SRINAGAR, India — The famous houseboats, bedecked with lights and adorned with the G-20 logo, were just visible behind the ranks of uniformed police stationed around Kashmir’s stunning Dal Lake. Every 20 feet along the waterfront was a poster advertising picturesque Kashmiri sites — with a camouflage clad soldier standing behind.
The signs for the Group of 20 intergovernmental forum that India is hosting this year proclaims the country as “The Mother of Democracy,” but this meeting for tourism took place in a heavily militarized region that has not seen elections for its legislature in almost a decade.
Having the delegates from the world’s 20 wealthiest nations meet to discuss tourism amid the majestic Himalayan beauty of India’s Kashmir showcases what India says is the return of peace and prosperity to the region. But the conversations touting a new normalcy came amid a heavy security presence and were in sharp contrast to the voices just outside the barricaded conferences premises.
“What will come from this development? We need to have peace in our hearts first,” said a shopkeeper — who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the government — in the heart of Srinagar’s old city, an area that has often witnessed violence. He said police threatened nearby shops to stay open to give a semblance of normalcy in the territory.
As he spoke, a dozen members of the federal paramilitary police, tailed by their massive windowless armored vehicle, stopped to search a group of young boys. “The delegation should come here and see this and talk to us,” the shopkeeper said. “They should talk about the Kashmir issue. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
The decision to put one of the dozens of G-20 meetings this year in Kashmir has not passed without controversy. China has boycotted the event, it has been condemned by neighboring Pakistan and the U.N. special rapporteur on minority issues, Fernand de Varennes, issued a blistering statement saying the Indian government “is seeking to normalize what some have described as a military occupation.”
Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority entity, has long been the country’s pride and joy with its magnificent mountain vistas. It was once a must-have shooting location for movies and a coveted honeymoon destination even while it was stuck in a continuous tug-of-war between Pakistan and India that provoked several wars.
After disputed elections in 1987, simmering dissatisfaction erupted into a violent insurgency and government crackdown that darkened Kashmir’s reputation. After coming to power, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched “Operation All Out” — a 2017 offensive against the militants that killed hundreds and dramatically worsened relations with Pakistan.
After Modi won a second term in 2019, his government revoked the state’s special autonomous status negotiated after independence and made it a territory directly governed by New Delhi. Any dissent was stifled with harsh restrictions, including the longest internet shutdown in a democracy and locking up top political leaders, journalists and activists.
The government maintains that the removal of the region’s special status has allowed it to properly control it and usher in a new era of development, including relaxing land laws to allow in outsiders and investment, which the G-20 meeting showcases.
“The fact that we are holding it in Srinagar is itself an achievement of sorts,” said Jitendra Singh, a government minister who is also a parliament member from the region, in a news conference. “This is an opportunity to see with your own eyes what it is all about. The common man has moved on.”
Kashmir saw a record number of tourists last year, almost 2.6 million, while another 13,000 foreign tourists have come just this year, mostly from Southeast Asia, to see the region’s famous mountains and tulips. The government hopes that new golf courses, train lines and efforts to remove the travel advisories on Kashmir will open bring more Europeans and others.
Arun Kumar Mehta, the territory’s chief secretary, said roughly $250 million of the proposed $8 billion worth of investment projects have been completed, with money flowing from the Middle East in particular for shopping complexes.
“2022 was a historic year of development,” he said. “Life was normal for the first time in many, many years. I see such a yearning in the common people to get back to normal. Peace comes about when people have a stake in peace. And it’s very apparent that people have a stake in peace.” The territory’s lieutenant governor, Manoj Sinha, also said that the “ecosystem of terror sponsored by our neighbor has been almost dismantled.”
Since the crackdown, militant recruitment has plummeted, according to a senior security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
But a 28-year-old who works at a shopping center in Srinagar noted that, “if they are so confident, then they should have opened the gates of the [G-20 center] for locals to be part of the event and not hold it under such a tight security cover. Only the government is celebrating.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.
In particular, the government has touted a new high-profile cinema multiplex in the city, marking the return of movie theaters to the region after they were targeted by militants in the 1990s and all shut down.
Khushboo Farooq, a 21-year-old who works there, said she finally found a place where she feels truly safe after it opened last year. “We need the entertainment in our lives, after what we have gone through.”
“The reality is Kashmir has already changed, and we haven’t woken up to this,” said Vikas Dhar, the theater’s owner, who hoped that the G-20 event would move Kashmir’s narrative beyond conflict. He described his theater as “an answer to the demand that people are raising.”
While people would like to go to the cinema, those types of development are not “the basic crux of what they really want,” countered Anuradha Bhasin, an editor of Kashmir Times who said that the government’s roughly half a dozen cases against her newspaper had crippled it. “They are beautifying certain areas, but the people are missing from the story. Then you have big jamborees like G-20, it kind of smacks of the indifference of the government towards the people.”
Bhasin said that while apparent signs of violence may be decreasing, without a free and vocal media it is unclear whether the militancy is growing or not.
Mehbooba Mufti, a former chief minister who was detained after the region’s semiautonomous status was revoked, said this apparent development and prosperity comes with a heavy hand.
“They are trying to use tourism as a sign of normalcy,” she said, adding that roughly 100 young men were detained before the G-20 meeting in “preventive arrests.”
“If everything is fine, why this suppression? Maybe today, it is calm. But the amount of might that is used to keep things that way, can’t be used like that all the time. And when God forbid, it bursts, it can be very big. You know Kashmir, it can happen anytime,” she said.
Mohammad Sayeed Malik, a retired journalist from the region, said elections for the territory’s assembly could offer a “breakthrough.”
While such elections might happen “soon,” according to officials at the G-20 event, the government for now is focusing on local elections to strengthen the politics from the “grass roots” amid worries that assembly candidates could fuel separatist sentiments, particularly if funded by Pakistan.
The shopping center employee said he has given up on elections taking place anytime soon. He agreed that Modi’s campaigns have brought in tourists, but “they come, enjoy the beauty and leave without bothering to ask us what we face or how we have been doing.”