Pakistan’s public relations campaign to subvert the Srinagar tourism event merely managed to seek a boycott from a few members of G20. Delegates from different countries thronged Srinagar amidst tight security and complimented the arrangements made by the conference organizers to ensure security and hospitality. Pakistan’s claims that the majority of the people of Valley of Kashmir hate India and will express their resentment against the Modi regime on the occasion of Srinagar tourism conference proved to be hollow. Hundreds of foreign delegates visited the Polo View Market and other tourist destinations in Srinagar to view handicraft markets where they showed their great interest in buying products reflecting the culture of Kashmir. Hundreds of decorated houseboats along Lake Dal also became a source of interest for foreign visitors who enjoyed taking rides on such boats to get a panoramic view of the scenic lake.
Pakistan’s internal political and economic crisis certainly provided India an opportunity to grab Kashmir and seek international legitimacy for its illegal occupation by holding the G20 conference on tourism in Srinagar.
The fact that no incident of violence or terrorism took place during the duration of conference proves the readiness of an ordinary Kashmiri to support efforts for tourism, development and peace, which can give them a break from decades of violence and terrorism. The organizers of the conference confidently proclaimed that given the success of the event, Srinagar is now well placed on the global tourist’s map, and that more tourism conferences will be held in Srinagar and other parts of Jammu & Kashmir so that the innovation and creativity of the local population, which has suffered because of years of violence is revitalized.
Will India create plausible conditions for peace in its occupied parts of J&K, and restore the region’s autonomy, which got ruptured with the proclamation of the Jammu & Kashmir Reorganization Act on August 5, 2019? Will merely holding a tourism conference in Srinagar allow India to establish peace, particularly in the Muslim dominated Valley of Kashmir? Will India be able to bridge the trust deficit with an ordinary Kashmir which deepened after August 5, 2019?
Pakistan’s internal political and economic crisis certainly provided India an opportunity to grab Kashmir and seek international legitimacy for its illegal occupation by holding the G20 conference on tourism in Srinagar. For a variety of reasons, Jammu & Kashmir, once called a life line and an integral part of Pakistan - an unfinished agenda of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent - seems to be a lost case for Islamabad. Economically in a very bad shape, politically unstable and in the midst of constant squabbles between the judiciary and the coalition government, Pakistan is in no position to challenge India’s absorption of Jammu & Kashmir through its J&K Reorganization Act of August 5, 2019. That is the reason why Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (J&KLF), which announced a march across the Line of Control in October 2019 protesting the annexation of J&K by New Delhi was prevented by the military to proceed with that march.
When Pakistan’s military is unable to challenge India for its illegal occupation of J&K and its capacity to deter New Delhi is limited, there is no possibility of the Modi regime restoring the autonomous status of J&K.
As a result of growing Indian economic power and diplomatic clout, New Delhi is not interested in reaching out to Pakistan for resuming comprehensive dialogue, which remains stalled since 2016.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister undertook a special visit of Muzaffarabad when the G20 conference was ongoing in Srinagar with a purpose to give a message to New Delhi that such an event will have no legitimacy in view of the boycott by China, Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. But, despite their boycott, the conference went ahead with delegates from several countries, appraising India for making excellent arrangements for the smooth conduct of the event. But such an initiative fades against the ground realities that the strengthening of the Indian state economically, politically, militarily and in the realm of international diplomacy is not unquestionable. When the Indian state, despite its own political fault lines in Punjab and the North East, is more than capable of dealing with centrifugal forces, there is no way J&K can separate from India.
On matters related to normalization in Indo-Pak relations, to expect that Foreign Minister Bilawal Zardari’s visit to attend the SCO meeting in Goa will make in difference in mending fences with New Delhi are terribly wrong, because neither is there political will nor determination on the part of India and Pakistan to make use of Track-1 opportunity for discussing contentious issues in the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting. Several opportunities in the past for India and Pakistan to normalize their ties were also lost, augmenting pessimism and gloom among the people of the two countries.
Now, as a result of growing Indian economic power and diplomatic clout, New Delhi is not interested in reaching out to Pakistan for resuming comprehensive dialogue, which remains stalled since 2016. Pakistan’s fragile economic and political position also enhances Indian confidence that it can get away with the August 5, 2019 Jammu & Kashmir Reorganization Act, which absorbed J&K as union territories in the Indian Union.
Arrogance reflected in the body language of Indian Minister of External Affairs and other stalwarts of the Modi regime means that New Delhi is not interested in pursuing any flexible or conciliatory approach vis-à-vis its only western neighbor. The manner in which domestic crises in Pakistan have seriously shattered the image and credibility of the country means India suffers nothing from remaining entirely indifferent vis-à-vis Islamabad. Arrogance and over confidence of India because of its ostensible success in Srinagar tourism conference will lead to its future intentions in aggressively taking on what it calls “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.” Banking on the support which the Modi regime will get from local Kashmiris following the tourism conference, BJP’s election manifesto and campaign will center on India’s resolve to take control of Gilgit Baltistan, which is certainly the under soft belly of Pakistan. Already there are indications of local resentment in G&B about the manner in which the Pakistani state is treating the local population.
Pakistan’s stance that it cannot resume diplomatic relations with India along with the resumption of trade, air, road and railway link unless New Delhi reverses its August 5, 2019 act on J&K has no impact on India. On the contrary, India is taking necessary steps to make sure that its control over J&K, particularly the Muslim majority Valley is sufficient to neutralize local Kashmiri resentment against New Delhi’s repressive measures.
The new narrative which India is building up for its controlled parts of J&K is that a majority of the local population, particularly in the Valley, is ready to be part of the development initiatives and the employment opportunities they will generate in the region.
The Indian success in holding a meeting on tourism in Srinagar under the auspices of the G20 is another attempt by New Delhi to gain legitimacy of its August 5, 2019 Act. Policies to transform the demographic composition of the region, particularly of the Valley of Kashmir, by introducing a domicile act and giving the right to vote to non-locals in future elections of J&K reflects a shrewd policy of the BJP-Shiv Sena duo to ensure their electoral victory in future elections.
Two realities emerging from the G20 tourism conference in Srinagar need to be analyzed. First, taking advantage of the tourism conference, India has tried to seek a paradigm shift in the narrative that violence, terrorism and Kashmiri defiance against the Modi regime tends to put New Delhi in a defensive position. The new narrative which India is building up for its controlled parts of J&K is that a majority of the local population, particularly in the Valley, is ready to be part of the development initiatives and the employment opportunities they will generate in the region. The narrative that Kashmiris are peaceful people and have suffered a lot because of decades of violence and terrorism is being projected by the Modi regime with the help of its international backers.
Second, foreign participation in activities arranged during the Srinagar tourism conference will be institutionalized by Indian authorities in the form of investments, projects and projecting Srinagar as a tourism but of India. In 2022, 2.5 million tourists visited J&K as compared to 1.2 million in 2016. The absence of an elected government in J&K and the deployment of around half a million military personnel in J&K failed to prevent international participation in the tourism conference. The conspicuous absence of popular protest marches in Lal Chowk, the center of Srinagar, against massive human rights violation by the Indian security forces was also exploited by New Delhi to support its narrative on J&K.
In the post-Srinagar tourism conference era, India will try to capitalize on the paradigm shift and changing narratives on J&K. Till the time Pakistan is in dire straits economically and politically and its institutions continue to squabble with each other, there is only a marginal likelihood of India reversing its policies on J&K. Instead, it will now try to strengthen its narrative that the real issue of Jammu & Kashmir is Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, particularly Gilgit and Baltistan. Is the Pakistani state capable of dealing with the surge of Indian confidence on J&K?