Making Kashmir G20 Ready

   

For months, Jammu and Kashmir’s administration has been working overtime to ensure the G20 Tourism Working Group meeting is an incident-free success. Given the first-ever global event to be hosted in Srinagar, especially after August 2019, authorities are not leaving anything to go off the script, reports Raashid Andrabi and Syed Shadab Ali Gillani

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For nearly a month now, all the roads in Kashmir are leading to G20 in Srinagar. Under India’s presidency, the G20 is holding a Tourism Working Group meeting in Srinagar and the entire administration is busy in preparations. The global event that Srinagar is hosting in its post-partition history is being seen as important as it is being held against the backdrop of reading down of Article 370 on August 5, 2019, a key article in the Constitution of India that extended some elements of autonomy to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.

“G20 meeting is a historic opportunity for J&K UT to showcase its vibrant culture, traditions and tourism potential,” Lt Governor Manoj Sinha told a gathering recently in which he flagged “the path of accelerated development and the remarkable progress registered in various sectors” since 2019. “Never before had infrastructure development occurred at the speed witnessed in the past four years.”

Showcasing all this to the 100-odd G20 meeting participants is what keeps the administration on tenterhooks. Improving the road from Srinagar airport to various locations along the Boulevard and ensuring no militancy-related incident takes place, the administration right now has its hands full with immediate tasks.

Part of the project is complete. Most of the Indira Gandhi Road is a smooth drive and hugely illuminated. Polo View emerged as Srinagar’s only wireless business street and was renamed the Polo View High Street. Most of the expansions on the boulevard are done. Almost all the security bunkers on the route are refurbished. The lighting points on the Jhelum bund – which also falls on the VVIP route – have been installed and are operational. The only crisis remains the Lal Chowk which was dug up and is being redone with Rajasthan cut stone and concrete slabs. The iconic clock tower is being refurbished to be more representative of the local architecture.

Security Situation

While the developmental activities have been a continuous process, it is security-related issues that are the top priority. Home Secretary personally flew from Delhi to review the security arrangement. Earlier a former Foreign Service officer, who is coordinated the event, had a detailed review. LG Sinha personally reviewed the situation early this week and the Police Chief reviewed the situation in a high-level meeting on May 18, asking officers to step up vigil on highways and increase night patrolling to “keep anti-national elements and terrorists at bay.”

The last clash between the militants and the counter-insurgent forces was almost a fortnight back when two militants were killed. The gun battles are less frequent and the arrest of the insurgents is just a routine but the security grid is not taking any chances.

The security blanket in place is unprecedented. This is perhaps the first time in last more than 30 years when the black cat commandos, the NSG, will be out and the Marcos; the marine commandoes will be deployed in the Dal Lake. SKICC is the main venue of the event and the guests will operate from the two 5-star hotels located on the Zabarwan hills, not far away from the convention complex.

On May 18, elite NSG Commandos carried out an area domination and security sanitisation exercise in Lal Chowk. Accompanied by police and CRPF personnel, they checked various hotels and were seen seeking some information from them.

The ‘exercise’ coincided with the Marcos patrolling and sanitising the Dal Lake for the second consecutive day. Heavily armed commandos are now routinely rushing within the lake in their rubber boats as Shikara-laden visitors watch them in awe and surprise. Most of them have never seen these fighting machines so closely. The lake is a key tourist spot as most of the visitors spend days in the houseboats. For the second consecutive year, Kashmir is witnessing huge domestic visitor footfalls.

A detachment of the NSG has always been in Srinagar but it was rarely used. They were kept ready during the kidnapping of Dr Rubaiya Sayed in 1990 and later when a shadowy militant outfit al-Faran kidnapped foreign tourists. They, however, did not get a go-ahead for action. Naval commandos were deployed in Wular Lake in north Kashmir after the security set-up felt their requirement in the area to support the Rashtriya Rifles in counter-insurgency operations. G20 is the first instance in which they will see some activity within Srinagar’s shallow Dal Lake.

Vijay Kumar, ADGP Kashmir told reporters that a three-tier security cover will be in place between May 22 and May 25. “Police are fully capable to deal with any threat in water bodies but since Marine Commandos were available, they have been deployed in Dal Lake and other water bodies,” Kumar said. Army and NSG will deploy an anti-drone technology to secure the event. “We have deployed police, CRPF, BSF and SSB personnel in the city to keep the event incident-free.”

Closed Schools

Security personnel are ubiquitous on Srinagar streets, especially on the route that the guests will follow on May 22. At various places, the shopkeepers said they have been strictly instructed not to permit parking of vehicles near their shops. A number of people selling vegetables have already closed their shops for the time being.

“Initially, they asked us to close for a week,” one vegetable seller said. “Four days later, they rang us up asking that if we did not open the shops, we will lose the shop.”

Even a number of schools have conveyed to students that they will have to go on a holiday. The schools already closed include Army Public School, Delhi Public School, Kashmir Valley School, Foundation World, Tyndale Biscoe and Mallinson.

Paramilitary CRPF quick reaction team (QRT) members in full battle gear on the banks of Dal Lake Srinagar. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

These schools, officials have been quoted as saying are located at “vulnerable” points and shall remain locked for not less than a week. “The feeling among the people is that there is no prospect of any disturbance during the G-20 meeting,” former Union Minister and Congress leader, Saifuddin Soz told The Hindu. “I wish the administration didn’t impose its will and ask educational institutions to be closed for five to seven days.”

Security has been upgraded to key installations and the areas where minorities and the non-native workforce are living. Already the non-natives engaged in sundry vending have been asked to avoid getting out to work.

Online Tensions

The Jammu and Kashmir Police issued an advisory asking people “not to respond to +44 7520 693559, +44 7418343648 and +44 7520 693134 or any ISD number which is spreading rumors’ related to the event”.

These numbers, according to The Indian Express are sending automated pre-recorded messages asking them “to take to the streets and block the Srinagar International Airport to thwart the coming G20 meeting in Srinagar”. The audio message in these automated calls also requests G20 delegates to boycott the meeting in Srinagar.

Unlike the national events, Srinagar playing host to global events has always remained challenging. The last major incident was a cricket match between India and the West Indies that was played in Srinagar’s Sher-e-Kashmir Stadium on October 13, 1983. Teams broke for a lunch break after India scored 177. As they were busy with lunch, a group of Kashmiri youth jumped into the pitch and damaged it. The match resumed and spectators cheered for West Indies. Amid the drizzle, West Indies won the match.

Remnants of the last international cricket match that was played in Srinagar in 1983. The picture was clicked in 2010. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

In a bid to improve the records, India took on Australia in the last international match played in Kashmir on September 9, 1986. It remained incident free.

Barring these sports events, not many international events were ever hosted in Srinagar. Though the diplomats have always frequented Kashmir, not any major state head was officially in Srinagar. The last major visit was at the peak of the cold war between the erstwhile USSR and the USA when a Russian delegation led by NA Bulganin, the USSR Prime Minister, and Khrushchev, a member of the Presidium of the Soviets spent many days in Kashmir in December 1955 and upheld the India’s stand in the United Nations. The visit came within two years after Adlai Stevenson, an American politician who ended runner-up in presidential elections twice, visited Kashmir.

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad showing members of visiting Soviet delegation examining Kashmir handicrafts in Srinagar. The delegation included NA Bulganin, USSR Prime Minister, Khrushchev, Member, Presidium of the Soviet and many others

India-Pakistan rivalry over Kashmir has remained the key factor preventing Jammu and Kashmir to be an ideal destination for global events. The Government of India, however, believes that the August 5, 2019 decision-making that read down the special status of Jammu and Kashmir has done away with the history and it can now play host to such events regardless of what Islamabad claims. Holding the G20 event is the first such event after August 2019 that split the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two remotely controlled Union Territories.

UN Officials Statement

It was against this backdrop in which UN’s Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Fernand de Varennes issued a statement, which was seriously reacted by the Government of India.

“G20 is 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,” Fernand de Varennes statement said, insisting India is seeking to normalise things by “instrumentalising a G20 meeting and portray an international seal of approval.” He said the international human rights obligations and the UN Declaration of Human Rights should still be upheld by organisations such as the G20.

LG Manoj Sinha and officials in a selfie moment while inaugurated the refurbished Jhelum Rajbagh River front on May 20, 2023. Pic DIPR

It triggered a fierce reaction from India terming the statement “baseless and unwarranted”. “We are aghast that @fernanddev has acted irresponsibly to politicize this issue, misused his position as SR to publicize on social media his presumptive and prejudiced conclusions in a gross violation of the Code of Conduct for SRs,” India’s Geneva Mission reacted to the statement. India said given her status as G20 President, it has the “prerogative to host its meetings in any part of the country.”

Participants

Reports appearing in the media suggest that the third G20 Tourism working group meeting is expected to be participated by more than 100 delegates, including at least 70 representing G20 member-states. The administration has also invited the tourism stakeholder’s different stars across India.

G20 has 19 countries and the EU as members. It is still not known who is participating and who is staying away. In the smaller Y20 event that Leh hosted earlier, officials said a total of 103 delegates attended the two-day event. While Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China skipped participation, various OIC members attended the event. These included Indonesia – a permanent G20 member; Oman and Nigeria (G20 Guest countries) and Morocco, a special invitee. Details of the participation in the similar Y20 event that the University of Kashmir hosted were not immediately known.

Media reports suggest China and Turkey are unlikely to participate. “Several other countries, both G20 member states and guest countries invited by India to be part of the G20 process, are expected to have low-level participation at the meet in Srinagar,” people familiar with the matter told Hindustan Times. “These countries are likely to be represented by diplomats from their embassies in New Delhi instead of officials from their respective capitals, the people added. Saudi Arabia and Mexico are likely to be among these countries.”

A non native worker installing a greeting hoarding on Srinagar’s Boulevard on the eve of G20 meeting at SKICC (seen in the background) on May 21, 2023. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

So far, only China – Pakistan’s “iron brother” – has formally reacted and announced its non-participation. “China firmly opposes holding any form of G20 meetings on disputed territory”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbinis reported to have told the media. “We will not attend such meetings.”

India has reiterated its stand and rejected the Beijing statement. “We have consistently rejected such statements and all parties concerned are well aware of our clear position on these matters. The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the Union Territory of Ladakh are and always will be integral and inalienable parts of India,” an MEA spokesman in Delhi stated earlier. “No other country has a locus standi to comment on the same.” The two countries are caught in a territorial dispute in Ladakh for almost three years now.

A report in The Hindu said China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to participate. Turkey is a special invitee. Of the nine countries invited specially for the event, Egypt is unlikely to join but four OIC members – Bangladesh, Indonesia, Oman, and UAE – have confirmed their participation. Since diplomacy is at work, there is always the possibility of a second thought.

The Picnic Schedule

Though the final itinerary of the delegates is not public, media reports indicate that after holding deliberations with stakeholders in the tourism sector on the first day, the delegates will go on a tour of Srinagar. The managers had planned the delegates will be hosted overnight in Gulmarg but the idea has been done away with, apparently for logistical reasons. Gulmarg is the major spot that is closer to the Line of Control. They will now have a brief day visit if at all it is taking place.

In anticipation, the administration spruced up the Gulmarg meadow and the hour-long drive that leads to it from Srinagar. The shutters of the shop lines were given distinct colours on the entire road, new welcome hoardings were installed, new spots on the way to Gulmarg were beautified and the hotels were asked to apply fresh colour coats. Enhanced lighting, newly adorned mural paintings, and an improved illumination system was put in place as the authorities established a VIP lounge for the diplomats. The makeover was aimed to make the destination attractive even though it is sold out for the season.

Now the planners have decided that the delegates will have short visits and the preference would be for spots closer to the city, obviously for security reasons. They are unlikely to be driven to Dachigam National Park. Instead, they would visit the Botanical Garden, Chashma Shahi, Pari Mahal, Nishat and Shalimar.

Officials said they will be reviewing the schedules on a daily basis and can change the venues of the visit if required.

Regional Players

Of the entire political class in Jammu and Kashmir, the only political party that is somehow involved and interested is the ruling BJP. All others are indifferent.

“Things are a mess in Srinagar because of this G-20 tamasha. The actual meeting will probably see most areas locked down & people stuck in their homes,” Omar Abdullah tweeted. “Perhaps the BJP is being sensible sparing the people of Jammu the pain we are suffering here in the valley. The G20 has only punished the residents of Srinagar.”

“The tragedy is they (Centre) have avoided Jammu. Why is it only held in Ladakh? Why is it held in Kashmir? Why not Jammu?” Dr Farooq Abdullah, Jammu and Kashmir’s five-time Chief Minister said. “I’m surprised not a single BJP leader of Jammu…is speaking about why the G20 did not occur in Jammu?”

Many days after Dr Farooq’s statement, Arun Gupta, the president of the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry requested the Government that “if possible, the Government should arrange the visit of the delegates attending the summit, to Jammu areas also so that they can visit the world-famous places like Patnitop, Sudhmahadev, Mantalai and the lakes of Surinsar, Mansar and the holy shrine of Mata Vaishnodevi in Katra”.

In anticipation of the event, Mehbooba Mufti took a different angle for reaction. “We don’t live close to Australia, America or Japan which are members of G20. We are living in this region and the SAARC caters to the problems of this region and if the government takes the initiative and has a summit of SAARC countries and addresses the problems that are being faced by this region including what is happening in Pakistan that will help India to be the leader in the region and the world,” Mehbooba said in an interview. She asserted that for becoming a world leader, the road leads through SAARC and not G20.

Mehbooba alleged that the G20 has been converted into a BJP event. “Even the logo has been replaced by a lotus,” she said, insisting it was a “good PR exercise for BJP at the international level but it is not going to make India the Vishwaguru.”

However, BJP sees the G20 as a “game changer” and a “unique opportunity” to put Jammu and Kashmir on the global tourism landscape.

“Those opposing such an event in Kashmir and parroting Pakistan are actually the enemies of the nation and welfare of the people of Jammu and Kashmir,” BJP leader, and business tycoon, Devinder Singh Rana, who deserted the NC, said. “Those raising questions over the hosting of such an event in the Valley are not only suffering from the negativity syndrome but also insult Kashmir’s hospitality which is known the world over.”

Security Tensions

The indifferent regional politicians however are vocal on local issues that emanate around the security drill. “Right before G20 in Kashmir, security forces are breaking into homes, ransacking & violating the privacy of people here,” Mehbooba Mufti tweeted, while sharing a series of videos that detained separatist, Shabir Shah’s daughter uploaded following searches in her house. “As if the existing repression in Kashmir wasn’t enough, GOIs paranoia about G20 has unleashed bigger demons. Even women are not being spared.”

This forced the Jammu and Kashmir Police to react. They said the search was carried out in 20 houses on the basis of input about the “movement of terrorists” in this locality. “This has nothing to do with G-20 but is routine in case of inputs,” the police said. “The lady (Shah) is strangely linking this with G-20, more strange is an ex-CM linking this too with the event, when she herself was privy to such search in the particular locality due to terrorist sighting.”

Paramilitary CRPF guarding the Srinagar Boulevard in anticipation of G20 meeting in May 2023. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

There are reports of arrests across Kashmir. “Since the process of holding the G20 event has started the arrest, torture and questioning of youngsters has also begun. People are being called to police stations. Hundreds of youth from south Kashmir have been put in jails,” Mehbooba told a gathering at her party headquarters earlier. “There is no hearing. The situation in J-K is worse than Guantanamo Bay. Let them do G-20 event, but why are the youth being arrested?” Added Mohammad Yousuf Tarigami on May 18: “There are reports about arbitrary detentions of youth from several parts of the Valley. The move will further widen the yawning chasm between youth and the administration. The government instead should review the cases of youth held in jails outside J&K under #PSA & ensure their release”.

In the last week, there were quite a few days when different security agencies did not raid places. On May 15, federal investigator, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) raided 13 locations in Kashmir. State Investigation Agency (SIA), its local clone, raided four spots the same day, albeit in different cases and nothing linked to G20. On May 20, NIA was reported busy in 15 raids across Kashmir.

Security is the top priority. For most of the day, the most audible thing on Srinagar streets is either a cop’s whistle or a security vehicle honking a siren.

Possible Outcome

Officials involved in the exercise are concerned about one basic thing – the Western countries should ease the travel advisories. “There will be officers from countries that have issued negative travel advisories,” Abid Rashid Bhat, Secretary of Tourism said. “I hope they will consider lifting these advisories after the event.”

His department is working on the event for months. They refurbished the conference centre to international standards and created an eco-friendly environment to please the delegates. They will be showcasing the diversity of culture and a number of artists from across Jammu and Kashmir have been invited. There will be some stalls displaying the cultural heritage of Kashmir. In the run-up to the event, the administration has been hosting a number of events in schools and colleges. JK Bank has been roped in to sponsor some major G20-linked events.

At the Arts Bazaar within the SKICC, reports appearing in the media said the delegates will witness the diversity of crafts being produced in Jammu and Kashmir and will have hands-on experience through DIY (do-it-yourself) activities. The hosts are offering papier-mache boxes, saffron, walnuts, Qahwa cups and brass spoons to delegate as souvenirs. They will also have Shikara ride and watch cultural shows as well. Srinagar Mayor will host a lunch for G20 delegates and LG Sinha will throw a gala dinner for them. Reports indicate that they will be served 50 delectable including 31 cuisines from Kashmir and 19 from Jammu during the 3-day stay.

 Faiqa Masoodi contributed to the report

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