As a tactic to improve the optics of the Jammu and Kashmir situation, the government’s effort to recruit a gaggle of Members of European Parliament (MEPs) for a guided tour of the state is perfectly legitimate.
However, done as a covert operation through the agency of unknown NGOs, it has proved to be a disaster.
There is nothing unusual in a government seeking to shape the opinions of a foreign party — be it the media, academics, officials or legislators. This is done through both overt and covert means.
Throughout the world, it is fairly standard fare to use paid lobbyists and invite journalists and other opinion leaders for guided tours. Countries with deeper pockets are not above endowing chairs in universities or funding think tanks.
There has been a great deal of controversy over the reported funding of millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and UAE to US think tanks. Think tanks say that the integrity of their work is not compromised, but there is a pattern in their output to further the interests of the donor countries.
Then there are covert means which can range from simple bribery to “election support” – providing funds for an incumbent’s election, or giving favoured parties business and “consultancy” contracts and so on. Some years ago, the US punished a Kashmiri-American, Ghulam Nabi Fai, for channeling ISI money to members of Congress and presidential candidates.
Being covert, such actions need to be subtle and sophisticated.
“Operation MEP” was neither.
First, the legitimate question raised was how foreign legislators could be permitted to tour the state, when Indian legislators have been prevented from doing so. Indeed, many erstwhile Kashmiri legislators are actually in detention.
Second, is the question of efficacy.
The opinion of right-wing MEPs, some of them known Islamophobes, is hardly likely to enhance India’s credibility. It is true that the Jammu and Kashmir militancy has gained a dangerous edge of Islamic militancy in recent years. But to look at the problem only through the lens of violent religious extremism would be wrong as Kashmiri separatism has other roots as well.
Revelations that their tour has probably been funded covertly by the government itself only reinforces the belief that the Modi government acts first and thinks later.
Like many of the other hasty decisions it has taken – demonetisation, for example – it reveals an alarming level of incompetence.
The real problem confronting the Modi government is the enormity of its own action in J&K, something which is not easy to defend.
This has become manifestly clear since the August 5 neutering of Article 370 and the demotion of J&K from a state of the Union to a mere Centrally-administered Union Territory. Besides the UN Security Council, the issue has been discussed most recently by a US Congressional panel.
Almost uniformly, the foreign media has been skeptical about official claim that things are normal in the state.
Even US officials who are usually positively inclined towards India have words that could not have been comfortable for New Delhi.
Speaking last week on the eve of the Congressional hearing, Alice Wells, the acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia said that the US State Department hoped “to see rapid action — the lifting of restrictions and the release of those detained” in Kashmir. She said that the US was concerned by the widespread detentions of political and business leaders and the restrictions on Kashmir residents.
So, some geniuses somewhere in Delhi (the MEA has strenuously denied any connection to the event) thought up the idea of parading MEPs known for their right-wing, anti-Islamic views through Kashmir and hoping for the best.
After a conducted tour, which was marred by a total shutdown and the terrorist killing of five labourers, all they had to say at a press conference, limited to select media personnel, was that they supported India’s war on terror.
Under the circumstances prevailing in the state, there was little point in getting the usual agencies involved. The Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) or the External Publicity (XP) Division of the Ministry of External Affairs are in the business of promoting Indian policy and have done a good job in the past.
They have experience and bring a professionalism in their approach. But when you get a dubious NGO run by a self-described “business broker,” Madi Sharma, to organise what should have been a sensitive covert operation, you end up with egg on your face, as, indeed, the government has.
The email inviting the MEPs with the promise of a meeting with the PM could not have been sent without official sanction at the highest level. Their costs are being borne by another NGO, the International Institute for Non Aligned Studies (IINAS) whose website links it to one Dr G.N. Srivastava who passed away in 1999. No doubt, some covert agency of the government paid up.
Surely, someone should have thought about the consequences of all this spilling out?
It would perhaps have been best if the government had not made the effort to defend the indefensible.
It is one thing to proclaim normalcy in New Delhi and another to perceive it on the ground in J&K. Far-right they may have been but none of the MEPs were crass enough to make that claim either.
When the official excitement over this visit dissipates, it will be apparent that government restrictions on the entry of people into Kashmir, including members of India’s own parliament, remain firmly in place.
As far as foreign journalists are concerned, the government has already tightened the rules and said they need prior clearance to visit the state, which, incidentally, has never been given. Given these realities, it will take more than a dog and pony show for MEPs to correct the perception that the government has something to hide.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.