Rally to End Indian Rule Over Kashmir

Millions of protesters poured onto the streets of Srinagar Friday. They were waving Pakistani and black flags and shouting slogans such as "Azadi," Urdo for independence. At a massive rally at the prayer grounds, known as Eid Gah, in the center of the city, Kashmiri leaders called for independence from India.

This protest and others earlier this week are the latest in an escalation of tensions in Kashmir Valley. A controversial land deal sparked the first protests, but they quickly ballooned into a renewed independence struggle.

Younis Mir, a 25-year-old Kashmiri, is one of the protesters.

"All people have assembled here in the Eid Gah," he said. "Our main mission is the freedom of Kashmir, nothing else. We are not spreading terrorism. There is no movement of terrorism in Kashmir. It is a freedom struggle, a simple freedom struggle. Freedom from Indian occupation."

Earlier this summer, the Jammu and Kashmir state government transferred about 40 hectares of forested land (nearly 100 acres) to a Hindu shrine board to provide temporary shelters for tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims who visit a cave shrine. Kashmir's Muslims protested the transfer, saying it would lead to permanent Hindu settlements.

The government then rescinded the transfer, triggering violent protests by some of the region's Hindu population. Hindu protesters blocked the only direct road between Kashmir Valley and the rest of India, choking off supplies of food and fuel to the valley.

Hindu protestors cut off Kashmiri fruit growers from markets in New Delhi during the peak of the apple harvest, which usually brings in at least $150 million a year and is Kashmir's biggest cash crop.

Many shops were shut down Friday in anticipation of the protests, which were largely peaceful as Indian army troops stood by behind their razor wire bunkers.

The unrest has paralyzed many businesses in Kashmir Valley, just when the economy was starting to pick up, led by a resurgence of tourism in the picturesque valley tucked in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Mohammed Amin owns a grocery store in Srinagar. He says businesses in Kashmir are bracing for a long period of civil unrest.

"There are no supplies," he said. "That is the main thing. Business is suffering, about 75 percent of it has gone. Tourism is zero now. I do not know how long it will last, but for two months we are suffering."

Indian authorities claim they have opened the road leading out of Kashmir. Trucks loaded with supplies are getting through, but observers say it is only about a fourth of the normal traffic. There are almost daily reports of attacks against truck drivers by Hindu protesters.

At least 350,000 Indian troops patrol Indian-controlled Kashmir, many of them along the line of control between Indian- and Pakistani-controlled areas of Kashmir.

Since 1989, more than 98,000 people have been killed in sporadic violence between Indian troops and Muslims Freedom Fighters. At least 51,000 suspected Muslim militants in Kashmir have disappeared after being arrested by Indian security forces, human rights groups say.

Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two wars over it since the two nuclear-armed nations split in 1947.

Kashmiris march to UN office

Millions of of Muslims have taken to the streets of Indian Kashmir's main city to demand that the United Nations recognise their right to self-determination.

Security was tight on Monday as a mass of people marched towards a local UN office, in defiance of official warnings against holding the rally in Srinagar, still tense after deadly clashes last week.

The UN office in Srinagar houses personnel who monitor ceasefire violations along the Line of Control, or the de facto border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan.

"I have never seen such a big rally in Srinagar," said Abdul Aziz, a 75-year-old shopkeeper who was taking part in the procession.

'Freedom demand'

"I couldn't resist coming out to demand freedom from India," he said, as he marched towards the UN office carrying a placard that read: "If freedom for Kosovo, why not for Kashmir?"

The marchers included men, women and children, who chanted slogans including "We want freedom", "Jeeve Jeeve Pakistan" and "We will give blood for Kashmir's freedom".

Many also carried green or black flags - symbolising Islam and mourning.

Shabir Shah, a senior Kashmiri separatist leader, said the demonstrators planned to deliver a plea for UN intervention in the wake of last week's shootings of "peaceful protesters".

Another separatist, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, said the plea urges the UN "to intervene and help us in achieving the right to self-determination".

There are decades-old UN Security Council resolutions calling for a referendum to allow the Kashmiri people to choose between India and Pakistan, but they have never been implemented.

Last week 22 Muslim demonstrators were killed in police firing in the Kashmir valley as they vented their anger over a blockade of the area by Hindu hardliners.

The tensions between Muslims and Hindus centres around a small piece of land in the valley that was awarded to a Hindu pilgrimage trust, sparking Muslim protests.


The land transfer order was then rescinded, sparking a blockade by Hindus who dominate the south of Jammu and Kashmir state - from where the main road access to the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley comes.

India stepped up security in Srinagar and warned of a showdown if the rally was held, officials and witnesses said.

Syed Afad-ul-Mujtaba, a local police chief, warned on Sunday that a "huge mobilisation won't be allowed", but failed to convince separatists to call off the march.

Troops have been patrolling streets, erecting barricades and blocking roads leading to the UN offices.

Leaders of Kashmir's main separatist All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference alliance said they wanted to submit a memorandum to the UN office on Monday.

"Call upon India to end its forcible occupation of Jammu and Kashmir and desist from use of brute force against the people of Jammu and Kashmir," the memorandum, published in local newspapers, stated.

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Freedom Movement