Shrine Clash Threatens To Tear Kashmir From India

8 August 2008
Associated Press

Srinagar: It started as a small demonstration against a plan to build bathrooms and shelters for Hindu pilgrims visiting a shrine in Kashmir. But 12 deaths and 47 days of rioting have transformed the protests into one of the worst political crises to hit this Himalayan region, threatening to sever the bonds between the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir and Hindu-majority India. Even during the last two decades of a brutal separatist rebellion in Kashmir and India's harsh military response, the region remained firmly tethered to the rest of India through its coexistence with the predominantly Hindu region of Jammu - united in the state of Jammu-Kashmir. The traditionally good relations between the two regions were a rare bright point in the long-troubled region that has otherwise been a flash point for Hindu-Muslim conflict and the rivalry between India and Pakistan. Now, surging violence has laid bare long-buried animosities. Hindus in Jammu say they are tired of the union and blocked the main road linking them to Kashmir to make their point. And most Kashmiris say a divorce would suit them too. 'It used to be Jammu & Kashmir, now it's Jammu vs. Kashmir,' said an editorial cartoon in Friday's Times of India newspaper, a day after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh convened an emergency meeting of the region's leading politicians in a bid to end the crisis. The riots began on June 23 after the state government announced it was transferring about 100 acres of land to the Amarnath shrine - a cave to which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flock every year to see a large phallic-shaped icicle revered by Hindus as an incarnation of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration. The land was to be used to build facilities for the devotees. But Muslims feared it was a ploy to establish a Hindu settlement in the region and change the demographic balance. After days of intense protests, the state government caved, revoking the land transfer. When that failed to quell the unrest, the Congress party-led state government resigned. But while the moves mollified Muslims in Kashmir, it sparked a fresh wave of protest in Jammu, where Hindus alleged their religious rights were being trampled. 'The land issue is now symbolic and it's the issue of our dignity as in the past 60 years,' said Harsh Dev Singh, a Hindu politician with the Jammu-based Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party. Singh, who wants a separate state for Jammu's Hindus, said that within the current state Hindus are discriminated against when comes to government jobs, public funding and education. In recent days Hindu protesters in Jammu have fought street battles with police, defying curfews, and blocked the Srinagar-Jammu highway, Kashmir's main link to the rest of the country. Hindu mobs have also attacked Muslim shops and homes and chanting slogans demanding Muslim Kashmiris leave the area. On Friday the army warned it could deploy soldiers in the area and use force if necessary to clear access to the road. The attacks and the blockade left hundreds of trucks full of fruit from Kashmir destined for other parts of India rotting by the side of the road and shortages of basic supplies in Indian Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, further angering Kashmiris. 'We've always treated them as part of the state,' said Mushtaq Hussain, a Srinagar trader sitting outside his closed shop. 'But by trying to choke us economically, they're proving it was only a marriage of convenience. We, too, don't want them anymore.' Since independence from Britain, India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan have fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir, which is now divided between the two countries and claimed in its entirety by both. More than a dozen Islamic militant groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or it's merger with Pakistan. More than 68,000 people have been killed in the fighting. Indian and Pakistani troops have traded gunfire across the frontier in Kashmir at least three times in recent weeks. Nevertheless, Jammu and Kashmir have functioned as one state since 1947, reinforcing India's hold on the region. Hindus and Muslims fleeing the violence of Kashmir found refuge in Jammu; Jammu traders promoted Kashmiri goods; and the groups shared governance - when the frigid Himalayan winter shut down the state's summer capital, Srinagar, the government moved to their winter headquarters in the city of Jammu. Now, much of this good will has evaporated - a development that could threaten India's long-term control of Kashmir. 'If Hindus in Jammu region don't want to live with Muslim-majority Kashmir, how can India expect Muslims in Kashmir to remain part of Hindu-majority India?' asked Sheikh Showkat a professor of international law at the University of Kashmir.