India is set to host a Group of 20 (G20) meeting in Indian-administered Kashmir, with residents and experts saying the controversial event is aimed at projecting “normalcy” in the disputed region.
The third G20 working group meeting on tourism will be held in the region from May 22 to 24 – the first global event there since August 5, 2019 when India’s right-wing government scrapped the special status of the country’s only Muslim-majority region.
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In the years since New Delhi brought Indian-administered Kashmir under its direct control, the government has pushed a series of laws and policies that Kashmiris in the valley say are aimed at undermining their struggle for the right to self-determination of their future.
India is currently the president of the G20, an intergovernmental bloc comprised of 19 countries and the European Union. The group accounts for 80 percent of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP).
‘Putting a lid on our miseries’
India claims the G20 event will boost the region’s tourism industry as it plans to take the delegates for a tour of the picturesque Himalayan valley.
Srinagar, the region’s main city with 1.4 million residents, is getting a facelift for the event. Roads leading to the airport have been given a coat of tar and paint. Lampposts along the streets have been illuminated in orange, white, and green, the colours of India’s national flag.
The security bunkers dotting the city have been painted in blue while the concertina wires that were seen all over one of the world’s most militarised regions have been removed in many places.
The tricolour national flags have also been installed across the city. Schools, colleges and other government buildings have been painted with a G20 logo, in which India has added a lotus, the election symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A political analyst based in Kashmir told Al Jazeera, on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by the Indian government, that “a sense of security in any place does not come with conferences”.
“For such an event, there should have been an elected chief minister and we do not have one. I hope the world does notice these things,” he said, referring to the dissolution of the region’s elected legislative assembly in 2018.
A relative of a prominent Kashmiri activist, who was arrested and imprisoned away from home under “terrorism” charges as part of India’s crackdown after the 2019 move, told Al Jazeera the G20 meeting was “like putting a lid on our miseries”.
“It is not like the international community does not know anything about this place. We are suffering silently and we feel so cut off from the buzz outside. We are just surviving each day,” the 42-year-old said on condition of anonymity.
Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in the United States, told Al Jazeera that India, by holding the G20 event, wants to claim there is peace in the region.
“[An] underlying goal at play is to capitalise on a perception growing within the international community that Kashmir has been normalised, and that it represents an attractive opportunity, not a dangerous challenge,” he said.
“In effect, for New Delhi, holding this meeting in Srinagar is meant to telegraph a message of ‘all is well’ and ‘all is normal’. And much of the world will buy into that narrative.”
New Delhi-based political analyst Sarral Sharma, however, thinks the meeting is anticipated to showcase not only Kashmir’s tourism potential but also the record increase in tourist arrivals since 2019.
“Hence, the selection of Srinagar as the venue for this meeting is significant,” Sharma told Al Jazeera.
“While certain countries, such as Pakistan, attempt to criticise India for organising the G20 meeting in Srinagar, it is essential to note that Pakistan is not a member of the G20 grouping. Therefore their objections hold no relevance.”
The Himalayan territory of Kashmir is claimed by both India and Pakistan, who govern over parts of it. The two nuclear powers have fought two of their three full-scale wars over the region.
Global ‘seal of approval’
In a statement on Monday, Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations special rapporteur on minority issues, accused India of seeking to normalise the “brutal and repressive denial of democratic and other rights of Kashmiri Muslims and minorities” by holding G20 meeting in the disputed region.
He said the situation in Kashmir “should be decried and condemned and not pushed under the rug and ignored”.
“The government of India is seeking to normalise what some have described as a military occupation by instrumentalising a G20 meeting and portray an international ‘seal of approval’,” Varennes said in the statement shared on Twitter.
The UN expert said “massive human rights violations” have been reported in Kashmir since it came under New Delhi’s direct rule. “These included torture, extrajudicial killings, denial of political participation rights of Kashmiri Muslims and minorities,” he said.
“The G20 is unwittingly providing a veneer of support to the façade of normalcy at a time when massive human rights violations, illegal and arbitrary arrests, political persecution, restrictions, and even suppression of free media and human rights defenders continue to escalate,” he added.
The UN expert said international human rights obligations and the UN Declaration of Human Rights should be upheld by organisations such as G20.
In response, India’s permanent mission to the UN in Geneva rejected the statement as “baseless and unwarranted allegations”.
“As the G20 president, it is India’s prerogative to host its meeting in any part of the country,” the mission tweeted.
However, Kugelman of the South Asia Institute said much of the international community “already appears to believe that Kashmir is no longer a conflict or a dispute”.
“At the least, many if not most governments are willing to set aside any concerns about Kashmir in order to ensure good relations with New Delhi, which much of the international community regards as a key trade and investment partner. This is why even most Muslim-majority countries have stayed quiet on the Kashmir issue,” he told Al Jazeera.