HomeWorldIndia holds G20 tourism event in Kashmir restless to show its normalcy

India holds G20 tourism event in Kashmir restless to show its normalcy

SRINAGAR, India — The famous houseboats, festooned with lights and emblazoned with the G-20 logo, were barely visible behind lines of uniformed policemen stationed around Kashmir’s stunning Dal Lake. Every 20 feet along the promenade was a billboard advertising Kashmiri scenic spots, with a camouflage-clad soldier standing behind it.

Signs for the intergovernmental Group of 20 forum that India is hosting this year proclaim the country as “The Mother of Democracy”, but this gathering for tourism took place in a heavily militarized region that has not seen elections for its legislature in almost a decade. .

Having delegates from the world’s 20 richest nations come together to discuss tourism amid the majestic Himalayan beauty of Indian Kashmir shows what India says is the return of peace and prosperity to the region. But the talks touting a new normal came amid a heavy security presence and stood in stark contrast to the voices being heard outside the barricaded conference facility.

The closure of the Kashmir Press Club is the latest blow to press freedom in the conflict-torn region

“What will come of this development? We must first have peace in our hearts,” 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 nearby shops to stay open to give the territory an appearance of normality.

As he spoke, a dozen members of the federal paramilitary police, followed by their huge windowless armored vehicle, stopped to search a group of youths. “The delegation should come here and see this and talk to us,” the trader said. “They should talk about the Kashmir issue. Otherwise, what’s the point?

The decision to hold one of the dozens of G-20 meetings this year in Kashmir has not been without controversy. China has boycotted the event, it has been condemned by neighboring Pakistan and the UN special rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, issued a searing statement saying that the Indian government “is trying to normalize what some have described as a military occupation.”

Voices of Kashmir: Inside India’s year-long crackdown

India’s only Muslim-majority entity, Kashmir has long been the pride and joy of the country with its magnificent mountain vistas. It was once a must-shoot location for movies and a coveted honeymoon destination, even as it was caught in an ongoing tug-of-war between Pakistan and India that sparked several wars.

After disputed elections in 1987, simmering dissatisfaction erupted into a violent insurgency and government crackdown that tarnished Kashmir’s reputation. After coming to power, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched “Operation All Out,” a 2017 crackdown on militants that killed hundreds and dramatically. worsening relations with Pakistan.

After Modi won a second term in 2019, his government revoked the state’s special autonomous status negotiated after independence and made it a territory directly governed by New Delhi. Any dissent was quashed harshly restrictionsincluding the longest internet shutdown in a democracy and locking up the main political leaders, journalists and activists.

The government maintains that removing the region’s special status has allowed it to properly control it and usher in a new era of development, including relaxing land laws to allow foreign entry and investment, the meeting of the government shows. G-20.

“The fact that we are celebrating it in Srinagar is itself a kind of achievement,” Jitendra Singh, a government minister who is also a member of parliament for the region, told a news conference. “This is an opportunity to see with your own eyes what it is 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 arrived 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 warnings in Kashmir will attract more Europeans and others.

Arun Kumar Mehta, the territory’s chief secretary, said about $250 million of the proposed $8 billion in investment projects has been completed, with money coming from the Middle East in particular 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 longing in ordinary people to return to normality. Peace arises when people have an interest in peace. And it is very evident that people have an interest in peace.” The territory’s deputy governor, Manoj Sinha, also said that the “ecosystem of terror sponsored by our neighbor has all but been 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 said, “If they are so confident, they should have opened the doors of the (G-20 center) so that the locals are part of the event and not hold it under a cover of security so tight. Only the government is celebrating.” He spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely.

In particular, the government has promoted a new high-profile multiplex in the city, marking the return of cinemas to the region after they were attacked by militants in the 1990s and all closed.

Khushboo Farooq, a 21-year-old who works there, said she finally found a place where she feels truly safe after it opened last year. “We need entertainment in our lives, after what we’ve been through.”

“The reality is that Kashmir has already changed and we haven’t realized this,” said Vikas Dhar, the theater owner, who hoped the G-20 event would push the Kashmir narrative beyond conflict. He described his theater as “a response to the demand that people are raising.”

While people would like to go to the movies, that kind of development is not “the basic crux of what they really want,” responded Anuradha Bhasin, editor of the Kashmir Times, who said about half a dozen government cases against her newspaper they had crippled him. “They are beautifying certain areas, but the people are not in the story. Then you have big jamborees like the G-20, it smacks of government indifference to the people.”

Bhasin said that while the apparent signs of violence may be diminishing, without free and open participation media it is not clear if the 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 comes with a heavy hand.

“They are trying to use tourism as a sign of normality,” he said, adding that approximately 100 young people were detained before the G-20 meeting in “preventive arrests”.

“If everything is fine, why this suppression? Maybe today, it’s quiet. But the amount of power that goes into keeping things like this, can’t be used like this all the time. And when God forbid it bursts, it can be very big. You know, Kashmir, it can happen at any time,” he said.

‘A dormant volcano’: Kashmiri streets are quiet, but residents seethe with resentment

Mohammad Sayeed Malik, a retired journalist from the region, said elections for the territory’s assembly could offer a “breakthrough.”

While such elections could happen “soon”, according to officials at the G-20 event, the government is for now focusing on local elections to strengthen “grassroots” politics amid concerns that candidates for the assembly could fuel separatist sentiments, particularly if funded by Pakistan.

The mall employee said he has given up holding elections any time soon. He agreed that Modi’s campaigns have attracted tourists, but “they come, enjoy the beauty and leave without bothering to ask us what we’re up against or how we’ve been.”

Shams Irfan contributed to this report.

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