Signs outside the Group of 20 intergovernmental forum that India is hosting this year proclaim that the country is “the mother of democracy”, but this tourism meeting took place in a heavily militarized region that has been without elections for nearly a decade are held before its legislature.
Bringing together the delegates of the world’s 20 richest countries to discuss tourism amidst the majestic Himalayan beauty of India’s Kashmir demonstrates what India believes is the return of peace and prosperity to the region. But the talks touting a new normalcy came amid a heavy security presence and stood in stark contrast to the voices just outside the barricaded conference building.
The closure of the Kashmir Press Club is the latest blow to media freedom in the conflict-torn region
“What will come out of this development? We must have peace in our hearts first,” said a shopkeeper – who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about the government – in the heart of Srinagar’s old city, an area that has often witnessed violence. He said police threatened to keep nearby shops open to give a semblance of normalcy to the area.
As he spoke, a dozen members of the federal paramilitary police, followed by their huge windowless armored vehicle, stopped to frisk a group of young boys. “The delegation needs to come and see this and talk to us,” the shopkeeper said. “They should talk about the Kashmir issue. What’s the point otherwise?”
The decision to hold one of dozens of G-20 meetings in Kashmir this year has not been made without controversy. China boycotted the event, it was condemned by neighboring Pakistan and UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Fernand de Varennes, has sizzling statement say the Indian government is “trying to normalize what some have described as a military occupation”.
Voices from Kashmir: Inside India’s Years of Repression
Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority entity, has long been the pride and joy of the country with its beautiful mountain views. It was once a must-see movie shooting location and a coveted honeymoon destination, even when it was caught in a continuous tug-of-war between Pakistan and India that sparked several wars.
After disputed elections in 1987, simmering discontent erupted into a violent uprising and government crackdown that darkened Kashmir’s reputation. After coming to power, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched “Operation All Out” – a 2017 offensive against the militants that left hundreds dead and relations with Pakistan deteriorated dramatically.
After Modi won a second term in office in 2019, his government revoked the state’s special autonomous status negotiated post-independence and made it an area directly administered by New Delhi. Any dissent was suppressed with severe restrictions, including the longest internet shutdown in a democracy and the jailing of top political leaders, journalists and activists.
The government claims that the removal of the region’s special status has enabled it to properly control the region and usher in a new era of development, including relaxation of land laws to admit outsiders and investment, such as the G -20 meeting shows.
“The fact that we are holding it in Srinagar is an achievement in itself,” said Jitendra Singh, a minister who is also a member of parliament from the region, at a news conference. “This is an opportunity to see for yourself what it’s all about. The common man has moved on.”
Kashmir saw a record number of tourists last year, nearly 2.6 million, while another 13,000 foreign tourists have come this year, mostly from Southeast Asia, to see the region’s famous mountains and tulips. The government hopes that new golf courses, train lines and efforts to remove travel advisories for Kashmir will bring in more Europeans and others.
Arun Kumar Mehta, the area’s chief secretary, said about $250 million of the proposed $8 billion investment projects have been completed, with money pouring in from the Middle East, particularly for shopping complexes.
“2022 was a historic year of development,” he said. “Life was normal for the first time in many, many years. I see such a desire in the common people to get back to normal. Peace comes about when people have an interest in peace. And it is very clear that people have an interest in peace.” The area’s lieutenant governor, Manoj Sinha, also said the “ecosystem of terror sponsored by our neighbor is almost dismantled”.
Since the crackdown, militant recruitment has plummeted, according to a senior security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
But a 28-year-old who works at a mall in Srinagar commented that “if they are that confident, they should have opened the gates of the (G-20 centre) for the locals to be a part of the event and don’t keep it under such tight security cover, only the government is celebrating.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
In particular, the government has touted a new high-profile cinema complex in the city, marking the return of cinemas to the region after they were targeted by militants in the 1990s and all closed.
Khushboo Farooq, a 21-year-old who works there, said that after opening last year, she finally found a place where she feels really safe. “We need the entertainment in our lives after what we’ve been through.”
“The reality is that Kashmir has already changed, and we didn’t wake up to this,” said Vikas Dhar, the owner of the theater, who hoped the G-20 event would take Kashmir’s story beyond conflict. He described his theater as “an answer to the question people are asking.”
While people love going to the cinema, these kinds of developments are not “the fundamental crux of what they really want,” countered Anuradha Bhasin, an editor of Kashmir Times, who said the government’s six or so cases against its newspaper had crippled it. It. “They beautify certain areas, but the people are missing from the story. Then you have big jamborees like the G-20, which kind of smacks of government indifference to the people.”
Bhasin said that while apparent signs of violence are diminishing, without a free and vocal media, it is unclear whether militancy is growing or not.
Mehbooba Mufti, a former prime minister who was detained after the region’s semi-autonomous status was revoked, said this apparent development and prosperity is coming with a heavy hand.
“They are trying to use tourism as a sign of normalcy,” she said, adding that about 100 young men were held in “pre-emptive arrests” before the G-20 meeting.
“If everything is fine, then why this oppression? Maybe it’s quiet today. But the amount of power used to keep things that way can’t always be used that way. And God forbid, it bursts, it can be very big. You know Kashmir, it could happen any minute,” she said.
‘A sleeping volcano’: the streets of Kashmir are silent, but the inhabitants seethe with resentment
Mohammad Sayeed Malik, a retired journalist from the region, said elections for the assembly of the area could represent a “breakthrough”.
While such elections could take place “soon” according to officials at the G-20 event, the government is focusing on local elections for now to bolster politics from the “grassroots” amid fears candidate assemblies could spark separatist sentiment. fuel, especially if financed by Pakistan.
The mall employee said he has given up on the upcoming election. He agreed that Modi’s campaigns have attracted tourists, but “they come, enjoy the beauty and leave without bothering to ask us what we stand for or how we did it.”
Shams Irfan contributed to this report.