Thousands Mass For Kashmir Separatist Rally, Crying 'freedom'

22 August 2008
Agence France-Presse

Srinagar: Hundreds of thousands of people massed in Indian Kashmir's main city on Friday to demand 'azadi' or freedom and protest against New Delhi's rule in the second major demonstration this week. 'The rally is to show to the world that we are against India's occupation of Kashmir,' said separatist leader Shabir Shah, who has spent more than 20 years in Indian jails. Protesters began marching from early morning toward the site of the rally, the 'Martyrs' Cemetery' where many of those killed in the nearly two-decade-old revolt against New Delhi's rule are buried. The demonstrators, carrying black and green flags symbolising Islam and mourning, shouted 'azadi.' Many banners had 'Allahu akbar' ('God is greater') written in white Arabic letters. The huge turnout showed that Kashmiris 'want to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination' through a referendum, moderate separatist Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said. India says decades-old UN resolutions calling for such a vote are 'obsolete.' Speaking to a sea of people, Farooq called upon New Delhi to free all 'political detainees' and repeal 'draconian' laws that give sweeping powers to Indian troops battling the insurgency in Kashmir. It was the second show of strength by separatists this week in Kashmir, which is claimed by India and Pakistan. Police estimated the crowd at more than 200,000 while separatists said it was at least double that number. The separatists called for a complete shutdown of shops, schools and businesses for three more days starting Saturday and the staging of a silent protest in Lal Chowk, the city centre, on Monday. On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets of Srinagar to demand that the United Nations recognise the Himalayan region's right to self-determination. Security was tight for Friday's rally in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir, and ended peacefully. One young protester died when he touched a high-tension electric wire as he was travelling atop a bus to the rally. 'Security forces have been deployed in strength across Srinagar to maintain law and order,' said police officer Pervez Ahmed. People from other towns and villages arrived in cars, jeeps, buses and trucks with those on board chanting, 'We want freedom.' Kashmiris say the demonstrations recall the height of the anti-Indian revolt in the early 1990s, but then rifle-toting militants openly strolled through the streets. Last week 22 demonstrators were shot dead by security forces in the Kashmir valley during Muslim protests against the blocking of the Himalayan region's main highway by Hindu hardliners. The trouble was triggered by a state government plan announced in June to donate land to a Hindu shrine trust in the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley. The decision was later reversed, angering Hindus. Since June, at least 31 Muslims and three Hindus have died from police firing on protesters and other violence in the Kashmir valley and predominantly Hindu Jammu area. The events have breathed new life into Kashmir's separatist movement as well as soured relations between India and Pakistan, which have fought two of their three wars over the scenic region. Indian and Pakistani troops have engaged in clashes across the Line of Control dividing the disputed region for the first time in years. The unrest has shattered several years of relative calm and raised questions over the fate of a slow-moving peace process between India and Pakistan.