While a G20 tourism summit unfolded this week on the banks of Srinagar's picturesque Dal Lake in the heart of the Kashmir Valley, army commandos patrolled the area and police officers with machine guns stood watch at most street corners.

The tight security in Jammu and Kashmir, already one of the world's most heavily militarized zones, was meant to ensure the working group meeting, hosted by India and attended by delegates from 27 countries, went smoothly. 

It's the first high-level international meeting of its kind to be held in Kashmir since the government revoked the Muslim-majority region's special status and brought it under direct Indian control, while splitting it into two federal territories.  

Indian authorities hoped to show that Kashmir, the site of decades of insurgency against Indian rule, is now peaceful and stable following the repeal of its semi-autonomous status.  

But at the Jahangir Chowk market, several kilometres away from the perimeter insulating the meeting venue, the idea of everything being normal in Kashmir was dismissed outright. 

"If there is normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir, what makes you create this huge amount of security personnel to deploy in this state?" said businessman and political activist Amood Gulzar, 29. "There is a contradiction."

He said he welcomed the presence of G20 delegates in Srinagar, but felt the demands of regular Kashmiris were being ignored — including free elections, which haven't been held in Jammu and Kashmir since 2014.

"There is no elected government [in the region] and India is the [world's] largest democracy, denying the democratic procedures to this state," Gulzar said. "How does that make sense?"

'We are living in fear'

Others at the market and elsewhere quietly complained of harassment from police and soldiers ahead of the three-day meeting. Multiple security checkpoints dotted Srinagar, and residents told CBC News they felt unable to fully describe the situation in their state to journalists, for fear of being detained.

"People are oppressed. We can't speak openly," one shoe vendor cried out in anger, while others nodded in agreement.  

"We are living in fear. The forces are everywhere," Srinagar resident Riyaz Ahmed told CBC News, while shopping at the market with his young granddaughter. "Every Kashmiri is depressed." 

He said that while speaking to CBC, he was "afraid that they might be watching" and that he would be "harassed later." 

Ahmed nonetheless continued the conversation, saying he and others gathered around him in the market square didn't understand the purpose of the G20 tourism summit. 

"They want to show the world that Kashmir is peaceful. But it is not," Ahmed said. "The G20 campaign is just a façade." 

At a nearby indoor market virtually devoid of customers, Manzoor Ahmed (no relation) echoed those words. 

"Because of the heightened security presence around the G20, Kashmiris are very scared and don't leave their houses like we used to," the 40-year-old vendor said in Kashmiri. "This has also hit our business."  

He stirred his large pot full of traditional Kashmiri Gushtaba meatballs at a stall he has manned his whole life, and bristled at the intense security that has descended on his city, where a heavy military presence is already the norm.

He shrugged when asked if he expected to see any benefit from the G20 meeting, which was focused on promoting tourism in the embattled region. 

"The G20 delegation had no communication with us Kashmiri people, they do not know about our sufferings and problems," Ahmed said. "The government only presented [the delegation] with a façade of normalcy and placed them in luxurious hotels."

Decades of conflict

Controversy has dogged the Indian government's choice to hold the meeting in disputed territory. 

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in full, but each only controls parts of the Himalayan region, which has a predominantly Muslim population and has been a flashpoint since the two countries gained independence 75 years ago. The countries, both nuclear powers, have fought two of their three full-scale wars over the region. 

The United Nations said on Monday the meeting was taking place while "massive human rights violations" continue in Kashmir, including arbitrary arrests, political persecutions and restrictions on free media. 

"The government of India is seeking to normalize what some have described as a military occupation by instrumentalizing a G20 meeting and portray an international seal of approval," said Fernand de Varennes, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues, in a statement.

India called the statement "baseless" and full of "unwarranted allegations." 

China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were among the handful of nations that boycotted the meeting due to its location.

Pakistan, which is not a G20 member, was incensed by the decision to have the meeting in Kashmir. 

India is "abusing their presidency of the G20 to push their colonial agenda," Pakistan's Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told AFP on Monday from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. 

Indian officials dismissed the criticism. The chief co-ordinator for India's G20 presidency, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, said that Pakistan had no right to object when it came to the G20 or Jammu and Kashmir, "which is an integral part of India, and the meeting that is being held here today has nothing to do with them."

The region has 'moved on' from strife, says India

Indian authorities at the G20 tourism working group meeting also defended having the meeting in Srinagar, the summer capital of a restive region.  

"Jammu and Kashmir has moved on" from violence, said Jitendra Singh, India's junior minister of science and technology, on the first day of the meeting. 

He said holding the summit was an achievement in itself, while touting the dramatic rise in tourism to the mountainous region famed for its beauty. A record number of tourists, mostly domestic, visited Indian-controlled Kashmir last year — 18.4 million. This year's figure is expected to hit 20 million. 

"The common man walking on the streets of Srinagar wants to be a part of the development journey led by Prime Minister Modi," Singh said.  

That statement was met with incredulous scoffs at the Srinagar food market. 

"Unemployment is growing, the streets are dug up," Riyaz Ahmed said. "Is this the development they speak of?" he added, gesturing at the empty vendor tables on a dirt road. 

"The situation is the worst in Kashmir. India does whatever it wants."

2023-05-25T15:38:22Z dg43tfdfdgfd