Did the Modi government bait fate by overplaying its hand in organising a G20 event in Srinagar
The hype about the G20 working group on tourism holding a meeting in Kashmir is slowly coming unstuck. Some members of the G20 have decided not to attend at all while some others have scaled down their participation.
It was scheduled to be the biggest international event in Kashmir after the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was revoked, and it was split off from Ladakh. Holding the meeting in J&K, was not only to showcase its potential for tourism but to also signal globally the restoration of stability and normalcy in the region.
Till recently, only Pakistan had criticised India’s choice of Srinagar as one of the venues for G20 meetings, accusing India of “exploiting its membership of an important international grouping (G20) to advance its self-serving agenda” in J&K. India had defended its right to hold G20 meetings anywhere in India, including J&K.
Now, China and Turkey have decided to boycott the meeting in Srinagar. China had also boycotted a science-related meeting of G20 in Arunachal Pradesh, to which it lays claim as Southern Tibet. China is boycotting the Srinagar meeting now in support of the objections raised by its close ally Pakistan. Turkey’s decision to stay away is in keeping with its past criticism of the Indian handling of J&K, and may also be influenced by Pakistan’s pressure.
Other G20 member states as well as guest countries, have reportedly downscaled their participation by deciding to send only their Delhi-based diplomats, rather than representatives from their national capitals. Notable among those who have opted for low-level representation are Saudi Arabia and Mexico. It is also unclear whether Indonesia, the preceding president of G20, will send its representative to the Srinagar meet.
Significantly, the stand taken on the Srinagar meeting by G20 members and others was preceded by a UN official’s statement criticising India for holding the meeting in Kashmir. On May 15, Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues said, “By holding a G20 meeting of the working group on tourism on 22-24 May, the Government of India is seeking to normalise what some have described as a military occupation by instrumentalizing a G20 meeting and portray an international ‘seal of approval’.” He warned the G20 of “unwittingly providing a veneer of support to a 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.”
India’s condemnation of de Varennes’ statement as “baseless and unwarranted” was amplified with domestic media headlines screaming ‘Kashmir ours, who are you?’ and ‘India slams UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues for his criticism of holding G20 meet in J&K’. He was officially sought to be chastised by India’s Permanent Mission in Geneva for acting ‘irresponsibly to politicise this issue’.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming State visit to the United States makes this rebuff on J&K by the international community, especially significant. What might have been ignored by India and perhaps down-played, at least publicly by the US, in the build-up to the Modi-Biden summit, will now become an additional irritant in the bilateral relationship.
Did the Modi government bait fate by overplaying its hand in organising a G20 event in Srinagar? The Governor’s administration in J&K has announced enhanced security measures including deployment of marine commandos to patrol the Dal Lake, and the National Security Guard to prevent fidayeen attacks and counter-drone operations. The Special Operations Group of the J&K Police, and the Indian Army will set up checkpoints across the city to prevent public protests. About 1,000 CCTV cameras have been set up across the city, and there are daily drills at the conference venue by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), that include anti-mine operations, placing bullet-proof vehicles at the entry and exit points of the meeting venue, special training in invisible policing by the local constabulary, and drones for aerial surveillance.
The security concerns are so high that the State administration has briefed the media about the possibility of cancelling a daylong trip for delegates. The proposed visit of the delegates to the Dachigam National Park has already been cancelled. Under these circumstances, does the Modi government think that tourism can be promoted in closed conference halls next to a scenic lake being patrolled by marine commandos, with surveillance drones overhead?
Such staged events make it clear that the situation in J&K is far from normal. The people of J&K have been without democratic representation for four long years. The Modi government seems in no position to hold elections to the assembly. It cannot assure the certain outcome it desires — a Chief Minister of its choice, preferably a Hindu Dogra from Jammu. Nor can it be sure that if elections are held, the elected assembly will not try to unravel its narrative about the abrogation of the special status of the erstwhile state. The Centre also has not yet delivered on its promise of restoration of full statehood to J&K.
It is unlikely that the Modi regime would hold J&K assembly elections before the 2024 general elections. Its narrative of having ‘mainstreamed’ the erstwhile Muslim-majority state with its separate constitution and state flag into a ‘normal’ state/union territory of India is necessary for the ruling party’s election campaign. In 2019, a terrorist attack in Pulwama facilitated Modi’s national security narrative to return to power. In 2024, J&K and developments there are unlikely to suddenly become irrelevant to his election campaign strategy. So, while a successful G20 meeting in Srinagar would have been a feather in his cap, now it seems an unlikely prospect.