12 Killed In Clash At Protest In Kashmir

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

NEW DELHI, Aug. 12 -- At least 12 people were killed and more than 100 were injured Tuesday when Indian security forces fired into crowds of protesters, the latest escalation of violence stemming from a land dispute in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir.

Rising sectarian tensions between Kashmir's Muslim and Hindu populations have brought six weeks of street protests, blockades and renewed calls for independence for Kashmir, a Himalayan region wedged between India and Pakistan.

The shootings came a day after at least four people, including a Kashmiri separatist leader, were gunned down by police trying to stop a convoy of Muslim traders and trucks loaded with produce from crossing the Line of Control, a de facto border between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled zones of Kashmir.

More than 20,000 Muslims had defied a morning curfew in Bandipora, about 40 miles north of Kashmir's main city of Srinagar, to protest Monday's killing of the separatist leader, Sheikh Aziz. Some protesters threw rocks at Indian paramilitary troops, shouting, "We want a divorce from India!"

Kashmir continues to be a flash point between India and Pakistan, both of whom claim the territory in its entirety. The nuclear-armed nations have fought two wars over the region. The current upheaval is threatening to undo four years of improving relations between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue. Their troops have exchanged gunfire across the Line of Control in Kashmir at least three times in recent weeks.

Security experts say the wider concern is that Kashmir has attracted Islamist extremists, including some linked to al-Qaeda. The unrest could reinvigorate the appeal of expelling Indian forces from Kashmir as a pan-Islamic cause, at a time when Pakistan is distracted by its own internal turmoil.

The current uproar began nearly two months ago after the Kashmiri government promised to give 100 acres of forestland to a trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine that has become a pilgrimage destination for tens of thousands of Hindus. The trust said it would use the land for tents and bathrooms for pilgrims.

Many Muslims were quick to protest, contending that the land grant might be part of a larger scheme to establish a settlement of Hindus who would vastly outnumber the area's Muslim population.

After a month of street protests, the state government revoked the land grant. That sparked weeks of counterdemonstrations by many Hindus in Jammu, a predominantly Hindu region. They blockaded roads leading out of Kashmir, economically harming thousands of Kashmiri farmers during the peak of an apple harvest.

"Before it was psychological suffocation of Kashmir, but now it's an actual on-the-ground suffocation," said Mubeen Shah, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The revocation of the land grant is the latest in a list of grievances by Hindus in Jammu, who say they are underrepresented in the local government and passed over for government jobs largely in an effort to appease Kashmiri Muslims.

Many political analysts have blamed India's Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party for co-opting the Kashmir issue for political gain.

But party spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad in New Delhi said the main issue is that Hindus should have the right to use the land for their pilgrimage. "The fact of the matter is Kashmir is an integral part of India. Hindus are a majority here," he said.

"Violence only gives incentive to more violence," said Sajad Lone, a voice of moderation in Kashmir's struggle for self-rule. "I fear it's going to be a long haul."

Special correspondent Zahid Rafiq in Srinagar contributed to this report.

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