Protests in Kashmir herald poll tensions

Muslim separatists celebrated the revocation of a controversial land-transfer decision, using the occasion to agitate for independence from India.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Taking sides: A woman holds a sandal up to policemen in the Hindu-majority city of Jammu to protest the government's decision to revoke a land-transfer order.
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Jubilant Kashmiris lit bonfires and set off fireworks in the streets on Wednesday to celebrate a rare triumph in their struggle against Indian rule. For nine days, Muslim leaders have staged the biggest protests seen in Jammu and Kashmir since the early 1990s against a government plan to transfer land to a Hindu shrine in India's only Muslim-majority state. Hundreds of people were wounded and at least four killed while protesting. On Tuesday, the government bowed to the pressure and voted to scrap the plan. But while some parts of the state saw rejoicing, the government's decision stoked tensions elsewhere.

In Hindu-majority Jammu, the revocation prompted new rallies, with activists chanting that the government had pandered to Muslims. In the national capital, New Delhi, India's main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), called for a nationwide strike on July 3. It warned that the government's decision would unleash a tide of Hindu nationalist anger – an indication that the party is likely to agitate over the issue ahead of general elections scheduled to be held in May.

Back in Srinagar, separatist leaders anxious to maintain the momentum of recent days said they were preparing for a new round of protests to demand independence – their ultimate goal.

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"We will be happy when we are free from India," says Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a hard-line Muslim separatist leader. He indicated that the next cause independence activists would seize upon was the occupation of large swaths of land in Kashmir by the Indian Army.

Mr. Geelani's sentiments are shared by many. Public feeling in the state certainly runs high as 90 percent of the population in Srinagar believes that Kashmir should be independent of either India or Pakistan, according to a poll in an Indian newspaper.

For two decades, militant groups have been fighting for the state's independence, or its merger with neighboring Pakistan, which rules the other portion of the disputed Himalayan region. Some 50,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and the region has sparked three wars between India and Pakistan since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.

In recent years, life has been relatively peaceful in the Kashmir Valley, an area once described by former President Bill Clinton as the most dangerous place on earth. This is largely due to renewed peace talks between India and Pakistan as well as the decline of the Hizbul Mujahideen, Kashmir's largest militant group.

But some observers believe that a resurgence in Kashmiri militancy is in the offing. In April, the United Jihad Council, an umbrella group of Kashmiri militants, held its first public rally since 2001 in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan.

Communal tensions

Kashmir's latest controversy came about when the state government – led by the Congress Party that rules at India's center – said that it would transfer 99 acres of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, which manages a shrine in a cave containing an icicle believed to be an incarnation of the god Shiva. The board was to build huts and toilets for the thousands of Hindu tourists that visit each year.

Independence leaders say the sanctity of the cave is overplayed by Indian politicians and that the plan to build accommodations for pilgrims was in fact a ploy to settle large numbers of Hindus in a Muslim-majority area, thereby altering the area's demographics. Indian officials have dismissed the allegations.

Agitating for independence

For their part, some independence activists have admitted that the land transfer offered an opportunity to agitate for the independence cause and was not a genuine grievance in itself.

"[The separatists] needed an issue to exploit and this has given them that handle," says Gen. Ashok Mehta, a defense analyst at the Center for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi.

The tactic seems to have worked. At a mass protest ostensibly organized to protest the land transfer at Srinagar's Jama Masjid – the main mosque – on Tuesday, people repeatedly chanted: "Freedom! Freedom!"

In an attempt to quash the protest, authorities had earlier detained five separatist leaders and imposed an unofficial curfew in the city. But several thousand people thronged the vast mosque and its surrounding lanes, traveling by small roads and byways to avoid the police who turned out in numbers.

Police fired tear gas in the streets adjoining the mosque in an attempt to dispel the gathering, but the protesters held their ground.

Observers say that more independence rallies are likely to be organized ahead of state elections, scheduled to take place in the fall.

Already, the protests have resulted in significant political fallout: a key government ally, the People's Democratic Party pulled out of the ruling coalition in the midst of the land-transfer furor.

Separatist leaders, who do not themselves contest elections, like to whip up pro-independence sentiments ahead of polling.

"I expect a lot more protests in Kashmir in the coming months," adds General Mehta.

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