Kashmir is hosting the prestigious G20 Tourism Working Group meeting, something that could not have been imagined a few years ago, when the only sounds emanating from there were those of guns, stones, provocative slogans and wails of the families of victims.
Times have changed and the same place and people will be witness to an event that brings along with it loads of global attention and recognition. Along with it comes a big diplomatic challenge that India seeks to manoeuvre to set right age-old perceptions and negative narratives.
G20 is the first major international event in Jammu and Kashmir since August 2019, when the state was divided into two Union territories — J&K and Ladakh — and its special status under Article 370 revoked. In fact, it is a big event the scale of which has not been seen in the valley in several decades — almost four.
It is a big moment for India to showcase Kashmir’s tourism potential and send a message to the world that J&K is an integral part of the country. It is as normal as are the rest of the states and UTs, where development and peace have been brought about after decades of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.
G20 in Kashmir is also meant to send a message to Pakistan and the terrorist and separatist outfits that it has been sponsoring. As was expected, Pakistan ‘condemned’ India’s decision to hold G20 meetings in Kashmir.
Despite being caught in a major internal political turbulence and not having to do anything with G20, Pakistan has been trying to create a narrative against the event by orchestrating a smear campaign on social media. Pakistan’s foreign office is said to have written to all missions abroad to create an environment against the event.
Also, on expected lines, China decided to skip the meeting. Its decision is apparently linked to objections by its close ally Pakistan. Turkey and Saudi Arabia have yet to confirm their attendance.
India has dismissed objections from Pakistan over holding G20 meetings in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, saying such events are being organised in all states and Union territories ahead of the big summit in New Delhi in September.
More than 60 international delegates have registered and 17 G20 member countries have confirmed their participation so far (till May 20).
The G20 includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the UK and the US, and the European Union.
Apart from the G20 members, India has invited delegates from guest countries and several international organisations. These include Bangladesh, Egypt, Mauritius, Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, Spain and the UAE. Only Egypt has not registered so far, the Centre said on May 19.
China and Pakistan playing spoilsport was expected, but a UN official’s statement criticising India for holding the meeting in Kashmir sought to put India in a spot.
On May 15, Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, said holding a G20 meeting in Jammu and Kashmir while “massive human rights violations are ongoing is lending support to attempts by India to normalise the brutal and repressive denial of democratic and other rights of Kashmiri Muslims and minorities”.
India strongly rejected Varennes’ statement as “baseless and unwarranted”, and attacked him for acting “irresponsibly to politicise this issue”.
The Permanent Mission of India in Geneva responded by saying that India as G20 president has the prerogative to host its meetings in any part of the country.
Despite the diplomatic run-ins, it is still a win-win situation for India. Participants from a minimum of 25 countries will be in Kashmir for three days deliberating on its tourism potential.
China, which is boycotting the meet, has a lot to answer for its action. India accuses it of being the occupier of land that belong to Ladakh and J&K. China is also involved in some projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which India says are illegal activities.
If China says that it is “opposed to holding any kind of G20 meetings in disputed territory”, then how has it entered Pakistan-occupied J&K areas and is gobbling up the resources there. If Pakistan is saying that Kashmir “is disputed”, then how has it sold/leased lands to China to tap resources and construct projects in PoJK.
By organising the G20 meeting in Kashmir, India wants the world to see and believe that the Union Territory is normal, stable, peaceful, and ready to engage with the world after the 2019 decision.
Tourism figures for the UT broke all records last year. For the first time in the history of Jammu and Kashmir, a record 1.88 crore tourists visited the Union Territory in 2022, according to the government.
Investors, including foreign ones, are lining up and coming. Dubai’s Emaar in March announced plans to build a $60-million shopping and office complex in Srinagar.
Contrast this to the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, where people have been struggling for basic necessities. Discriminatory policies of the Pakistan government have exploited the region for several decades, and in the last 75 years the areas have seen minimal development.
There have been huge protests in Gilgit-Baltistan against the Pak government and its Army. Often videos emerge from the region wherein people are seen demanding a reunion with India.
In this backdrop, too, India has found an opportunity in G20 to put its point across on the issue of J&K, and showcase the valley as an area of focus for peace and development. And, hosting the G20 Tourism Working Group in Kashmir will help it to counter the Pakistan and China narrative.
But there are going to be questions about the lack of political participation. The people of J&K have been without democratic representation for four long years.
J&K is without a Legislative Assembly from 2018 after the BJP withdrew its support from the coalition government headed by Mehbooba Mufti. The political leaders have been seeking elections, and the Centre in turn also has promised elections soon.
While some issues might be uncomfortable for the Centre, it is determined to make the G20 meeting in Kashmir a window for the world. And, also to counter those in the country who opposed the abrogation of Article 370 and continue to deny the return of peace there.
The delegates will get to see the picturesque Dal Lake that has witnessed a transformation to clean shimmering waters from the days when it was clogged by weeds. Footpaths have been renovated. Roadside walls have been painted in peach and white.
After deliberating at the Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC), which has been given a Rs 7.5-crore makeover, the foreign delegates will be taken on sightseeing tours in the valley.
By attending the meeting in Kashmir, G20 supports and endorses India’s stand on J&K. The event serves this big picture, which is intended at the end of the meet on May 24.
(Deepika Bhan can be contacted at email@example.com)