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‘Pushed to the wall’: Protests erupt in Kashmir over Indian move to end autonomy

Kashmiri women shout slogans and march on a street after Friday prayers in Srinagar, Kashmir, on Friday. (Dar Yasin/AP)

SRINAGAR, India — The protesters gathered by the thousands after Friday prayers and set off from a mosque in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar, chanting slogans about freedom. Security forces told them to turn back, but they refused and sat down in the road, six eyewitnesses said.

Not long after, the firing began.

The protest — in which at least eight people were injured from shotgun pellets — was one of the largest displays of public anger against India’s abrupt move this week to strip Kashmir of its autonomy and statehood. The step plunged Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority region, into uncertainty and led to a diplomatic breakdown with rival Pakistan.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the decision to alter Kashmir’s status as a “new dawn” for residents of the troubled region. But since the announcement Monday, much of Kashmir has felt more like a prison, with severe limits on movement and an unprecedented communications shutdown that has restricted contact with the outside world.

In Srinagar, residents have been unable to make telephone calls or connect to the Internet. Thousands of security forces patrol the city’s streets at ubiquitous checkpoints. Public meetings of more than four people are banned, and schools and colleges remain shut. Hundreds of people have been detained to contain possible violence, according to local media reports. 

Authorities have stepped in with temporary measures to help assuage the growing discontent.

Outside a government office, people started lining up early in the morning to use a helpline service connecting anxious residents to their family members in other parts of the country. There were more than 100 people waiting for a single phone. By noon, the protracted wait led to an eruption of anger against authorities.

“Even in jails, people are allowed to communicate,” said Bilal Ahmed, a hotel owner who had been waiting for four hours and was in tears because he could not reach his teenage daughter studying in Mumbai. “What if she is in some need, and I can’t reach her?”

In Soura, a neighborhood in the northern part of Srinagar on the edge of Anchar Lake, men, women and children gathered after Friday prayers and began marching in violation of prohibitory orders. “This land is ours!” they cried, according to video footage reviewed by The Washington Post. “What do we want? Freedom!” 

While the Himalayan region of Kashmir has been divided among India, Pakistan and China for the last 70 years, many Kashmiris in India’s portion have sought either a degree of autonomy or outright independence. Militants have fought a long-running insurgency against Indian rule. 

 After the protesters demanded they be allowed to go ahead, eyewitnesses said, the police first fired in the air. Then they began firing tear gas canisters and shotguns carrying pellet rounds at the crowd.

“It was mayhem,” said Imran Elahi, a 29-year old local journalist. “Some people ran into alleys [and] some began throwing stones at the forces.”

Some of the injured were rushed to the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, a nearby hospital. Asif Mohammed, 16, who had a pellet injury in his leg, said the firing was “unprovoked.” A senior police official did not respond to requests for comment on the incident.

Even as people were counting the number of injured, another Soura local was brought in with his face peppered with pellet marks from a separate incident where police fired at stone-throwing protesters. A restless crowd barged into the hospital following the stretcher. 

As the overcast day darkened into night, the main road outside the hospital began to fill up with protesters. Stones, sticks and the remnants of burned tires lay scattered on the ground. 

 No prayers were held Friday at the city’s iconic Jamia Masjid, where protesters have often pelted stones at security forces after weekly prayers. The nearby streets were dotted with soldiers in riot gear every 50 yards, their faces tense and uncertain. 

In a neighboring lane, Shehzada, who uses one name, and her two children had not slept. At 2 a.m. they were awakened by a loud thumping at their steel gate. It was the police looking for her school-aged son, who had previously been detained for throwing stones at security forces. When they discovered that her son was not there, they took away her husband instead, she said.

The unprecedented events of recent days have “pushed us to the wall,” said Shehzada, warning that India’s tactics would further antagonize young Kashmiris. “But for now we have to focus on survival.”

With the major Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha approaching on Monday, Kashmiris are uncertain about whether the restrictions on communication and movement will be lifted to allow them to celebrate the holiday with friends and family. On Friday, Zahoor Ahmad Ganai was attempting to sell sheep on a roadside, which are traditionally sacrificed on the holiday, but finding no takers.

He said that Kashmiris feel cheated by India’s move to strip the region of its semiautonomous rights. “Everything is over,” he said. “This is the worst Eid Kashmir will see.”

Joanna Slater in New Delhi and Adnan Bhat in Srinagar contributed to this report.

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