Top Indian Kashmir Cleric Urges Troop Pullout In Eid Sermon

28 November 2009
Izhar Wani

Srinagar: Kashmir's top cleric on Saturday urged New Delhi to pull out Indian troops, revoke tough anti-militancy laws and free prisoners before resuming talks aimed at ending an insurgency in the region. The call by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq came during a sermon marking the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian Kashmir where Islamist rebels have been waging a two-decade fight against New Delhi's rule. 'The government of India must withdraw troops from the region in a phased manner and revoke draconian laws before resuming talks,' said Farooq, the most senior cleric in Indian Kashmir and the leader of moderate separatists. New Delhi also needs to end alleged human rights violations by security forces and release jailed separatists, Farooq said. 'Before starting the dialogue, people should see some forward movement in the form of these confidence-building measures,' Farooq said from the pulpit of the Jamia Masjid, Indian Kashmir's main mosque. Farooq's statements came as hardline separatist Syed Ali Geelani led 10,000 Muslims in an anti-India demonstration in northern Sopore town, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Srinagar, police said. Shouting 'We want freedom' and 'Allah is great,' the protesters marched through the town's streets after offering Eid prayers. Home Minister P. Chidambaram, on a visit to Kashmir last month, said the Indian government was willing to hold a 'quiet dialogue with every section of political opinion' - including those opposed to New Delhi's rule. Farooq described the offer as a 'step forward.' Moderate separatist leaders in the Muslim-majority state have held several rounds of talks with India's central government, though hardliners oppose any contact that does not involve neighbouring Pakistan. However, there have been no talks between the Indian government and the separatists for the last three years. Farooq said discussions between New Delhi and separatists should culminate in a tri-partite meeting involving India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris. India and Pakistan, which each hold part of Kashmir but claim it in full, have fought two wars over the scenic region. Most of the rebel groups fighting New Delhi's rule want the region to become part of Pakistan. A few support its independence. Chidambaram has said any answer to Kashmir's problems must be 'honourable, respectable and acceptable to the vast majority of the people' and added 'the solution may turn out to be a unique one.' According to official figures, more than 47,000 people have been killed in the two-decade-long insurgency. Farooq's sermon came as Muslims in Kashmir marked the festival of Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, by slaughtering sheep and goats in remembrance of Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son to God. Violence in Kashmir has dropped sharply since India and Pakistan started a peace process in 2004 but New Delhi 'paused' the process after last year's Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead. Farooq urged New Delhi to resume talks with Islamabad. 'Whatever happened in Mumbai has been condemned by one and all,' he said, 'but talks should not be held hostage to that act of carnage.' India and Washington have blamed the deadly Mumbai rampage on Pakistan's banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has denied any role.