Authorities in Kashmir are bracing for the start of the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Adha, fearing mass religious gatherings and scheduled protests could become another flashpoint in the region’s bloodiest summer in five years.
Livestock bazaars, markets and bakeries, ordinarily bustling in the run-up to Islam’s festival of sacrifice, were virtually deserted across the Himalayan valley after more than two months of violent protests and the deaths of 80 civilians.
Past outbreaks of sustained unrest in the Muslim-majority state have tended to recede during the three days of Eid-ul-Adha, when thousands traditionally gather to pray and sacrifice animals in honour of the prophet Abraham.
This year, despite a continued ban on public assembly, leaders of anti-India groups have called for a march on Tuesday to a UN office in the summer capital, Srinagar, setting up a potential showdown with security forces.
Muzaffar Baig, a senior figure in the ruling Jammu and Kashmir People’s Democratic party, said it was unlikely the march would be allowed to take place.
There would be a lot of people and some may not be disciplined, some may start throwing stones, and it could turn ugly and result in deaths, he said.
Outside the capital, police sources said Indian troops could be deployed in restive districts to keep any large Eid congregations under control. But Omar Abdullah, who was chief minister of the region during the last significant outbreak of violence in 2010, said the ban on public gatherings would be impossible to enforce during the feast.
How can you impose restrictions on people gathering together when you know they’re going to gather together and offer prayers? he said.
He said the fact separatists had been able to announce a protest during Eid, without a backlash from religious and community leaders, shows how strong the sentiment is in the valley right now.
Other than its sustained intensity – stretching 66 days and counting – the summer’s unrest is unusual for its focus on Kashmir’s southern valley, deeper inside Indian territory than the traditional rebel heartland along the northern ceasefire line with Pakistan. Its character is also more virulently pro-militant than in the past.
On Sunday, in the southern district, police investigating reports of anti-India fighters in Karimabad village were pelted with stones by villagers. They responded with teargas and pellet guns until being forced to retreat.
We have a confirmation about 35 [villagers] injured in the clashes, Rayees Bhat, the police chief for the district, said. Some reports say up to 100 have been injured, but we don’t have confirmation on that.
Similar hostility, alongside regular protests and marches, has turned many villages into no-go zones and blunted counter-insurgency efforts against separatist fighters, whose scattered forces are thought to number fewer than 200.
At least seven militants and one police officer were killed in two separate clashes on Sunday, the Indian army said, with one of the gunfights, around a government secretariat in the Poonch district of Jammu, still raging on Monday.
The trigger for the unrest was the death in July of Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the most prominent of a new breed of homegrown, millennial militants, whose brand-building on social media, and demands for a caliphate, owe more to groups such as Islamic State than the masked Kashmiri insurgents of the 1990s.
Wani, thought to be 21, was shot dead by Indian police. The next day his funeral attracted tens of thousands of mourners and ignited demonstrations across the former princedom, which was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947 and is still claimed by both.
In the first two days after Wani’s death, according to police records, at least 26 protesters were killed as mobs attacked police stations and camps.
Injuries, especially to the eyes, have also mounted in violent demonstrations that pit young rock-throwing protesters against Indian police and paramilitary forces armed with assault rifles and non-lethal riot control weapons.
One of the latest casualties was Farah, a teenager from central Kashmir’s Budgam district, who was rushed to Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) hospital on Saturday morning. Three pieces of metal shrapnel fired from non-lethal pellet guns had lodged in the 18-year-old’s chin, neck and the corner of her right eye.
There was a rally in our village when they [security forces] came and started tear-smoke shelling. We tried to run and she got hit by the pellets, Farah’s cousin, Bashir Ahmad, told the Guardian, as she was taken to an operating theatre.
Nearby, another young protester – his face, neck, chest and legs pockmarked by pellet wounds – waited his turn. He gave the false name Burhan, after the militant whose death had inspired him to take to the streets.
He fought for a noble cause, the 16-year-old, from Pulwama district, said of Wani. He wanted to establish Allah’s law, the law of Qur’an in this land. The protests should continue till we get freedom, the freedom for the sake of Islam, he said
He was accompanied by another young man, Jehangir Pandit, who said the peaceful passage of Eid this week depended on the government. If they allow the prayers to happen then things will be fine, but if they stop people from offering prayers, the situation will become very bad. It will lead to battles, he said.
In any case, it would be a sombre affair. No one will celebrate it because so many people have died and so many have been injured, he said.
The hospital in Srinagar was crowded with volunteers, providing medicine, meals and tea to patients and their friends and families in the halls.
Farooq Ahmad, a trader in his mid-40s, attended to a stall set up by a local business group, dispensing up to 1,000 cups of tea each day for the entire nine weeks of conflict, he said.
He planned to spend this week’s festival at the hospital. This is going to be a tough Eid, he added.
News Source TheGuardianNews