European Union MPs: Much ado about nothing
by Sandhya Jain on 21 Nov 2019 3 Comments

The recent visit to Srinagar in the recast Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir by European Union parliamentarians received disproportionate attention as the complete merger of the erstwhile kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir with India continues to rattle critics of the central government. Mercifully, Ladakh, which achieved its long-sought separation from J&K State in the reorganization, has been left out of the controversy. The government’s detractors found enough holes to poke their fingers through, but, as with the Rafale salvos of Waynad MP Rahul Gandhi, their rebukes fell flat. When the unremarkable visit ended, few understood what the brouhaha was all about.


News that a delegation of Members, European Parliament (MEPs) was going to Srinagar in late October drove opposition parties and media critics incendiary. Their anger was justified to the extent that opposition leaders had not been allowed to visit the valley. Thereafter, they lost the plot and set about “exposing” Madhu (Madi) Sharma, founder-director of the Madi Group and an entrepreneur with interest in a range of subjects, namely, development, education, public health, external relations and trade (per her website).


The media raged that an “unknown” lady arranged a meeting and photo-op for the MEPs with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The delegation also met Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, and Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar. However, social media warriors discovered that Madi Sharma is not a complete non-entity in Europe. She has been a member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) since September 2002, an impressive 17 years. Members of the EESC are nominated by the national governments of member states and appointed by the Council of the European Union. Sharma was nominated by the British government; her tenure may end with Britain’s exit from the European Union.


New Delhi possibly selected Madi Sharma because she wrote an article, “Why demolishing Article 370 is both a victory and a challenge for Kashmiri women” (EP Today, September 14, 2019), and referred to Pakistan-sponsored militancy, “Some form of action needed to be taken to hamper armed group access to J&K – few people disputed that… Modi’s decision to dismantle Kashmir’s special status was logical, even if it did come as a shock to those living in the region”.


Given her long tenure in the EESC, Sharma would know many MEPs and could therefore arrange an “unofficial” visit to Srinagar valley. Though hardly an earth-shattering event, this modest public relations exercise proved intolerable to the critics. Soon, Women’s Eco-Nomic and Social Think Tank (WESTT), a non-profit body headed by Sharma, was accused of being a “lobbying watchdog” of the EU.


WESTT is a six-year-old NGO registered under Section 4 of the EU’s “Think Tanks And Research Institutions” category, in 2013. It is a corporate social responsibility arm of the Madi Group. Sharma and WESTT have facilitated visits by informal EU delegations to South Asia. She was criticised for an article about a trip with EU functionaries to Bangladesh, which praised the Sheikh Hasina government.


The Centre’s detractors point out that India had refused to allow the UN Human Rights Council and US Senator Chris van Hollen to visit Kashmir. Van Hollen expressed concerns about the “current humanitarian crisis in Kashmir” and urged the government to restore communications and release detainees. This would not have endeared him to South Block, which has been carefully calibrating the return to normalcy in the valley.


Secondly, the critics aver, 22 MEPs hailed from far-right parties (AfD, Vox, RN, VB and Brexit Party) which are considered “ideologically aligned” (whatever that means) with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). What the critics insinuate is that most guests were selected because they supported the Modi government’s action in their own countries; they oppose immigration in their countries and are “Islamophobic”.


While not commenting on the domestic concerns of these parties, it needs to be stated that no country allows unrestricted immigration, and societies react when newcomers fail to adhere to norms of the host society. The BJP’s alleged anti-immigrant stance is a continuum of local opposition to decades of illegal infiltration in some states. And while “Islamophobic” is a catchy term of abuse, few governments have been as sensitive to the legitimate aspirations of Muslims as the Modi government. The charge is unjust and untrue.


The visit was not an unqualified success. British MP and Liberal Democrat Chris Davies claimed his invitation was withdrawn (by Madi Sharma) after he expressed a desire to move freely in Kashmir without police escorts. Calling the ban on Indian MPs from travelling to Kashmir an “outrageous affront to democracy,” Davies said he was not “prepared to take part in a PR stunt for the Modi government to pretend that all is well”. Davies was among 45 British politicians who signed a letter urging UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to discuss Kashmir in the Security Council.


The Modi government has invested considerable political capital to defang Articles 370 and 35-A of the Constitution to fully integrate the kingdom of Maharaja Hari Singh with India and guillotine the separatist tendencies fostered by these statutes. It has no reason to invite foreign critics for political tourism in this sensitive region. Ladakh is delighted to be free from Kashmiri domination, a situation it had craved and demanded from 1947 itself, even before the rest of India had seen the true colours of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. It is true that Jammu is unhappy to be clubbed with Kashmir valley, but that is an irony of history: Kashmir was purchased by Jammu ruler Gulab Singh from the British East India Company in 1846. Gulab Singh then became Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.


The very fact that European Parliament Members could visit Srinagar without any untoward incident is a success, as Pakistan is relentlessly trying to destabilize the region. One MEP, Nicolaus Fest, later suggested, “I think if you let in European Union parliamentarians, you should also let in opposition politicians from India. So there is some kind of disbalance, the government should somehow address it”.


The government will undoubtedly address this issue after it restores internet and data services fully. The Kartarpur Corridor is open, and Pakistan even used it to stoke Khalistani sentiments in India.


Finally, it bears stating that the kind of unstinted cooperation given to Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao by opposition leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in the nation interest, is remarkable by its absence today. Nationalism has suddenly become unfashionable in India, even as it rears its head in nations across the globe. 

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