India, which holds the presidency of the G-20 for 2023, is currently hosting a tourism working group meeting in Srinagar, Kashmir. The conference, which runs from May 22 to 24, is being attended by almost 60 delegates from G-20 countries.
From one perspective, it makes sense to hold a tourism-focused conference in Kashmir. After all, the region is so renowned for its natural beauty that it is often referred to as “heaven on earth.”
Unfortunately, Kashmir is equally well known for being the site of a long-running territorial dispute. Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety, and both administer a portion of it. These nuclear-powered neighbors have fought multiple wars over the disputed territory. As a result, the choice to hold a G-20 meeting in Srinagar has stoked controversy.
China has abstained from the meeting on the grounds that it is opposed to holding any kind of meeting in a disputed territory. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Turkey, and Egypt have also refused to participate in the meeting. Though not part of the G-20, Oman and Egypt had received special invitations to the meeting. Notably, Egypt’s president was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade this year, where the bilateral relationship between India and Egypt was elevated to the level of a “strategic partnership.”
Interestingly, despite the official boycott, trade delegations have arrived from both Saudi Arabia and Turkey to attend the tourism meeting.
Meanwhile Pakistan, which is not a member of the G-20 and was not invited to attend, lambasted the move as illegal and “an attempt by India to seek legitimacy over its control of the disputed region.”
Notably, this is the first high level international meeting to be held in Kashmir since 2019, when the state was divided into two federally administered territories – Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. Article 370, which partially guaranteed semi-autonomy to the state, was scrapped and the region was brought under the center’s direct control as a union territory. Huge controversies erupted following the decision. Protests and rallies were organized across India, and the move received intense media scrutiny not just from within the country but across the globe.
Nearly four years later, India wants to establish the fact that its decision to abrogate Article 370 was a success. The rationale behind the change, among others, was to bring back normalcy, returning to the more peaceful days seen in the region prior to 1989. By holding a high-level meeting in Kashmir – a challenge for security personnel even in a normal situation – the message is clear. If it is possible to hold a meeting where officials from the world’s most powerful economies are gathering, it implies that the situation in Kashmir has considerably improved.
The G-20 meeting comes amid other efforts to remold Kashmir’s reputation. The famous Polo View Market in Srinagar, where some of the major local businesses are located, has recently been renovated. Shops that were destroyed after a fire in 1954 were provided space to start their business. The street along with the shops have improved, and it has been decorated to give a new look.
With the number of tourists increasing and the economy witnessing some better days, this place has become popular even among the locals. It has recently been transformed into a premium pedestrian market under a Smart City initiative by Srinagar Smart City Limited. Additionally, much of this is being publicized in the media to provide a positive image about the region – news beyond death, fire, destruction, and conflict.
During the G-20 working group meeting, the entire process of arranging such a grand display is also creating temporary employment for locals. Local crafts will be on display, and the delegates will go sight-seeing across the Dal Lake. The meeting is expected to include discussions exploring Kashmir as a possible movie shooting destination. Movie star Ram Charan was even invited on the first day where he performed the famous dance steps from his Oscar award winning song “Naatu Naatu.”
These are all ways to shape the perceptions of the representatives of various countries. The instruments of legitimacy are being played out through a grand narrative to establish the abrogation of Article 370 as a success story for the Indian government – and for Kashmir itself.
For the locals, the G-20 meeting also brings a change in the psychological landscape, from the usual uniform-clad soldiers holding guns to important delegates from across the globe who are enjoying and celebrating the beauty of their region. It is a tremendous moral boost to give the region a chance to celebrate normalcy.
Kashmir is the site of gaping wounds which will be difficult, well-nigh impossible, to heal. But people, in general, are tired. They are frustrated with the daily violence, unnecessary conflict, and innocent deaths. Nobody desires conflict or war. Even the troops posted in the region want to get back to their homes to their loved ones.
However, securing peace for the three-day meeting has come at a high cost. People who were on the authorities’ radar have already been arrested, checkpoints have been covered with G-20 banners, and schools have been closed in the areas through which the delegates’ cars will pass. The question remains: When such high security is disrupting the normal lives of the locals, is the G-20 meeting really a sign of peace – or as, some are suggesting, it is the peace of the graveyard?
To be sure, it’s common in India to see such high security when high profile guests arrive. Even when a local Member of Legislative Assembly or Member of Parliament passes by, streets are cordoned off and vehicles temporarily stopped to allow the VIP’s unhindered movement. The normal lives of locals throughout India are disrupted whenever a high-profile visit is scheduled. Prior to any elections, under the Preventive Detention Act 1950 many elements are randomly picked by India’s executive branch and local police to deter them from creating any unnecessary nuisance.
Ordinary criminals and people fighting for their rights and recognition cannot be viewed through the same lens. Having said that, one cannot ignore the plausibility of external elements interfering to disrupt the G-20 event. Therefore, former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s remarks at a press conference – where she likened the situation to Guantanamo Bay – appear to be more of a political gimmick than a substantive criticism.
Nonetheless, one should not ignore or overlook the complex situation in Kashmir. On one side is the demand for a dignified life and on the other is the persistent provocation by a belligerent neighbor. Navigating between the two to achieve a justified position acceptable to many, if not most, of the people in Kashmir, should be the objective. There have been previous attempts to improve the political outlook for the region. However, nothing substantive has come out of those endeavors.
Harnessing local talent, creating jobs, building infrastructure, promoting movies and entertainment to be filmed at various locations, allowing more visitors and outsiders, organizing cricket and football matches, organizing events by popular film and cricketing personalities to inspire and motivate the youth, and encouraging private investments – these would all lead to a more permanent solution than seeking to find peace through “invisible policing.”
If India succeeds in conducting the G-20 meeting without any hindrance it will send a strong message to its neighbors and to the world. But only time will be the the judge of whether these events will have any positive impact on the situation in Kashmir and herald a new beginning for the younger generations. It is time to look forward and this is only a tiny step toward the right direction.