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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 Mian RidgeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 2008

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.

Channi anand/ap

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Srinagar, India

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.

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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.

"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.