The Brussels-based South Asia Democratic Forum praised the controversial 2018 Bangladesh election as being “free and fair”.

How a pro-India “disinformation” group helped the Awami League government David Bergman December 24, 2020

Meeting in November 2018 between a SADF organised delegation of EU parliamentarians with Sheikh Hasina. Sitting with the prime minister is Rupert Matthews, an MEP and head of the SADF delegation. Photo: PID

A Brussels-based think-tank which applauded Bangladesh’s national elections in December 2018 as “free and fair” and called on the opposition to “respect the democratic will of the Bangladeshi people” has been identified as being part of a sophisticated Indian disinformation campaign.

The EU Disinfo Lab, a non-governmental body also based in Brussels, identified the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) as part of a linked network of organisations and media, established by the Indian business conglomerate Srivastava group, which promoted Indian government interests.

The findings are detailed in a report, “Indian chronicles: Deep dive into a 15 year operation targeting the EU and UN to serve Indian interests”, published earlier this month, which states that it uncovered “an entire network of coordinated UN-accredited NGOs promoting Indian interests and criticizing Pakistan repeatedly. We could tie at least 10 of them directly to the Srivastava family.”

“These UN-accredited NGOs work in coordination with non-accredited think-tanks and minority-rights NGOs in Brussels and Geneva. Several of them like the European Organization for Pakistani Minorities (EOPM), Baluchistan House and the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) were directly but opaquely created by the Srivastava group.”

About SADF, the EU Disinfo Lab report specifically states: “We now have the evidence that the domain names of […] the South-Asia Democratic Forum were registered by the Srivastava group […] The initial physical address of SADF in Brussels was also 37 Square Meeus, the same address as the Srivastava group.”

The report shows how SADF which was founded in February 2011 by Paulo Casaca, a former member of the European Parliament, was linked to other Srivastava  established groups: “A bit more than one month after its creation, Paulo Casaca was invited as [a] panellist to an event in the UN headquarters in Geneva, which was hosted by the resurrected Commission to Study the Organization of Peace. In February 2012, it was SADF’s turn to organize its first event at the UN Conference Centre in Geneva, which was presented as co-sponsored by the resurrected Commission to Study the Organization of Peace too and involved Mehran Baluch, President of the Baluchistan House, as a key speaker.”

The report refers to the Commission to Study the Organization of Peace as “resurrected” since in the late 1970s it had become a defunct organisation whose identity had been recently “hijacked” by the Srivastava conglomerate.

Though the SADF has primarily focused on producing pro-Indian government and anti-Pakistan research, it has a history of producing pro-Awami League government material which criticises the Bangladesh opposition.

Most recently, in late November 2018, the South Asia Democratic Forum had organised a delegation of right-wing European parliamentarians to visit Bangladesh. The SADF programme allowed the delegation to meet only Awami League politicians and pro-government media representatives and at the end of the trip, SADF issued a pro-government statement claiming that the prime minister “has shown the world that Bangladesh shares the same values as Europe in terms of liberalism, freedom, gender equality and democracy.”

A month later, a day after the controversial national elections, the SADF issued a statement confirming their fairness and stating that “the elections were well planned by the Election Commission and conducted in a light-hearted atmosphere.” The statement, which was posted the next day on the website of the Bangladesh government ministry of foreign affairs, also quoted Tania Dawn Foster, described as “an observer from Canada”, stating that “voters are feeling empowered and enthusiastic about being able to come and vote” and that “the polling took place in a safe and orderly environment thanks to the great efforts of public officers and officials.”

The Reuters news agency has earlier reported the partisan nature of the “SAARC Human Rights Foundation” which Foster was a part of, noting that the foundation had no affiliation at all with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation though its logo and initials were similar. In addition, its advisory committee was chaired by a member of parliament from the Awami League and included a former lawmaker from the Jatiya Party, which has been allied with the Awami League.

Foster told Reuters that she had no experience in observing elections,  “I don’t know that our reports are of that much value, considering we only visited nine polling centers and only in Dhaka. […] We didn’t go to the more hostile areas. We didn’t audit the election commission or conduct background checks of the presiding officers or poll agents.” However, she subsequently retracted these comments.

Most independent journalists and commentators found there to be systematic rigging of the Bangladesh elections. Transparency International Bangladesh concluded that the election was “partially participatory, non-competitive, questionable and faulty”. In relation to the 50 parliamentary seats selected on a random basis, the anti-corruption body found  that in 33 of the constituencies, stuffing of ballot papers had taken place the night before the elections, in 30 seats, ballots were stamped openly after polling booths were occupied and in 22 constituencies there was non-availability of ballot papers.

In September 2020, SADF’s executive director delivered a speech praising Sheikh Hasina on the occasion of her birthday at a meeting organised by the Awami League.

The Srivastava group first came to public attention when it was identified as the sponsor of a visit in 2019 of lawmakers from the European Union to Kashmir. At that time, it stated on its website —  now offline — that it was one of “the fastest growing business houses in the country with interests in natural resources, clean energy, airspace, consulting services, healthcare, print media and publishing.” However, an article in The Wire (India) found that company register documents revealed most of its companies transacted no real business raising questions about the source of its money.

Madi Sharma, director of the Brussels-based Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT), was part of both the SADF delegations that went to Kashmir and Dhaka and according to the EU Disinfo lab is linked to the Srivastava group.

In response to a request for comment about the claims set out above, Paulo Casaca, the executive director of South Asia Democratic Forum told Netra News: “What is your relation to the disinformation network named ‘Disinfo LAB’? Why do you make statements that are false and pure jihadi propaganda? Why are you cooperating with this disinformation campaign? Who is financing you and this campaign?” 

In a separate email, Casaca added: “You are attributing to me a lot of fictitious acts and declarations regarding Bangladesh and then you try to imply any link between them and claims on who lodges my website and the building where SADF was lodged by some month (with dozens of other organisations) to make abusive extrapolations.”●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.

References

EU Disinfo Lab – “Indian Chronicles: Deep dive into a 15 year operation targeting the EU and UN to serve Indian interests” (December, 2020)

thewire.in – Mysterious Entity Behind MEPs Kashmir Visit, Srivastava Group Has Little Public Presence

Reuters – Some in Bangladesh election observer group said they regretted involvement (Jan, 2019)

SADF – “Future generations should not suffer as our’s did’: PM Sheikh Hasina dreams of a prosperous Bangladesh (Nov, 2018)

SADF – Report into delegation visit to Bangladesh, November 2018

Bangladesh MOFA – Statement of the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF) on 11th Bangladesh Parliamentary Election. (Jan, 2019)

SADF – Draft Agenda of meetings in Bangladesh (Nov, 2018)