India's G20 tourism meet begins in Kashmir under tight security
A G20 tourism meeting began on Monday under tight security in Indian-administered Kashmir, as New Delhi seeks to project an image of normality in a region wracked for decades by violence.
Both China and Pakistan have condemned holding the event in the disputed Muslim-majority territory, which is split between New Delhi and Islamabad, both of whom claim it in full.
Over the decades an insurgency seeking independence or a merger with Pakistan has seen tens of thousands of civilians, soldiers and rebels killed.
But India wants to show that what officials call "normalcy and peace" are returning to the region after New Delhi revoked its limited autonomy in 2019 and took direct control, imposing an extended lockdown.
Dissent has been criminalised, media freedoms curbed and public protests limited in what critics say is a drastic curtailment of civil liberties by Indian authorities.
Since the lockdown, the rebels have largely been crushed -- although young men continue to take up arms -- and the annual death toll, once in the thousands, has been on a downward trend, with 253 fatalities last year.
"Kashmir is a very peaceful destination," said India's G20 sherpa, Amitabh Kant. "We are seeing peace, progress and prosperity taking place here."
India is now promoting tourism in the region -- home to spectacular mountain scenery -- with welcome signs at the airport declaring it "paradise on earth".
More than a million Indian citizens visited last year, to the delight of local tourism businesses.
In the past, an event like the G20 gathering would have been met with a general strike in Srinagar, but now people are "going about with their activity", said Indian science and technology minister Jitendra Singh.
"Jammu and Kashmir has moved on, the common man has moved on. He's seen two generations of Kashmiris being sacrificed on the altar of Pak-sponsored terrorism, he's no longer in a mood to succumb to that," he told reporters.
India accuses Pakistan of training and supporting militants in Kashmir, which Islamabad denies.
Police said last week that security had been beefed up "to avoid any chance of terrorist attack during the G20", and on Monday soldiers and armoured vehicles were deployed at multiple locations in Srinagar.
But many checkpoints -- wrapped in metal mesh and barbed wire -- were dismantled overnight, and some paramilitary police stood hidden behind G20 advertising panels in what appeared to be an effort to minimise the security forces' visibility.
- 'Terrorist-infested places' -
The three-day gathering is taking place at a well-guarded complex on the shores of Dal Lake in Srinagar.
Questions have been raised over the choice of location.
"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?" columnist Bharat Bhushan wrote in the Deccan Herald newspaper.
"Such staged events make it clear that the situation in J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) is far from normal."
Residents have chafed under the stepped-up security measures, with one describing the situation as "just a facade" on Monday.
Hundreds have been detained in police stations and thousands, including shopkeepers, have received calls from officials warning against any "signs of protest or trouble", a senior official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
To visit Kashmir, foreign journalists require special permission, which is not normally forthcoming, though it has been granted for the G20 meeting.
The permits are valid only for coverage of the event itself and limited to the city of Srinagar. Holders are required not to "propagate anti-India narratives", nor visit "terrorist-infested places without prior permission".
The People's Anti-Fascist Front, a new rebel group that emerged in the region after 2019, issued a statement condemning the G20 meeting and threatening to "deploy suicide bombers".
"Today, tomorrow or day after. It will come," it said.
- Staying away -
India holds the G20 presidency for 2023, and has planned more than 100 meetings across the country.
Two Indian government ministers are attending the tourism event in Srinagar, but several Western nations are sending only locally based diplomatic staff.
G20 member China, which is locked in a military standoff with India along their mostly undemarcated border in the Ladakh region, has refused to attend, and no government delegations are expected from Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
Beijing also stayed away from earlier G20 meetings in Ladakh and in Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as part of Tibet.
Non-G20 member Pakistan controls a smaller part of Kashmir, and accused India of "arrogance" and violating international law by holding the tourism meeting in the territory, triggering a sharp retort from New Delhi.
Last week, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, said New Delhi was seeking to use the G20 meeting to "portray an international seal of approval" on a situation that "should be decried and condemned". India rejected the comments.