India's Kashmir Mourns Deaths From Massive Protests

13 August 2008

Srinagar: Indian Kashmir on Wednesday began a three-day mourning for at least 20 Muslim protesters shot dead by police this week as the region simmered over a land row that has revived independence calls. Shops and businesses were closed in Kashmir's summer capital of Srinagar and special prayers were being held in mosques and homes. Police and soldiers dressed in battle gear patrolled deserted streets, often blocked with barbed wire. A curfew remained in force in much of valley after some of the biggest protests since a separatist revolt against Indian rule broke out in 1989 over what Muslim traders said was an economic blockade of their region by Hindus in adjoining Jammu. A land dispute has polarised Indian Kashmir, split between the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city, severely curbing trade between the two areas. Kashmir's main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, on Wednesday called for peaceful protests. One of their leaders was among this week's dead.'Don't give oppressor any chance to use brute force, to shower bullets. Continue protests peacefully,' Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Hurriyat's chairman said. The clashes have also presented Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's embattled government, already hit by inflation and a spate of unsolved bombings in India this year, with one of its biggest tests as it battles to cool religious tensions. Challenging what residents said was a blockade, tens of thousands of Kashmiris marched to the de facto border with neighbouring Pakistan on Tuesday to sell their goods, sparking the deadly clashes with police. The communal tensions of the region have not stoked passions elsewhere in a country but people fear that general elections due next year could lead to the politicisation of the issue. Flag-waving Hindu protesters halted traffic on Wednesday along highways leading into the capital New Delhi. ENRAGED The dispute began after the Kashmir government promised to give forest land to the trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine visited by Hindu pilgrims. Many Muslims were enraged. The government then rescinded its decision, which in turn angered Hindus in Jammu who attacked lorries carrying supplies to Kashmir valley and blocked the region's highway, the only surface link between the Kashmir valley and the rest of India. Indian authorities have denied any 'economic blockade' and say trucks, guarded by policemen and soldiers, are plying to Kashmir valley. Hindu protests have shut down Jammu for more than a month. On Wednesday Hindu groups blocked highways and stopped trains in several northern Indian cities demanding the land back. Violence in Kashmir had fallen after India and Pakistan, which claim the disputed Himalayan territory in full but rule in parts, began a peace process in 2004. But the turmoil in Kashmir threatens to further endanger the sputtering peace process, analysts say.