The G20’s Tourism Working Group concluded its three-day meeting in Srinagar on May 24, sparking an intense battle of optics between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his global detractors. The Modi government sought to export its “normalcy narrative of Kashmir” to an international audience, aiming to portray Modi as a strong global leader tough on terror. Meanwhile, Modi’s online supporters attempted to set the tone for next year’s general election by promoting “military nationalism”.
The mood among Kashmiris, caught between Modi and his critics, oscillated between excitement, dismissal, and indifference. The heritage city was adorned with brightly painted murals and hoardings, and the swanky Polo View market wore another coat of polish, attracting the attention of delighted camera-persons.
However, a Kashmiri journalist embedded with a foreign publication questioned the absence of the Kashmiri voice and the lack of debate on everyday hardships. “Where are we (Kashmiris) in this internationally sold mega event? Where is our voice? Where’s the debate on our everyday hardship?” he asked. Some members of the civil society endorsed this viewpoint. Nonetheless, the foreign delegates’ presence in the conflict-ridden region, with its history of violence, also sparked excitement among locals, who gathered around the Dal Lake in hopes of catching a glimpse of the distinguished guests.
Masking important issues
The Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Manoj Sinha, expressed confidence in these three days as a “new era” heralding “limitless possibilities of growth and peace”. Sinha highlighted the influx of foreign investments and the social and economic opportunities available to all citizens. “Now even foreign investments are coming into Jammu and Kashmir, green shoots of better times people are anxiously looking up to… We are ensuring social equality and equal economic opportunity to all citizens, which is enabling them to contribute to nation building,” he said.
However, despite the government’s commitment to tap into Kashmir’s tourism potential, the region continues to struggle due to the loss of its special status which nearly turned it into a cage in 2019, and attracting a “no-go-zone” advisory from several countries. In 2022, out of the 18.4 million tourists who visited Kashmir, only 20,000 were foreigners.
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The plight of Kashmiris—including random detentions under the Public Safety Act, the targeting of journalists under anti-terror laws, mainstream politicians who face obstruction in their politics, and non-locals and Kashmiri Pandits who bear the brunt of targeted-killings—was not expected to be a focus of the G20 event.
Instead, the event aimed to sell the narrative of Kashmir’s transformation into a tourism hub under Modi’s leadership. It also sought to showcase the growing global interest in Indian arts and spirituality, as demonstrated by the yoga session conducted by foreign delegates against the backdrop of the Zabarwan mountain range on the first day. Ultimately, the event aimed to build a case for rewarding Modi in the upcoming elections in April-May 2024.
During the summit, several events related to film tourism, ecotourism, green tourism, digitalisation, skills, MSMEs, and destination management took place. On May 23, the G20 Disaster Risk Reduction Working Group (DRRWG) meeting took place and delegates visited the Emergency Operations Centre at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) headquarters. However, the media focussed more on delegates enjoying recreational activities such as golfing, shikara rides, and shopping. The publication of a news report “Netherland Envoy purchases pillow cover, scarf at Polo View Market” by a local weekly drew attention to the irony of hosting a G20 summit while the region’s humanitarian issues remained unaddressed.
A PR gimmick?
Bashir Veeri, a senior leader from the National Conference, criticised the summit as another PR gimmick by the Modi government to project normalcy and democracy to the world. He emphasised the need to address the aspirations of the people, including the restoration of statehood and democracy as they existed before August 2019. “It is a sheer wastage of time and resources. What would make a difference on the ground is addressing the aspirations of the people,” said Veeri.
Ahead of the summit, India faced opposition from several countries opposed to the Modi government’s decision to revoke the region’s special status. China boycotted the event, citing its firm opposition to holding any G20 meetings on disputed territory. Its Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stated, “China firmly opposes holding any form of G20 meetings on disputed territory. We will not attend such meetings”. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, launched a scathing attack on India. “I think that this is a continuation in what is becoming a norm now, of India’s arrogance on the international stage,” he said. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Oman, and Turkey also abstained from attending, raising concerns about the impact of Hindu majoritarianism on India’s bilateral relations.
Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists raised concerns about the assault on Kashmiri journalists. The forum called on the Modi government to end its crackdown on the media and release the detained journalists. Working as a journalist in Kashmir has become increasingly challenging, with constant surveillance and harassment.
Prior to the event, there were widespread arrests and random detentions across the valley, seemingly creating a climate of fear under the guise of a security drill. Unconfirmed reports of police harassment and arrests circulated on social media, further exacerbating tensions. Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, compared the situation to the notorious Guantánamo Bay.
Sehar Shah, the daughter of incarcerated Kashmiri separatist leader Shabir Shah, shared her harrowing experience with Frontline. She described how a large contingent of armed personnel forcefully entered their home, shouting and destroying their property during a search. The insensitivity of the security forces was evident as they entered prayer rooms, even when women were alone in the house. “A huge contingent of Army personnel entered the house breaking the gate, jumping over the fence. They completely destroyed the decor of our drawing room, and made a total mess in our bed rooms,” Sehar Shah recalled.
Failing to make an impact
Despite the boycotts and suppressed voices, the G20 event did not fail to make an impact. Delegates and officials from G20 member countries, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, the UK, the US, and the European Union, attended the inaugural events in Srinagar on May 22. The presence of delegates from the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States highlighted India’s growing reputation as a reliable ally and economic partner, particularly in light of China’s ambitions in the region.
This also raises the question of why the Indian government continually seeks foreign approval for its handling of Kashmir, considering it a domestic matter. The purpose of the G20 meet in Srinagar seemed to be an attempt to project to the world, through foreign delegates, that all is well in Kashmir. This is not the first time Modi has sought validation from foreigners on the Kashmir issue. In November 2019, a delegation of European Union MPs visited the region, drawing allegations of staging by the Modi government.
In February 2021, nearly 20 envoys from various countries toured Jammu and Kashmir to showcase the government’s “development work”. This obsession with foreign approval begs the question: why does a government that takes credit for India’s assertiveness constantly seek validation on a domestic matter?