Elite Indian commandos patrolled the streets of Srinagar on Friday ahead of a G20 tourism meeting next week, with China and Pakistan condemning holding the event in the disputed territory of Indian-administered Kashmir.
Muslim-majority Kashmir has been disputed between New Delhi and Islamabad, both of which claim it in full, since their independence 75 years ago.
The Indian-controlled portion has been roiled for decades by an insurgency seeking independence or merger with Pakistan, with tens of thousands of civilians, soldiers and Kashmiri rebels killed in the conflict.
Police said security had been beefed up “at vulnerable locations to avoid any chance of terrorist attack during the G20” meeting, the first diplomatic event in the territory since New Delhi revoked its limited autonomy and took direct control in 2019.
The three-day gathering starts Monday at a sprawling, well-guarded venue on the shores of Dal Lake in Srinagar.
Roads leading to the location have been freshly black-topped, and electricity poles lit up in the colours of India’s national flag to show what officials say is “normalcy and peace returning” to the region.
India has been promoting tourism in Kashmir and more than a million of its citizens visited last year.
China firmly opposes holding any form of G20 meeting in disputed territory and will not attend such meetings
But no Chinese delegates will be attending the event. India and its northern neighbour are locked in a military standoff along their mostly undemarcated border in the Ladakh region. Beijing also claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in full as part of Tibet, and it considers Kashmir a disputed territory.
“China firmly opposes holding any form of G20 meeting in disputed territory and will not attend such meetings,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters Friday.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are reportedly also unlikely to join.
India holds the Group of 20 presidency for 2023 and has planned more than 100 meetings across the country -- Beijing has already stayed away from events in both Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh.
Non-G20 member Pakistan controls a smaller part of Kashmir and said holding the tourism meeting in the territory violated international law, UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.
Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said India was displaying its “arrogance to the world” and that “it shows their pettiness”, triggering a sharp retort from New Delhi.
India accuses Pakistan of training and supporting militants in Kashmir, which Islamabad denies.
Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor of Indian current affairs magazine The Caravan, said the choice of location was “clearly an attempt to try and show that Kashmir is all normal”.
But he added that “China and some other countries not going to the meet is not surprising.
“If any Western democracies didn’t attend that would send a different signal,” he said. “India knows there will be no repercussions.”
Since India’s 2019 constitutional changes, rebels in Kashmir have largely been crushed -- although young men continue to join the insurgency -- and the annual death toll has been on a downward trend, with 253 fatalities last year.
But dissent has been criminalised, media freedoms curbed and public protests limited, in what critics say is a drastic curtailment of civil liberties by India.
On Monday, 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”, comments rejected by India.
Soldiers including elite National Security Guard commandos and paramilitary troops equipped with sniffer dogs and hand-held bomb detection have been deployed on the streets of Srinagar for more than a week ahead of the meeting.
Residents have chafed under the stepped-up security measures, hundreds have been detained in police stations and thousands including shopkeepers have received calls from officials warning them against any “signs of protest or trouble”.
“We dread this meeting here,” one young resident told AFP, declining to be named. “If a policeman hears me saying this to you, I will no doubt be arrested,” he added.
A senior official told AFP on condition of anonymity: “These measures are a standard drill we know well. There may be some inconvenience in the process but that is unavoidable.”