Anti-India sentiment grows amid Kashmir unrest
Sunday, 24 August 2008

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, head of the hardline All Parties Hurriyat Conference, center left, is lifted up by supporters during a protest rally in Srinagar, India, Friday, Aug. 22, 2008.AP, SRINAGAR, India - The crowd's hostility was unmistakable. Each time they passed Indian soldiers, thousands chanted the name of one of South Asia's most violent Islamic groups.

"India, your death will come. Lashkar will come," they chanted, harking back to the early 1990s when militants from groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba roamed this predominantly Muslim region's towns and villages and even Kashmir's peaceful separatists openly defied New Delhi.
Those days seem more like the present than the past in Kashmir, where a dispute over 99 acres of land for a Hindu shrine has prompted protests by hundreds of thousands, reviving the separatist movement and threatening to further undermine the India-Pakistan peace process.
While the militants may still be underground, a new generation of Muslim Kashmiris has loudly taken up the separatists' old slogan of "azadi" — freedom — from Hindu-majority India, long viewed by many here as an occupying power.
The latest and largest protest came Friday as an estimated 200,000 people streamed into central Srinagar, shutting down this city once famed for its cool summer weather and sweeping Himalayan panoramas.
They chanted "Death to India!" and "We want freedom!" while soldiers and police kept their distance, hoping to avoid a repeat of clashes that have killed at least 34 people in recent weeks.
Such scenes have pierced the notion, widely held throughout India just months ago, that a semblance of normal life was returning to Kashmir after 19 years of rebellion. Militant attacks were down, separatist politicians appeared sidelined and tourists were back lounging on houseboats on Srinagar's Dal Lake.
That is all gone now, pushed aside by the anger at Indian rule that many here say was subsumed but never extinguished.
"This is a freedom movement, a people's movement," said Salman Ahmed, a 27-year-old protester. "We are united to fight India until we get freedom."
The timing could not be worse. Divided between India and Muslim Pakistan, Kashmir lies at the heart of their rivalry. The unrest is straining already tense relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors, who have fought two wars over Kashmir.
Statements from Islamabad supporting the protesters have prompted angry responses from New Delhi. They've also raised suspicions of a Pakistani hand in the unrest, reflecting India's belief that recent political turmoil in Pakistan is allowing hawkish elements there to renew the struggle against India after four years of peace talks.
Such fears are being stoked by repeated skirmishes along the heavily militarized frontier that divides Kashmir — each side blames the other — and the bombing of India's embassy in Afghanistan, an attack New Delhi charges was orchestrated by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Islamabad vehemently denies the allegations.
One top Indian security official, A.K. Mitra, chief of the paramilitary Border Security Force, recently told reporters that the ISI plans to use the unrest to sneak 800 Islamic militants into Kashmir.
But on the streets of Kashmir, it is India's continued claim to the region — and the presence of an estimated 500,000 Indian soldiers — that is seen as the problem.
"We are a separate people, we were never part of India," Shabir Hussain, a 30-year-old protester in Srinagar, said Friday.
It's a widely shared sentiment, and its roots can be traced to 1947, when Britain gave independence to its Indian colony by dividing it into largely Hindu India and overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan.
Kashmir, then technically a British protectorate and not a part of colonial India, was caught in the middle. Its Hindu king insisted he wanted to remain independent, dithering until tribal raiders attacked from Pakistan. When he asked New Delhi for help, there was a steep price: union with India.
War broke out between India and Pakistan, and the verdant Kashmir valley, the region's heart, ended up under Indian rule.
In the ensuing decades, separatist movements ebbed and flowed in Indian Kashmir, where the sight of soldiers on patrol became part of everyday life, fueling resentment.
Most of the separatist movements were peaceful until 1989, when Islamic insurgents took up arms hoping to win independence for India's part of Kashmir or see it merged with Pakistan. The rebellion has killed an estimated 68,000 people, most of them civilians.
Few Kashmiris blame the militants for the deaths.
"The Indian army has unleashed a reign of terror in Kashmir," said Nissar Ahmed, a 35-year-old government worker. "This is a reaction and response to their atrocities."
The spark for the latest unrest was a plan to transfer land to the Amarnath shrine — a cave to which millions of Hindu pilgrims flock every year to see a phallic-shaped icicle revered as an incarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration.
Authorities said bathrooms and shelters for the devotees were going to be built on the land. But Muslims alleged the land transfer would alter the religious balance in the region, comparing the move to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and prompting authorities to scrap the plan.
That, in turn, sparked protests in Jammu, the region's only Hindu-majority city, which were countered by more protests in Muslim-dominated areas such as Srinagar.
While Hindus are still protesting in Jammu, it is the Muslim demonstrations that have taken center stage, threatening India's grip on its only Muslim majority state.
"The peace process between India and Pakistan failed to change the ground situation in Kashmir," said Noor Mohammed Baba, a professor at the University of Kashmir.
"Now this festering wound is manifesting itself on the streets. This is a mass uprising and in many ways more serious and comprehensive than the early 1990s."

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