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Muslims Demonstrate in Indian Kashmir Over Land Transfer to Hindu Shrine

  • Shahnawaz Khan

Muslim protests over the transfer of land to expand a Hindu shrine in Indian administered Kashmir are continuing for a sixth straight day. On Friday a sea of people hit the streets in the summer capital Srinagar demanding the revocation of the land transfer. Street protests and clashes with police were also reported from many areas on Saturday. Officials say at least three people have been killed. Shahnawaz Khan reports from Srinigar.

Tens of thousands of people in Indian administered Kashmir took to the streets on Friday in one of the biggest demonstrations in recent years.

The demonstrations came after four days of street protests and clashes over a controversial transfer of forestland to a Hindu Shrine Board by the state government. Formed in 2001 the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board manages the annual Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath cave shrine in Indian administered Kashmir. The new land would allow facilities for pilgrims to be built around the shrine.

Kashmiri separatists allege the land transfer is a conspiracy to change the demography of the mainly Muslim Kashmir Valley. They fear the land would be used to settle Indian Hindus in largely Muslim Kashmir.

The issue has brought two estranged factions of the Kashmiri separatist alliance "All Parties Hurriyat Conference" together five years after they split.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani heads the hardline faction of the Hurriyat Conference.

"As far as the yatra (pilgrimage) itself is concerned we are not against any religion or rituals or religious functions. No not at all," he said. "But when the religious rituals will become
[politicized], the basic rights of the people snatched, their land, their basic rights, their civilization attacked, then it should be [fought]. "

Local laws forbid sale of land in Indian administered Kashmir to outsiders, which means Indian citizens cannot own land in Kashmir. Any violations are strongly protested.

In addition to the deaths caused by the demonstrations, hundreds have been injured in police action against protestors this week. Life has come to a virtual halt with roads shutdown and businesses and offices closed.

Protestors shouted anti-India and pro-freedom slogans and hoisted green flags over a historical clock tower in the main city square of Srinigar, where authorities hoist Indian flags on its independence and republic days.

Drowned in the sea of people, Indian paramilitary troops which have a post at the base of the tower, remained mute spectators.

Large-scale processions were common in Indian administered Kashmir in the early 1990s soon after the outbreak of an anti-India armed insurgency in the region. A strong police presence later made such processions almost impossible.

On Friday as people came out of mosques after noon prayers, they met lesser resistance from police than the previous four days. The region's police chief said police and paramilitary units were asked to exhibit restraint.

Majority Muslim parties in the state's legislature want the land transfer revoked.

However, the rightwing Hindu nationalist party, the Bhartiya Janata Party, is opposing revocation moves and has stirred protests in the Hindu dominated Jammu province making the government's decision difficult.

Indian officials dismiss the allegations about the land transfer saying India has never tried to encourage Hindu migration to the Kashmir region.