Pakistanis gather to mark Kashmir Solidarity Day in Islamabad on Sunday. The handwritten poster says, “The message of Hafiz Saeed is Kashmir will become Pakistan.” (Anjum Naveed/AP)

For the past 27 years, Pakistan has observed Feb. 5 as national Kashmir Solidarity Day. Government-sponsored rallies have featured chants and speeches denouncing Indian oppression in the disputed territory. Posters on trucks and lampposts have depicted bloody street clashes, mutilated corpses and wailing women in Kashmiri dress.

This year, the rallies and posters and slogans were still there, but the message was a lot more complicated.

The state projected a formal and somewhat distant presence for the occasion Sunday. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and other officials issued statements calling for “self-determination” for the Muslims of Kashmir, which is divided into Pakistani and Indian portions, and decrying abuse by Indian forces. 

The army’s publicity office produced a video and song titled “Sangbaaz,” or stone-pelters — young Kashmiri protesters who battled Indian troops for months last year. One refrain refers to widespread reports of troops blinding demonstrators with rubber bullets: “You can snatch out our eyes, but you cannot snatch our dreams.”

Out in the streets, though, the day was dominated by right-wing religious groups, some part of the public political scene but others more shadowy. At rallies that drew sizable crowds in many cities, shouts of “Free Kashmir” mingled with shouts of “Free Hafiz Saeed,” referring to the Islamist cleric who was seized at his mosque in Lahore last week and placed under house arrest.

A young demonstrator joined a rally in Lahore on Monday calling for Kashmiri independence. Thousands gathered across Pakistan to call for India to stop abuses in the disputed border territory. ( Pam Constable/The Washington Post)

Saeed has long been a vociferous drumbeater for the Kashmir cause, a mainstay of Pakistan’s foreign and military policy built around a permanent theme of aggression and abuse by Hindu-led India. Pakistan has long championed Kashmiri independence while denying charges that it supports militant and terrorist groups there. 

But Saeed has been accused of a far more ambitious and sophisticated attack that has no relation to Kashmir. Officials in India, backed by the United Nations, say he and the group he once headed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, carried out a commando siege in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people. He has been detained but released several times since then, and Pakistan says India has never provided proof of his involvement. 

The sudden new crackdown on Saeed came at an awkward time for Pakistani officials, who looked like they were kowtowing to India just before Solidarity Day. Previous efforts by Sharif’s government to reach out to India have been opposed by the military, and his appeals for international support on Kashmir in September were undercut by a terrorist attack that burned a group of Indian soldiers to death. 

Some observers say the government has hurt its own position by allowing hard-line religious groups to champion the Kashmir cause. In its lead editorial Sunday, the Dawn newspaper called that strategy “a historic mistake. Mainstream politics based on a mainstream acceptance of human rights . . . is the only sensible approach.”

For the moment, though, the arrest of Saeed gave Islamist leaders a chance to capitalize on this official ambivalence. At a news conference Saturday, Sami-ul-Haq, an influential cleric whose seminary trained many Taliban fighters, charged that “putting Hafiz Saeed behind bars is tantamount to betraying the Kashmiris’ struggle.”

Claiming that the government had acted at the behest of Washington and India, Haq said he was “rather happy” about President Trump’s move to bar visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, adding that it has “shown us the real face of our rulers and their duality. The so-called liberals who always dubbed the U.S. a friend of Pakistan stand exposed.”

On Monday, rallies led by a variety of religious groups drew large crowds in the federal capital, all four provincial capitals and numerous smaller cities. Speakers condemned Indian repression and the arrest of Saeed in the same breath, challenging an official mantra of unshakable support for Kashmir that has long united Pakistanis and ensured the loyalty of religious groups. Some groups chanted “Go, Nawaz, go,” referring to the prime minister. 

In Islamabad, an official of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, Maulana Attaur Rehman, aimed his speech directly at the government. “Today, we have sent a clear message to the world that Kashmiris can’t be enslaved,” he said. “This message has also reached the power corridors in our country. Regardless of what decision the government makes, we will never compromise on Kashmir. You have arrested Hafiz Saeed, but every person in this gathering has become Hafiz Saeed now.”

About 50 members of Al Badr, a semi-clandestine militant group that has sent fighters to Indian Kashmir and Afghanistan for years, joined a rally in Peshawar, the major city in northwest Pakistan. A leader of the group, Rab Nawaz, told the rally that Al Badr fully supports the Kashmiri people and vowed that “no world power . . . can stop jihad in any part of the world. We will continue our jihad.”

In Lahore, the home of Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD) movement, a rally by thousands of his supporters jammed a major boulevard, dwarfing both an official pro-Kashmir rally addressed by a federal cabinet minister and a second one by Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest and oldest Islam-based political party, which regularly elects members to provincial and national legislatures.

Some people in the crowd said they supported Jamaat-ud-Dawa in part because it is devoted to assisting the poor and victims of disasters. Mahmad Ahmed, 55, a high school teacher, said he had taken his son to help dig irrigation wells with JUD in parched Baluchistan province. “They help people in trouble where the government doesn’t,” he said.

But many others said the Kashmir cause was close to their hearts and a pillar of their loyalty to religious parties.

At the Jamaat-e-Islami rally, Rifaat Ilyas, a well-dressed man in his 40s, said it was a very emotional day for him. “I am thinking of all the brothers and sisters who were tortured and killed,” he said. “It has to stop. We have to fight.”

Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad and Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.