China and Saudi Arabia boycott G20 meeting held by India in Kashmir

India’s presidency of the G20 group of leading nations has become mired in controversy after China and Saudi Arabia boycotted a meeting staged in Kashmir, the first such gathering since India unilaterally brought Kashmir under direct control in August 2019.

The meeting, a tourism working group attended by about 60 delegates from most G20 countries taking place from Monday to Wednesday, required a large show of security at Srinagar international airport.

In 2019 the Indian government stripped the disputed Muslim-majority region of semi-autonomy and split it into two federal territories in an attempt to integrate it fully into India.

Indian authorities hoped the meeting would show that the controversial changes have brought “peace and prosperity” to the region and that it is a safe place for tourists.

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India’s elite National Security Guard, including its counter-drone unit and marine commandos, were helping police and paramilitary forces to secure the event venues.

China has said it will not attend, citing its firm opposition “to holding any kind of G20 meetings in disputed territory”. In April, Pakistan, which also lays claim to Kashmir but is not a G20 member, described the meeting as irresponsible. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Indonesia were also expected to stay away.

The former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti claimed India had turned the region into the equivalent of the Guantánamo Bay prison simply to hold a meeting on tourism. She also accused the Bharatiya Janata party, the party of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, of hijacking the G20 for its promotional purposes.

Last week Fernand de Varennes, the UN’s special rapporteur on minority issues, issued a statement saying the G20 was “unwittingly providing a veneer of support to a facade of normalcy” when human rights violations, political persecution and illegal arrests were escalating in Kashmir.

He said the meeting risked normalising what some have described as a military occupation. The statement was criticised as baseless by India’s permanent mission at the UN in Geneva. It was India’s prerogative to hold G20 meetings in any part of the country, the mission said.

India divided the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 to create two federally administered territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Ladakh is a disputed frontier region along the line of actual control between India and China, and both countries claim parts of it.

The chief coordinator for India’s G20 presidency, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, said on Sunday: “We have the highest representation from foreign delegations for the tourism working group meeting in Srinagar, than we have had in the previous working group meetings.

“Our experience is that in any working group meeting, to get such a large turnout of delegates not only from G20 countries but also from international organisations that are part of the G20 is an incredible process. If you have to do a working group on tourism in India, we have to do it in Srinagar. There is no option.”

Britain’s high commissioner to India, Alex Ellis, said UK representatives would be attending the meeting. At a meeting between Modi and Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, at the G7 in Hiroshima, the two sides discussed progress on reaching a free trade deal. India remains angry at what it regards as a lax UK police reaction to an attack on the Indian high commission in London on 19 March by pro-Khalistan extremists. Security has been stepped up outside the commission.

The presidency of the G20 is rotated between members each year and the Indian presidency was always likely to prove controversial as India has close trading links with Russia and the Modi administration is keen to protect Russia from criticism by western members of the G20 over Ukraine. Kyiv has asked to attend a summit in September but the Indian government is arguing Ukraine is not relevant to the state of the world economy – the central purpose of the G20 – or to its chosen key agenda items of inclusive growth, debt restructuring and climate finance.

Vladimir Putin did not attend the G20 summit staged by Indonesia last year but instead sent his veteran foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.

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