India is “abusing” its presidency of the G20 by holding a tourism conference in the occupied Kashmir, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told AFP.

It is the first diplomatic event in the disputed territory since Pakistan suspended trade and diplomatic ties with India in 2019, when New Delhi imposed direct rule on the part of Muslim-majority Kashmir it controls and enforced a heavy security lockdown.

“I wish I could say I was surprised, but I think that this is a continuation in what is becoming a norm now, of India’s arrogance on the international stage,” he told AFP in a Monday interview in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

“They’re abusing their presidency of the G20 to push their colonial agenda, but if they think that by holding one event in occupied Kashmir they can silence the voice of the Kashmiri people, then I believe that they are truly mistaken.”

The India-held Kashmir has been roiled for decades by an insurgency seeking independence or a merger with Pakistan, with tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers killed in the conflict.

Non-G20 member Pakistan controls a smaller part, and says holding the tourism meeting from Monday to Wednesday in the territory violates international law, UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.

The G20 participants — made up of the European Union and the world’s 19 top economies — have been “put in a pretty awkward spot”, said the 34-year-old Bhutto Zardari.

“Those countries who make it a point to remind us and protest how outrageous it is that international law has been violated in Europe: I believe that they should be just as outraged when international law is violated in Kashmir,” he said, in a reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

China, which also claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in full as part of Tibet, has stood by Pakistan in condemning the meeting to promote tourism in the area — renowned for its lakes, meadows and snow-capped mountains.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are not sending government representation, while some Western countries have scaled back their presence, according to reports.

‘Patient people’

India is attempting to portray what officials have called “normalcy and peace” in the violence-wracked region by inviting the international community to a sprawling, well-guarded venue on the shores of Dal Lake in Srinagar.

Over the past week, residents have chafed under 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”.

“One of the most militarised zones in the world can never be seen as normal,” said Bilawal.

The South Asian neighbours have fought three wars since they were created at the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.

Since India’s 2019 constitutional changes, Kashmiri fighters have largely been crushed — although young men continue to join the insurgency.

Dissent has been criminalised, media freedoms curbed and public protests limited, in what critics say is a drastic curtailment of civil liberties by India.

The foreign minister ruled out any chance of a warming of ties between the two countries unless New Delhi revoked the change in status of India-held Kashmir.

“Until this topic is addressed, it really stands in the way of peace in all of South Asia,” said Bilawal.

Without it, no “meaningful dialogue” could begin on shared threats including militancy and worsening climate change.

The crackdown in occupied Kashmir was ordered by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who since coming to power in 2014 has increasingly used religious polarisation to mobilise the Hindu majority.

Next year, he will seek a third term in power at elections.

“We are patient people,” said the foreign minister.

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