Kashmir: Mass protests force government to reverse controversial land-transfer decision

Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir charged that the transfer was an attempt to tip the Hindu-Muslim ratio of the area in favor of Hindus. The protests have widened to support for independence.

Danish Ismail/Reuters
Kashmiri women looked out of a window during a protest in Srinagar, Kashmir on Sunday. Indian police fired bullets and tear gas to quell thousands of stone-throwing Muslim demonstrators angry over the transfer of forest land to a Hindu shrine trust. The week-long protests started when authorities transferred nearly 100 acres of forest land to Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), a Hindu organization, to erect temporary shelters for thousands of Hindu pilgrims who annually trek to a cave shrine in the Kashmir mountain.

Eight days of mass protests in Indian-administered Kashmir have prompted the region's government to reverse a controversial decision to transfer a large tract of land to a Hindu organization.

The land transfer, which was seen by some as an attempt to change the Muslim-Hindu ratio in this Muslim-majority area, sparked huge – sometimes violent – protests in the capital, Srinagar. The protests, in which four people were killed and hundreds injured, were the biggest in Kashmir for years.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that protesters had dismissed the government's claim that it would renege on transferring the land and vowed to continue with the protests.

By Sunday, the protests appeared to have evolved into pro-independence agitations.

"Our protests will continue until we achieve freedom from Indian domination," Mirwaiz Omer Farooq, head of the moderate faction All Parties Hurriyat Conference, told a crowd of protesters in Srinagar. The crowd chanted "We reject Kashmir's auction" and "We want freedom."

Greater Kashmir, a local newspaper, elaborated upon the separatist leader's motivations.

Mirwaiz termed the present struggle as peoples' movement. "The resentment of people is not only against land occupation, but also against cultural, political and army aggression of New Delhi in Kashmir. It is sentiment for Azadi (freedom) and New Delhi should without any further delay address the basic issue. Even if the land transfer order is revoked, sentiment of Azadi will remain," he added.

The government had originally said it would transfer 99 acres of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board, which manages a Hindu shrine in the area, saying it was necessary to build huts and toilets for the many pilgrims that visit the area.

Each year, thousands of Hindus trek to a Kashmir cave, situated at an altitude of 3,800 meters (2.3 miles), which they believe is an abode of the god Shiva. Last year, 400,000 pilgrims visited the cave, staying in tents and prompting the government to find new ways to accommodate them.

The BBC reported the view of separatists who believe that the land transfer "was part of a 'conspiracy to settle non-local Hindus in the valley with a view to reducing the Muslims to a minority'."

The Hindu, an Indian daily, reported that the situation was a little calmer on Sunday after the authorities imposed a curfew in Srinagar. The police had used batons and tear gas against protesters, who had responded by throwing stones. But the report also hinted at more trouble to come.

As the authorities imposed "undeclared curfew" with stringent security measures, the level of protests came down but the Mirwaiz led a protest in downtown and demanded the revocation of the land order. He said a sea of people would throng the city on Tuesday in response to a "Srinagar Chalo" call by the Action Committee on Land Transfer (ACALT).

The Kashmir Observer reported on Sunday that the situation remained tense, and that life was becoming increasingly difficult for some in the area.

However in more volatile areas where pro-freedom sentiments have traditionally been high, police failed to keep youth off the roads. The protesters, mostly young and teenagers, burned tires, created road blocks and held noisy protests chanting 'favourite' slogan – Ham Kya Chahtay: Azadi or "we want freedom".
Similar reports have come in from other major towns where for last seven days people are observing a spontaneous strike.
This despite the fact that people are facing acute shortage of essential commodities, including vegetables, milk and bread because truck services bringing in such commodities from rural areas and from outside the state too have been grounded for past one week.

The political fallout of the controversy is likely to last longer than the protests themselves.

On Saturday night, the People's Democratic Party (PDP), a key partner in Jammu-Kashmir's ruling coalition, which is led by the Congress party, withdrew its support of the government, saying it had not acted fast enough to quell the protests.

The Calcutta Telegraph later reported that Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad did not want his former allies in the PDP to rejoin the government, even though his government had been significantly weakened by their withdrawal.

Azad, who has accused the PDP of pushing the land deal and then doing an about-turn, today got the governor to accept the resignation of its ministers.

Other parties castigated the government for succumbing to pressure over the land transfer, according to the Indian television news channel NDTV.

CNN-IBN, another leading Indian news channel, said India's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had called for a general strike to protest the government's decision to back down.

"The whole issue has been given a communal colour by the Congress and the PDP, and they are being supported by the National Conference in that. People in Jammu feel hurt," state BJP In-charge, R P Singh said.

The government has said that, in the future, it will provide accommodations for pilgrims traveling to the sacred cave.

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