By Devika Bhattacharya: In an epochal move, the Union government abrogated Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir, on August 5, 2019. Cut to three years later and the Valley has opened up to welcome foreign dignitaries for the prestigious G20 tourism summit – in what is seen as a bid by the Centre to display how “normalcy and peace” has been restored in the restive territory.
With India holding the G20 presidency for 2023, the government has planned more than 100 meetings across the country. Hosting an event in Jammu and Kashmir had been on the agenda from the get-go. But a string of targeted civilian killings and deadly terror attacks nearly derailed these ambitious plans. Ten soldiers and seven civilians have been killed in four attacks this year.
However, the Modi regime pressed ahead and after making some tweaks, and substantially beefing up security arrangements, the three-day gathering commenced on May 22 at the well-guarded SKICC complex on the shores of Dal Lake in Srinagar.
In the past, an event of this scale would have been met with a general strike in Srinagar, but now people are “going about with their activity”, said MoS 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 said.
Underlining the positive changes in the Valley, Jitendra Singh said, “It is indeed a moment of rejuvenation, a moment of reincarnation…”.
CONTENTION AND OPPOSITION
While people at home may have “moved on”, the Kashmir issue continues to rankle abroad. Slamming India for holding the meeting in Srinagar, Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto said the choice of the location showed New Delhi’s “pettiness” and was a “show of arrogance to the world”.
G20 member China, Pakistan’s long-time ally, objected to the event being held on “disputed territory” and said it would not attend. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Oman also followed suit.
Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Oman are members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries, which has regularly shown its Kashmir obsession on Pakistan’s prodding. But Saudi Arabia and Turkey haven’t given the three-day event in Srinagar a complete miss.
Egypt skipping the event, though, came as a surprise to political watchers.
Non-G20 member Egypt was a special invitee to the event. The country’s president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade this year.
While Indonesia was also speculated to skip the event, it sent representatives from its mission in New Delhi. Incidentally, trade delegations from both Saudi Arabia and Turkey arrived to attend the tourism meet too.
With terrorists stepping up attacks in recent months, Jammu and Kashmir Police said security has been bolstered “to avoid any chance of terrorist attack during the G20 meet”.
On Monday, soldiers and armoured vehicles were deployed at multiple locations in Srinagar. There was a massive deployment of security forces on the route taken by the delegates and the Airport Road to Dalgate stretch.
The elite National Security Guard and Marcos commandos are helping police and paramilitary forces to secure the venues, while the Boulevard Road around it has been made a no-go zone for three days.
Sanitisation and “area domination” exercises have been carried out in and around the venues, along the route and at vulnerable spots of the city. Scanners and sniffer dogs have been pressed into action to check for any explosives or IEDs.
Vehicles passing through Srinagar are being randomly checked to ensure that no subversive elements manage to enter the city, officials said.
ATITHI DEVO BHAVA
The Centre has rolled out the red carpet for the 61 delegates from 29 nations who arrived in a chartered flight at the Srinagar international airport on Monday.
The foreign delegates were welcomed by Union Tourism Minister G Kishan Reddy, along with G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant at Srinagar airport. They were greeted with floral garlands and traditional song and dance performances by local artists showcasing Kashmir’s cultural heritage to the visitors.
Under a heavy police escort, they were taken to the venue, the route to which has received a facelift with G20 logos painted on walls and hoardings to welcome the delegates.
Delegates also got to rub shoulders with RRR star Ram Charan, who addressed the Film Tourism for Economic and Cultural Preservation event, held as part of the three-day meet. The actor grooved to the beat of Oscar-winning track Naatu Naatu and also appeared to teach the Korean Ambassador the signature hook step of the song.
A HOPE FOR REVIVAL
Sentiments on the ground are upbeat. Locals are hopeful that the summit will boost tourism, the backbone of Jammu and Kashmir’s economy.
Sheikh Ashiq, an exporter of Kashmiri carpets, told news agency ANI, “Holding such an international summit for the first time in Kashmir is special for the whole country. This is a proud moment for Kashmir. It will have a positive impact not only on the tourism sector directly but also on other related sectors.”
The Centre is doubling down on promoting tourism in the region — home to spectacular mountain scenery — with welcome signs at the airport declaring it “paradise on earth”.
Union Tourism and Culture Minister G Kishan Reddy said film tourism had emerged as a powerful medium to promote the tourism industry and the government was chalking out a comprehensive strategy for its growth in J&K.
There is a feeling of positive change that the government wants to go out through the G20 delegates.
“I hope that when our friends go back, they will be our ambassadorsâæ about the situation here and how it appears,” Union minister Jitendra Singh said.
Sufi mystic-poet Amir Khusro had famously said, “Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast (If there is a heaven on earth, it’s here, it’s here). Long marred by violence and bloodshed, Kashmir has entered an era of “revival and rejuvenation”. Perhaps, the day isn’t far when it will truly be a paradise again.