Twenty-seven Members of the European Parliament are touring Kashmir today. They are reportedly visiting in their “personal capacity”, meaning the trip is being sponsored not by the Indian government but by a relatively obscure organisation, the Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank, or WESTT.
Before leaving for their whistlestop holiday in the valley, the MEPs got to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval in New Delhi. The “visit in personal capacity” then is being made to look pretty official.
India has long insisted that Kashmir is an “internal matter” in which it would brook no interference. As such, New Delhi has refused to allow even the UN Human Rights Council to send its representatives to the region. Since the valley was put on lockdown after the removal of its constitutional autonomy in early August, the Modi government has prevented a United States Senator and even Indian lawmakers from visiting Kashmir.
Why then is the government making an exception for this delegation of European parliamentarians? Why are the MEPs being feted by the prime minister, briefed by the national security advisor, and getting a guided tour of the valley?
For one, 22 of the MEPs represent far-right parties, which are ideologically aligned with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. For the other, there’s WESTT.
What are the credentials of this think tank? Who runs and funds it? Why is it sponsoring the visit by the MEPs?
We did some digging and here’s what we found.
According to its website, WESTT is “a leading women’s think tank with global dimensions, focussing on the economic, environmental and social development of women. At a political level it is also lobbies to raise awareness on key issues but never for commercial gain”. It’s a part of the Madi Group of “international private and social enterprises and NGOs” led by one Madi Sharma.
Sharma appears to have appropriated a Mahatma Gandhi saying into her mission statement that features everywhere on her website: “Gandhi Said ‘You must be the Change YOU want to see.’ Madi says, ‘You must be the Change YOU want to see – NO EXCUSES!’
Madi Sharma, right, and Henri Malosse with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo by PIB
Sharma is somewhat of a mystery. “You are in charge of your life. That’s what the Madi Group does. You don’t need to know what I do, it is not really important,” she said during a motivational talk in 2013. “It’s an international company. My PA is based in Delhi, my largest client is based in the US. Where is my office? I don’t have an office. My office is a British Airways lounge.”
According to her website, other than heading WESTT, she runs a host of companies, including an “ethnic trail tour company” that “provides ‘local’ holiday experiences for travellers seeking experiences where they can share knowledge and expertise, often within the travel and NGO environment”. Then there’s Madi Magnesium, “a successful consultancy which supports SMEs, corporates, public sector organisations, NGOs and governments to overcome their challenges”.
Sharma is also a part of the European Economic and Social Committee, described as a consultative body of the European Union. She is a former president of the EESC’s delegation to India.
On September 14 this year, Sharma wrote an article titled “Why demolishing Article 370 is both a victory and a challenge for Kashmiri women”. “Contested boundaries, shaky allegiances, and previously divorced legalities in Kashmir have given these groups extensive access to the rest of India,” she writes, referring to the militant groups sponsored by Pakistan. “Some form of action needed to be taken to hamper armed group access to J&K – few people disputed that. Along that line of thinking, 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.”
The article was published on EP Today, which describes itself as a “monthly news magazine for the European Parliament”. However, according to The Guardian, an EU taskforce responsible for tackling disinformation found that EP Today was a “lobbying platform, presented as a serious news outlet, whose target audience are EU decision-makers”.
The taskforce also found that the magazine used the name of the European Parliament in a “misleading way and without any legal authorisation”, the British newspaper reported. “The online magazine claims to have staff operating in Brussels but the taskforce found it only had a mailbox address and none of its editors were on LinkedIn or Twitter. The site’s four Facebook page administrators are said to be situated in India.”
On August 21 last year, EP Today published an article about a visit to the Maldives by a group of MEPs. Headlined “The edge of Chasm: Threat to the Maldavian democracy“, the article says MEPs Tomas Zdechovsky, Maria Gabriela Zoana and Ryzsard Czarnecki “forfeited their vacation time in order to show their support for the Maldivian people, and to witness firsthand the country’s slide into authoritarianism”.
Accompanied by Henri Malosse, president of the European Economic and Social Committee, and Madi Sharma, British EESC representative, the article adds, “the delegation uncovered disturbing, undemocratic trends occurring in the archipelago. Attacks on democratic principles, combined with close ties to radical Islamist groups, brings the security of European tourists, business and investors into question.”
In a report for the South Asia Democratic Forum, the delegation described the political situation in Maldives as “worse than had been previously understood and continues to deteriorate”.
The delegation’s visit took place just before the island nation was to vote in the presidential election. It was feared that the incumbent, Abdullah Yameem, would rig the election to stay in power. That would have been disastrous for India as Scroll reported at the time: “A second term for Yameen could mark the death of the Maldives’ decades-old India-first foreign policy. Rising Islamic fundamentalism in the island nation would mean additional worries for India’s internal security. Most importantly, for all its grand talk of making India a global superpower, the Narendra Modi government would have undermined India’s traditional status as a regional superpower.”
Interestingly, the delegation was scathing in its criticism of Yameen. “We will not let Yameen transform the paradise islands of the Maldives into a hell. If Yameen wins with threats and fraud, we won’t just ban his close friends, we will ban the whole country from tourism and investment,” EP Today quoted Malosse as declaring. Yameen lost the election.
The MEPs, Malosse and Sharma had marketed theirs as an official EU delegation. But the Maldivian ambassador to the EU, Ahmed Shiaan, complained to European Parliament President Antonio Tajani that the group “was on a privately sponsored visit under a tourist visa and engaged in their ‘investigation’, in utter disregard and violation of the rules and laws of Maldives Immigration”.
David McAllister, the chair of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, too denied that delegation had any official objective. He told Politico: “Czarnecki, as a result of his previous unofficial activities, has already been prohibited from participating in any official European Parliament election observation missions during the current mandate.”
In September this year, Newslaundry reported how the news agency ANI had projected two SADF associates as Kashmir experts when they had no such credentials. ANI even falsely and laughably described one of them as “former director” of the European Commission when the commission has no such designation.
In the ANI report, the associates were all praise for India’s actions in the valley. One of them was Henri Malosse, who met Modi along with Sharma on October 28. Ryszard Czarnecki and Tomas Zdechovsky, who accompanied Malosse and Sharma to the Maldives, are both members of the delegation to Kashmir. Czarnecki, along with fellow Polish representative Kosma Złotowski, is also accused of being a part of “fake observation missions”.
Here’s a sampler of the views of some MEPs in the delegation and what their political parties represent back home.
Bernard Zimniok; Alternative for Germany
On September 17, 2019, Zimniok spoke on the situation in the valley during a debate in the European Parliament. “We as outsiders can only accompany this process, as neutral mediators,” he said. “Now if I have to tell the press that members of this House are taking sides and are even going so far as to demand boycott action against India, then they themselves become part of the problem and are no longer honest brokers. I can only say from experience: It does not work.”
The same day, he informed the parliament that he “worked there as a diplomat for four years” and “traveled the region many times”. “I do not think you would find any majority for it,” he said, referring to autonomy for Kashmir. “I would just like to ask the speaker briefly how he envisages autonomy under his own control, under the administration of the Kashmiris, for this country would certainly depend on the drip of the community. They have nothing to offer economically; they must join India or Pakistan or whatever the solution is. Everything else is an illusion. Even the Kashmiris themselves would not want that solution.”
Ryszard Czarnecki; Law and Justice Party, Poland
In the debate on Kashmir in the European Parliament, Czarnecki argued, “I think you need to look more broadly, you need to look at a number of terrorist acts that took place in India, including Jammu and Kashmir. And these terrorists, they did not fall from the moon, they unfortunately came from a neighbour. This should also be seen in this context. In my opinion, we, as European democracy, should support democratic India.”
Hermann Tertsch; VOX, Spain
Before leaving for Kashmir, Tertsch told Republic TV, “We have been speaking about the tensions and the situation. I think it’s very important to support the rule of law and support the integrity of the country. We are looking forward to visiting Kashmir. We also look forward to Kashmir’s development as a democratic, socially stable and prosperous place.”
Tertsch’s party is unapologetically Islamophobic. It has launched a video projecting a future in which Muslims impose “sharia” in southern Spain, turn the Cathedral of Córdoba back into a mosque, and force women to cover up.
Thierry Mariani; National Rally, France
Mariani tweeted a picture with Modi on Monday saying, in French, “Meeting with the prime minister in NewDelhi. Reelected widely in May 2019, he shows that a policy prioritising national interest can ensure the growth of the standard of living and enhance security, as shown by his decision on Kashmir.”
He tweeted in English as well.
Mariani was at a press gathering in Geneva on September 22 where he, along with some Muslim clerics, supported India’s position on Kashmir. “Kashmir belongs to India,” he declared. “If India decides to change the status of India, it’s internal affairs.”
Mariani belongs to Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen, who is the former leader of France’s far-right Front National, has been fined multiple times by French courts for calling Nazi gas chambers a mere “detail” of history. In 2015, Le Pen herself was tried and then cleared of inciting religious hatred after comparing Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation.
Julie Lechanteux; National Rally, France
In the debate on Kashmir in the European Parliament, Julie Lechanteux said, “The criticism of India, the world’s largest democracy, heard in this Chamber is based on a mystifying representation of facts. We focus on constitutional reform, but we forget about the separatist push and the security question. The situation in Jammu and Kashmir has worsened. A series of Islamist attacks took place against the security forces, such as February 14, when a car bomb killed 40 police officers, or August 2, with the discovery of an arsenal that should have been used to commit an attack against the thousands of Hindu pilgrims who visit the sacred cave of Amarnath every year. In this context, the security measures taken by Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, aim to ensure the country’s security, the protection of its citizens and the tightness of the border with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, which since 2018 found again on the American list of States with ambiguous attitude towards the terrorist danger. These are the facts.”
Fulvio Martusciello; European People’s Party, Italy
Responding to fellow MEP, British Conservative Party representative Geoffrey Van Orden, during the debate on Kashmir on September 17, Martusciello said, “Mr Van Orden, I agree with your speech and I want to ask you if you have read Pakistan’s threat to use nuclear weapons. This is the real issue that should be addressed by the European Parliament: the use of nuclear weapons by Pakistan and above all the fact that Pakistan is a territory that has bred – and history says so – during all these years many terrorists who have carried out bloody attacks in Europe, not to mention human rights violated in Pakistan.”
Martusciello, alongwith Czarnecki and two other MEPs, authored a report titled, “Religious Minorities in Pakistan”.
Given this context, it’s not hard to figure why these MEPs are getting a VIP tour of Kashmir – and what they might report about the situation there.
Note: The copy has been corrected to state that Jean-Marie Le Pen, not Marine Le Pen, was fined by French courts for calling Nazi gas chambers a “detail” of history.