By Annie Domini
Resurrecting a dead professor from Harvard Law School to suit ultra-nationalist interests is only the tip of the scam-berg that has been exposed in the recent EU DisinfoLab 2020 report, called the “Indian Chronicles”. A vast transnational political scam, funded by a certain Srivastava Group, has been brewing for over a decade and half, with hundreds of fake websites, shadowy thinktanks and lobbying groups hustling it out in Geneva and Brussels targeting the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) as well as pliable Members of the European Parliament, often of a converging far-right ideology, to serve “pro-India interests”. But a harder look makes it clear that those interests are not at all pro-India, at least for the India that believes in constitutionalism, democracy, secularism and good-old diplomacy to make its case, instead of bankrolling nefarious organisations that hijack the human rights discourse for a far-right agenda.
The report – the second of this nature; the first one came out in December last year – shows that the crepuscular network is primarily aimed at “discrediting Pakistan internationally”, with its lobby groups approaching far-right MEPs to raise anti-Pakistan questions dressed up as human rights issues in the European Parliament. While there are several genuine human rights breaches occurring in India’s western neighbour, not to mention the cross-border terrorism that had been originating from it for decades, a pro-India network spanning over a hundred countries and over 700 fake publications mimicking real newspapers and websites is hardly the way to highlight it.
In fact, of these websites, EP Today, discontinued since the December 2019 DisinfoLab report and resurrected as EU Chronicle, was often quoted by ANI (Asian News International), the news agency most proximate to the Modi government. The lobbyists, inserted in various nodal points of the miasma that is the Srivastava Group, persuaded far-right MEPs like Ryszard Czarneki, Thierry Mariani, Fulvio Martusciello to write op-eds in support of Narendra Modi government’s Islamophobic legislations such as robbing Kashmir of its special status in August 2019, bringing in the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019, or in support of the Balakot “surgical strikes” against Pakistan in 2019, in the wake of the Pulwama attack and just two months before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
These op-eds published in the dubious EP Today or EU Chronicle were then quoted by ANI as representative of the European Union en bloc, thereby seriously misrepresenting the fringe, sponsored opinions of the loony bunch of ultra-conservatives in the European Parliament. All these three MEPs were part of the controversial Kashmir trip in mid-2020, organised by, among others, a lobbyist called Madi Sharma, who pressured Julie Ward, a British MEP, to co-sign on an anti-Pakistan, pro-India column for EP Today, even though Ward is equally critical of Modi government’s “nationalist and authoritarian drift”.
The multi-layered media and think-tank network, inter-quoting and bolstering each other, even managing to resurrect several American and European NGOs which closed down in the 70s or 80s, and get them UN accreditation to spread blistering pro-India, anti-Pakistan propaganda, orchestrating demonstrations outside UN buildings in global cities, inserting speakers at UNHRC and other human rights bodies to skew the narrative in favour of India – isn’t just a matter of managing foreign relations and one-upmanship with Pakistan. While it hasn’t been definitively linked with the Narendra Modi government, the Srivastava Group’s activities can be said to have equally hampered democracy within India by clouding the domestic and foreign affairs in a stinking bubble of disinformation, fake news, fake opinions and articles that piggyback on ultra and Hindu nationalism of the current government at the centre.
For example, when far-right MEPs write on the Balakot strike, itself shrouded in mystery, and influencing the outcome of the 2019 general elections in a decisive way, it doesn’t remain confined to India’s external relations with Pakistan alone. Similarly, when far-right MEPs visit a besieged Kashmir – a Kashmir unconstitutionally stripped of autonomy, robbed of dignity and digital connectivity for months at a stretch, imprisoned in their own homes, without adequate medical care despite Covid-19, always staring at the barrel of a gun – and parrot the Modi government’s line, propaganda to milk foreign relations and paper over the rough edges spills over into domestic politics, furthers the anti-Kashmiri narrative in mainstream media and the injects into the drip-feed of Islamophobia the steroid of wrongly framed national security.
There are just so many questions which arise out of the findings of the EU DisinfoLab report. The first and foremost is this: Who and what is the Srivastava Group, and how have they managed to dig so deep into international diplomatic circuits with their army of fake NGOs, think-tanks and 750-plus media outlets? How can a relatively lesser-known corporation survive globally on its own and pull as many strings without raising governmental eyebrows? If the network has been active since 2005/2006, how has its modus operandi changed since May 2014, when India took a decidedly ultra-nationalist turn in its domestic and external affairs?
The second question is this: with the high-voltage exposé of ANI’s prominent role in disseminating the disinformation from EP Today, EU Chronicle and other fake websites, passing them off as credible sources of information, presenting fringe far-right MEP op-eds as views of prominent European powers, plugging these op-eds and tweets into Indian mainstream media – what is to be done about it? Till the time of writing this column, this writer hasn’t seen a statement by the Editors’ Guild of India condemning ANI’s role in propagating malicious misinformation, and instituting an enquiry into the same. Other than the usual suspects of independent online portals, there’s a studied silence on the report in the mainstream media, both newspapers and TV channels. Forget stocktaking, the report hasn’t even merited a single column or a ticker in Indian Big Media, even though Eu DisinfoLab members have dubbed the “Indian Chronicles” as the largest that they have so far uncovered, and have also compared the findings to the Russian interference into the 2016 US elections. ANI’s fake news peddling editor-in-chief is still a welcome commentator on all matters national and international on all major TV channels. This collective brushing under the carpet of the DisinfoLab report hammers one more nail into the coffin of media freedom in India.
The third question is what happens to genuine human rights discourse when its grammar and lexicon is disabused thus, suiting ultra-conservative agendas and becoming a pawn in despicable psy-op games of hard powers. We have come a very long way from India’s pioneering of the Non-Aligned Movement and global anti-colonial struggles, to now our foreign and domestic policies being appropriated by shadowy, unaccountable networks of unparalleled, unchecked and undemocratic powers. The DisinfoLab report is surely a wake-up call for all those who still care for the secular, democratic Republic of India. (IPA Service)
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