Jammu and Kashmir National Conference president and Lok Sabha member Farooq Abdullah is known for a host of things. His acerbic wit and wisecracks always leave his audiences and media flabbergasted. Recently, he told a group of journalists in Kashmir’s Beerwah area that they should be thankful that Srinagar will host a G20 meeting because the electric poles and walls were painted. There is always some truth in his leg-pulling. Ahead of the high-profile G20 Working Group Meeting on Tourism, which began on May 22 and concluded on May 24, the change in the cityscape was rather visible. While the roads were spruced up, the bare walls of the city were embellished with murals.
On the other hand, there was also much to and fro of security forces along the streets and thoroughfares of Srinagar in the days preceding the meeting. The Boulevard road around the SKICC, the venue of the meeting, was off-limits for three days.
Some schools were shut, while political leaders and members of the region’s minority community were on high alert. The local political leaders pointed out that the event had already unleashed a fresh wave of arrests in the Valley, as many young men were detained in the run-up to the event.
While the focus of this crucial event was to showcase the tourism of Kashmir, the larger motive was also to highlight the return of ‘normalcy’ in the region. Since the Union government put paid to the special constitutional position of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019, the restoration of peace remained the government’s top priority. The government to some degree has been able to restore normality in the region. Over the last few years, the Valley did not witness any long-drawn-out strikes, perennial street protests or unannounced internet shutdowns. The government pulled it off, many believe, because of its adoption of a flurry of strong-arm methods, and it is time to send out a ‘normalcy message’ around the world by organising this high-profile event.
An event of this kind in Kashmir is the first since two international cricket match were held in the 1980s. However, both matches did not end peacefully. In the first match in 1983, a knot of young men attempted to dig up the pitch when the game was broken for lunch. During the second match, a section of spectators celebrated the defeat of team India and some of them chanted slogans in favour of Pakistan. (In 2011, 28 years later, a local court exonerated 12 men of the charges of digging up the ground). The immediate upshot of both events was that they helped in highlighting the Kashmir issue at a time when information technology had yet to make a giant leap.
Pakistan’s forceful efforts
Before the G20 summit in Srinagar even began, Pakistan activated all its diplomatic channels to highlight the “disputed nature” of Kashmir and New Delhi’s August 5 move in a more forceful way. Earlier, Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, during his recent visit to India for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit, upbraided India for doing away with the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. And about holding the G20 meeting in Srinagar, he said that “it showed India’s show of arrogance to the world that to hell with International law, UNSC resolutions and bilateral agreements”. He criticised India and threatened to “give such a response that it will be remembered”. Last year, as soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans to hold a G20 summit in Kashmir, Pakistan pulled out all the stops to reach out to the G20 nations to block the move.
The aggressive diplomatic efforts of Pakistan are bound to bring attention back to Kashmir. China, Saudi Arabia and Türkiye steered clear of the event. Earlier, China had also avoided attending a G20 meeting in Arunachal Pradesh. Türkiye President Tayyip Erdogan, who attempts to create much goodwill among Muslim nations across the globe to project himself as the leader of the Muslim world, has – more often than not – slammed India for its Kashmir policy. At the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, Erdogan said that the steps taken by India in Kashmir after it withdrew its autonomous status had further complicated the problems.
As the day set for the event draws closer, the clamour for providing democratic rights to the people of Kashmir has grown shriller. Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations special rapporteur on minority issues, said in a statement: “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.”
He said that the G20 is providing unwittingly a veneer of support to the facade of normalcy at a time when massive human rights violations, illegal and arbitrary arrests, political persecutions, restrictions and even suppression of free media and human rights defenders continue to escalate.
The global media that had well-nigh lost its interest in Kashmir after the protracted strikes and street turmoil were brought to an end has again trained its focus on Kashmir.
For the international media, the conflict and denial of democratic rights to the people of Jammu and Kashmir are more important than the G20 representatives visiting destinations across Kashmir under the warmth of the summer sun.
In normalising the August 5 move and showcasing the hunky-dory situation of Kashmir, the present dispensation unintentionally brought focus to the underlying issues.
Moreover, it has brought down the curtains on holding any bilateral dialogue between India and Pakistan.
Whatever the summit’s outcome, one thing is clear: Srinagar has undergone a transformation, as Abdullah stated.