Authors: Subhadip Mondal and Mukesh Kumar*
Kashmir has been hailed as heaven on earth for its scenic beauty and rich cultural heritage. Situated in the lap of mountains, the valley has been a centre of attraction for lush greenery, cascading fountains, flowerbeds, snow-covered mountains, and a pristine ecosystem. The beauty of Kashmir makes it the best destination for tourists across the world. However, over the past three decades, it has gone through a lot that hampered its peace, prosperity and charm. Following the abrogation of Article 370, the state was turned into a Union Territory, controlled directly by the central government. After assuming the G-20 presidency from Indonesia last year, New Delhi cleared its intention of holding a meeting in Kashmir as part of its strategy to showcase normalcy in the valley.
Kashmir Meet and India’s Motivation
Amid tension with Pakistan and China over the border, the G-20 meeting at Srinagar lays paramount importance for India. The prime objective behind holding the meeting at a non-traditional big city was to promote sustainable development of the region by fostering tourism and preserving the cultural heritage of the valley. The tourism meeting was held on five key pillars namely Digitalisation, Green Tourism, Skills, MSMEs, and Destination Management. The tourism meeting paves the opportunity to showcase the hidden potentials of the film industry and tourism in the J&K while achieving the targets of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A draft “National Strategy on Film Tourism” was unveiled alongside the event on “Film Tourism for Economic Growth and Culture Preservation” for promoting movie-making and tourist destinations via the film industry. Besides film tourism, emphasis was made on exploring the cultural heritage and local economy by promoting Art and Craft Bazaar to showcase local products, handicrafts, and artisan works. Following the visits to the art and craft bazaar, delegates were hander over the souvenirs of the local market such as Cawa cups and brass spoons, Paper Mache boxes, walnuts, and Saffron. The meeting registered maximum participation compared to the last two working group meetings on tourism at Rann of Kutch and Siliguri.
The G-20 Tourism Working Group Meeting is the first major international event held at J&K since the revocation of the autonomous status of the state in 2019. New Delhi had lots of aspirations behind holding the meeting at a place which has been considered a victim of terrorism for decades. Separatist movements and cross-border terrorism followed by low-intensity conflicts, and subsequently slow economic development has been the major challenge faced by the region.
Since last year, Pakistan was opposing the Government of India’s (GoI) proposal to host the 3rd Tourism Working Group Meeting in Kashmir. This did not restrain GoI from moving ahead with the proposed plan. Islamabad, however, is not a member of G-20 but still ventilated its message. Consequently, five countries decided to skip the G-20 event in Kashmir. Among them, China, Saudi Arabia, and Türkiye are G-20 countries, while Egypt and Oman were invited by India. The missing of Riyadh is important to note since the Tourism Working Group in G-20 was initiated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when it had the G-20 presidency in 2020.
In 2019 when India scrapped the autonomous status of Kashmir, Riyadh’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Abu Dhabi’s Foreign Minister travelled to Islamabad. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s views on Kashmir align more with the narrative of Pakistan. His re-election this year was on populist Islamic values. China, which is a nation of concern for India has always aligned with Islamabad on the issue of Kashmir. China has used its position as the permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to raise the concern of Kashmir in UNSC meetings. Egypt, a part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has traditionally supported Pakistan’s narrative on Kashmir. Under the Modi regime, GoI has increased its defence cooperation and bilateral dialogue with Cairo, but its absence from the Kashmir event highlights the gap in New Delhi’s diplomatic efforts to develop deeper ties. It is pertinent here to mention that Egypt is a part of China’s BRI Initiatives and has signed Public Security and Law Enforcement agreement with Beijing. Oman, another OIC member who abstained from taking any stand in the aftermath of revoking Article 370, too sidelined the Kashmir event.
In contrast to these nations, three countries which have an Islamic majority attended the Working Group Meeting namely Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Indonesia. Amongst them, Abu Dhabi and Jakarta are the members of OIC. The presence of the UAE is not a surprise which has regarded Kashmir an internal matter of India, while Indonesia has maintained a neutral stand on the issue. GoI concluded the 3rd Tourism Working Group Meeting and tried to articulate the message of business as usual in Kashmir, but the absence of five nations has highlighted the gap in the shifting geopolitics.
Following the US’s dramatic exit from the Afghanistan, China is scoring brownies in an attempt to fill this gap by expanding its diplomatic reach. For instance, Riyadh was considering the possibility of accepting yuan for its oil sales to Beijing. China also played a key role in mediating the deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore relations. Beijing and major Islamic countries are on the same page regarding the Kashmir issue which India considers as interference in its internal matters. China could leverage its developed diplomatic position to push its anti-India narrative in the Islamic world which can impact our energy needs in the longer run since New Delhi would also have to move beyond Moscow for its energy supply. Besides, China is also impacting the Russian oil discount which India used to receive due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
To secure its interests in West Asia, New Delhi needs to find new allies in the region as well as strengthen its relations with the traditional ones. The need for allies is all-time high given that, the influence of India’s major partner the US is declining in West Asia. Ankara a gateway to both the Islamic world and Europe is expanding its diplomatic arch to become an emerging power. For instance, Türkiye broke the Black Sea grain deal between Ukraine and Russia. Hence, getting Ankara on its side would be a better opportunity for India’s growth. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appeasement to populist politics makes it difficult for the current Indian regime to lure Türkiye on its side.
The absence of five states from the Kashmir meeting did send out a ripple effect in its geopolitics which India needs to have a close inspection. New Delhi needs to explore allies within the West Asian nations, which could help India to propagate its diplomatic interest in the region. UAE could be an option in this regard but New Delhi needs to tailor its existing outreach program and policies to the need of Abu Dhabi so that both nations could form a long-lasting and stronger relationship. Finally, New Delhi has to limit the influence of its domestic politics over international policies.
*Mukesh Kumar is a doctoral research scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organisations, and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He has a master’s in Defence and Strategic Studies from the University of Allahabad. He is a former research intern at Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the author of many pieces including the one in India’s Ministry of Defence’s publication on DefExpo 2022. His area of interest includes Arms Trade and Foreign Policy, Arms Control and Nuclear Disarmament, Arms Industries and Economics, Politics of West Asia and Northern Africa, War and Peace, and Defence and Strategic Studies.