, said that the process of organising the visit through an NGO and private citizen like Madi Sharma in itself was not problematic:

“It’s unusual, certainly, but it’s not unprecedented. [Madi Sharma] is associated with a certain NGO which is quite prominent and quite active in this field. If she has pursued that interest and strengthened her ties with the NGO, that’s not something to raise eyebrows over. Now, what is achieved by it is another matter.”
Salman Haidar, Former Foreign Secretary

Joshi raised questions about the nature of Sharma’s association with the government of India.

“What is the grounds, is she an employee, a contractor? What is her status? That’s presuming that Government of India has a stake. Otherwise, it’s an even more outlandish conclusion that she’s done it out of her own funds, out of the goodness of her heart. If she’s employed as a lobbyist, then it can be a business deal. As a lobbyist, she’s asked to get a positive view on Kashmir and she organises this trip.”

TL;DR
Joshi and Haidar both say the fact of an NGO organising an unofficial trip like this is not inherently a problem, however questions remain over whether this was a wise move for the government to execute so publicly.

‘If Your Business Is to Criticise India, Stay Home and Do It’

Asked if he thought the the far-right skew of the MEPs who visited was a problem, Vishnu Prakash said [speaking of left-liberal politicians]:

“Why should we invite people who have a biased mindset? The fact remains that you have the so-called liberal left in India and outside India, media, people in political leadership, academics, who see the glass half-full. There is no doubt about their bias. [...] The goal is to invite MEPs who are open-minded, who are not coming with pre-conceived notions – if your business is to criticise India, then you can stay home and criticise India.”
Vishnu Prakash

Ultimately, in his view, the political leanings of the MEPs are of little relevance because the real issue has become one of ‘perception management’.

“Now it’s a question of negating a biased projection. If I were asked to do it, I’d do whatever it takes to counter a negative perception that is being created by biased minds. To me, it’s as simple as that.”
Vishnu Prakash

Khalid Shah, ORF Associate Fellow with expertise in the Kashmir conflict, said the rightward skew of the MEP group would not play well in the international press, and could have broader negative implications for Kashmir.

“First, the government’s biggest problem right now is that there’s an international press which is not willing to take their side of the story. If you invite far-right people to Kashmir, you’re only going to get more backlash from the international press. The second thing is, you’re entering territory where Kashmir will become an ideological issue between the far-right and the left, or between liberals and conservatives, and will become a partisan issue in European Parliament too. Do you want to do that?”

TL;DR:
All experts we spoke to agreed that the visit by the EU MPs was an exercise in perception management. While Vishnu Prakash thinks such an exercise was necessary due to the ‘doomsday’ narrative being peddled by Pakistan, Joshi and Shah think this kind of overt damage control does its own damage to the government’s standing when other individuals seek to visit Kashmir, and invites even more of the backlash it was seeking to quell.

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