How the BJP went against its India-first narrative, writes Barkha Dutt
The MEPs’ visit, its host’s credentials, and the lockdown have negated the gains the government had hoped forUpdated: Nov 04, 2019 20:35 IST
Like most Indians, I also feel exasperated with the unidimensional, over-simplistic representation of the Kashmir story in the Western media. While I disagree entirely with the detention of elected representatives, including three former chief ministers, I have also closely tracked and reported the shifting trends in local militancy, the ascent of religious radicalisation and the weaponisation of social media by terror groups.
The Kashmir story is the sum of many complex intricate parts. Unfortunately, Indian television channels want to plug a normalcy that does not exist, and foreign correspondents want to present a predetermined, selective narrative. That the recent terror strike on migrant labourers did not trigger an iota of the global outrage it should have, is instructive.
So in itself, the government’s decision to begin an outreach with the international community is not wrong. In fact, it should have happened earlier.
But the just-concluded trip by a group of European lawmakers to Delhi and subsequently to Srinagar was really not the answer.
Soon after German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Kashmir situation “unsustainable”, proof that the European Union (EU) visit ended up being a non-starter.
First and most important, an all party delegation of Indian parliamentarians should have preceded any visit by foreigners. Opposition representatives like Yashwant Sinha and Rahul Gandhi were denied free access, and Sitaram Yechury had to petition the Supreme Court before he could meet his colleague Mohammad Tarigami. You can’t both argue against the internationalisation of Kashmir and privilege outsiders over your own people.
There has been a lot of attention on the far-Right ideological leanings of most of the group. Six of them represent Marine Le Pen’s party in France. Le Pen once compared Muslims praying in the street to Nazi occupation. Then there are members of Italy’s Lega Nord, whose leader likened African immigrants to slaves. If the aim is to address negative global mentions, there could have been a smarter mix of affiliations in those invited. Or better still, ambassadors and high commissioners already posted in India could have been taken.
But my primary problem is not who leans on the Right, Left or Centre of the spectrum; it is that non-Indians shouldn’t have more access to meeting police, military and civil society today, than India’s elected leaders.
How does this reconcile with the India-first nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party?
One of the members of the delegation, Nicolaus Fest, clearly discomfited by the controversy even said that local Opposition parliamentarians must get the same access as they were given.
The other huge embarrassment has been the dodgy antecedents of the host and organisers of the delegation — Madi Sharma and the Srivastava group. Remember the lawmakers were here on a private visit. But given that the prime minister and national security adviser both met Sharma and the members of the European Parliament, there was a heightened interest in discovering who exactly this international woman of mystery is .
There are no simple answers. She doesn’t help the case by describing herself as an “international business broker”. A cursory glance at her personal website reveals links to multiple companies of the “Madi group”, but when you click on them, there is no functional site. In a Tedx talk, Madi describes herself as “the most successful woman in the world”. It’s just that no one knows who she is and exactly what she does. Is Madi even her actual name? The site says she runs centres called “Make a Difference Idea” (MADI). So, is the name an acronym or the coinage just a clever pun?
Sharma wrote an article on the Article 370 abrogation in a publication called EP Today. The publication’s registered address in Brussels and that of Srivastava group, the sponsors of the EU MP’s visit, is identical. Earlier this month, The Guardian reported that the EU Disinformation Task force had outed EP Today as a “lobbying platform presented as a serious news outlet”.
It takes less than an hour online to discover all this. Which makes you wonder why government agencies did not vet Sharma and the Srivastavas before giving them the thumbs-up on the visit.
The foreign ministry spokesperson was left answering tricky media questions on the Kashmir trip by the Europeans. But privately, external affairs ministry officials say they were not kept in the loop.
At the moment no one wants ownership of Madi Sharma and the Srivastava group.
The lawmakers have endorsed India’s position on Kashmir by underlining that Article 370 is an internal issue or calling out terrorism. But the manner in which the trip was put together, the ambiguity around its hosts and the fact that peaceful political activity remains out of bounds for Indians, including Kashmir’s own mainstream, undoes the gains the government would have hoped for.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning author and journalist
The views expressed are personal