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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.