(A key G20 meeting, scheduled to be held in Srinagar from 22 May onwards, has ignited a debate about the choice of venue, given the political sensitivities surrounding Kashmir. While this piece argues against the choice of venue, find the arguments in its favour here.)
Srinagar is bedecked with a riot of colours. The city will be hosting a G20 tourism working group meeting next week as the local administration pulls out all the stops to make the high-level event a resounding success. Of the total 215 G20 meetings being held across the country, only four pertain to promoting tourism. Some have questioned why a G20 meeting is being held in a quaint, prelapsarian corner in the far north of the country that is given to civil strife and political tensions.
The answer perhaps is that four years since the Modi government scrapped Jammu and Kashmir's special status, it has escalated a string of centralisation campaigns in the erstwhile state with far-reaching consequences. Many aspects of those measures have ridden roughshod over the imbricated political realities of that place that continue to tether regional tensions with international geopolitics.
The policies that the Modi government pushed through have been demonstrably unpopular; from the delimitation to the modifications in domicile rules as well as the new land laws. Small wonder that it takes a federally handpicked lieutenant governor to approve them as opposed to an elected government that would’ve found itself rather hard-pressed to take steps that are likely to antagonise the voters to whom it is accountable.
So rather than relying on democracy to bridge the political deficit, the government believes its troubles in Kashmir are best attenuated by churning out a high dose of public relations.
People on the Edge
The meet-up has already put the residents in Srinagar on the edge. Although the Rs 1000 crores facelift of Srinagar city is dominating the discursive trends on social media, there’s more to reality than just the expensive urban makeover.
The preparations in the run-up to the meet are accompanying a massive security drive with the random people finding themselves stopped in the middle of the road and subjected to body frisking; two-wheeler riders who don’t have the full paperwork end up having their vehicles impounded; a large number of preventive detentions across the Valley have also been reported. A police source speaking to his reporter confirmed the arrests but attributed them to the “credible inputs” regarding terrorist attacks.
The owners of business venues located along the thoroughfares that are being beautified complain bitterly about the spiralling losses as deterred by the buzz of constant construction work, few customers show up.
Heightened Security Measures
Schools located at “vulnerable points” have been instructed to remain closed even as non-local labourers and members of minority communities are being alerted to potential attacks. They will scale down their public presence; perhaps pretend they don’t exist until May 27.
The cops who will guard the venues that the delegates are supposed to attend are undergoing extensive background checks by the counterintelligence units of the Jammu and Kashmir police. As are the employees of the two hotels where the high-profile foreign guests are staying. Maybe the administration has become wary of the poseurs disguising themselves as PMO officials.
Marine commandos are cast all over Srinagar’s Dal Lake and their inflated motorboats are cruising through its placid waters to keep an eye out for threats.
Over the last two weeks, the National Investigative Agency (NIA), as well as State Investigative Unit (SIU), have stepped up raids all over Kashmir. Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti alleged that the administration has embarked on an arrest spree in many areas of the union territory.
The Potemkin Village
But the G20 delegates, around 100 of them, who will tour around the Valley will hardly get a whiff of this heightened securitisation. The Srinagar administration is spending Rs 44 crores to make sure the military bunkers on streets don’t look like the menacing protrusions out of keeping with the presentable visage that has come to the city at quite a cost.
The cops who are escorting the delegates are getting trained to appear less intimidating while the fleet of blast-hardened armed vehicles parked randomly along traffic junctions, commercial enclaves and religious sites since August 2019 will be momentarily gotten rid of. They are, perhaps, likely to reappear once the delegates have left.
The feverish scrabble ahead of G20 and the outsized publicity it is being accorded at one level bespeaks triumphalism.
But at a certain level, it also signifies failure. That’s because the Modi government is increasingly plugging the gap left behind by the absence of democracy and civil freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir through a flurry of perception engineering exercises.
A Mismatch Between Claims and Reality
For example, if you too were among those overwhelmed by the grandeur of “Naya Kashmir” and the aggrandising narratives centred around it, you would hardly believe that Jammu and Kashmir currently reels under one of the highest unemployment rates in the country (23.1 percent as per Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy).
Or that its investment has declined from Rs 840.55 crores in 2017-2018 to Rs 376.76 crores in 2021-2022. These figures were originally presented to the Parliament in December. However, following the barrage of criticism, the Home Ministry in January revised this figure and claimed that the UT received Rs 56,000 crore in investment in the past three years.
The high-octane campaigns to present the arrival of an unprecedented number of tourists as a boon to Jammu and Kashmir's economy notwithstanding, tourism accounts for a paltry 6 percent of the union territory's GDP.
The biggest drivers instead are the services sector and agriculture which have been reeling under a crisis in the aftermath of twin shocks of the 2019 shutdown and subsequent disruptions wrought by COVID. Small-scale industries in Jammu and Kashmir's are also struggling after the government stopped the trend of procuring equipment locally and reissued tenders to an all-India level competition.
My point is not to highlight that Kashmir has complex problems, but that an elected government with a genuine representative character alone is capable of addressing them.
Previous Rent-a-diplomat Tours
This is not the first time the government is touring foreign diplomats around the turmoil-ridden former state. On the previous occasions when such tours were organised, they came under criticism for trying to normalise the changes foisted on August 2019. That’s why the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, castigated the G20 countries for “unwittingly” supporting the “facade of normalcy” in Kashmir.
By holding a G20 meeting of the working group on tourism in Srinagar, Varennes said, the government is seeking to normalise what some have described as a military occupation, adding that attempts were being made to portray the constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir as having an international “seal of approval”.
The criticism by UN Special mandate holders indicates that more and more people globally are becoming wary of the nature of big events taking place in Kashmir and the political messaging they are being made the vectors for. Countries like China and Turkey will not be attending the Srinagar meet while others such as Saudi Arabia and Mexico are likely to field low-level participation.
In her highly acclaimed work on Kashmir and its representations in popular media, scholar Ananya Jahanara Kabir introduces us to a concept of “mimetic capital” and its relation with reproducing the putative beauty of Kashmir through “mimesis.”
Last week, when photographs of the newly spruced-up Polo View Street in Srinagar went viral on social media, it called to mind the “landscape of fantasy” that mimetic capital is capable of manufacturing. This conceptual framework, Kabir writes, “has so consistently subordinated bodies to the landscape that, today, the Kashmiri is actively and collectively scapegoated for having so inconveniently disrupted that pastoral serenity.”
The G20 meeting, too, might end up invisibilizing more than it is highlighting.
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)