Thousands of residents of Pakistan-held Kashmir rallied Saturday on board vehicles and motorbikes to press for their demand that India lift a two-month old controversial clampdown in its controlled portion of the disputed region.
The protest came on a day when U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen arrived in Pakistan after visiting India, where he was refused permission to personally visit Kashmir to assess the situation.
While speaking in the eastern Pakistan city of Multan, Van Hollen urged New Delhi to ensure protection of human rights, restore communications and release political prisoners in the disputed territory.
The protesters in Pakistani-administered Kashmir were calling for the region's independence from both the countries and they were headed to the Line of Control (LoC), which divides the Himalayan territory, vowing to force their way into the Indian side.
“We want freedom on this [Pakistani] side and that [Indian] side,” chanted the slowly moving and charged up crowd that is expected to reach the boundary line on Sunday.
Local police have placed roadblocks just a few kilometers from the LoC, however, to prevent the rally from reaching the de facto border.
"I am going with this march to express solidarity with our Kashmiri brothers, who have been under curfew for two months now,” Ejaz Ahmed, a 64-year-old medical doctor by profession, told VOA.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government on August 5 unilaterally scrapped a decades old constitutional semi-autonomous status for the country’s only Muslim-majority state.
New Delhi has since deployed tens of thousands of additional troops, cut phone and internet services, and arrested nearly 4,000 people, including the region's top political leadership, journalists and lawyers, amid serious allegations of torture and abuses.
The unprecedented lockdown to deter dissent and violent reactions by the local population has effectively isolated millions of Kashmiris from the rest of the world. India also has not permitted diplomats or foreign journalists to visit Kashmir.
“We think it’s important that journalists and others be permitted to see exactly what's going on with their own eyes. That's why I had wanted to go there so that we can get the truth and get all the facts,” Hollen said. He is accompanied by U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan on the visit.
Modi has defended his actions in Kashmir, saying they are meant to bring development and prosperity to the violence-plagued region. Critics, including those in India, have rejected these assertions, though, calling for an immediate easing of the lockdown.
Saturday’s protest demonstration was being led by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) group, which operates on both sides and has been seeking total independence from India and Pakistan. The leader of the Indian chapter of JKLF is also among those Indian authorities have detained on the other side of the border.
JKLF activists made a similar attempt to cross the disputed border in 1992, but a police crackdown prevented them from doing so and the ensuing clashes killed at least 12 people.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan asked the protesters to desist from crossing the Kashmir LoC, saying it would give India “an excuse to increase violent oppression of Kashmiris” on the other side. He warned that India also could use it to launch a cross-border attack on Pakistani-held part of the region, known as Azad (free) Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).
“I understand the anguish of Kashmiris in AJK seeing their fellow Kashmiris in IOJK [Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir] under an inhuman curfew for over 2 months,” Khan tweeted just before the rally began its march from the main city of Muzaffarabad.
Last week, while Khan was addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he emphatically urged member nations to intervene to persuade India to lift its siege of Kashmir before it results in another direct military conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations.
Khan asserted that Kashmiris would not accept the Indian moves and "what is going to happen when the curfew is lifted will be a bloodbath” for which Pakistan will be blamed, potentially drawing the two neighbors into war that could escalate into a nuclear exchange.
A new study released earlier this week warned that should a nuclear war ever occur between India and Pakistan, it would immediately kill up to 125 million people in both the countries, followed by mass starvation and ecosystem catastrophe far outside of the war zone itself. The research was jointly conducted by University of Colorado Boulder and Rutgers University.
The United States also has called on India to ease restrictions in Kashmir. Since the scrapping of the region’s special status by New Delhi, dozens of U.S. lawmakers have expressed concerns over what they have described as the “humanitarian crisis” in Kashmir.