Mukhtar Khan/AP
Kashmiri Muslims carry Hindu children on their back uphill on the way to the Amarnath
cave, near near Dumail, 135 kilometers (85 miles) southeast of Srinagar, India,
Wednesday, July 18,
2008. (AP)

Religious Standoff Turns Deadly in Kashmir

August 08, 2008 08:03 AM
by Anne Szustek
A confrontation over territorial rights near a significant Hindu shrine has erupted into a new wave of deadly protests between devout Hindus and the region’s Muslim majority population.

The Fight over the Amarnath Cave

The Amarnath cave is located in a part of the embattled Kashmir Valley that, due to inclement conditions at its 12,000-ft. altitude, is inaccessible much of the year. The naturally built shrine is considered by pious Hindus to be where the god Shiva told his consort Parvati the secrets of the universe’s creation.

Every summer, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims ascend to the lofty cave and its primary attraction, a stalagmite that believers consider to be a Shiva Lingam, the very masculine symbol of the Hindu god.

Roughly 500,000 pilgrims have visited this year. And the already meager tourist infrastructure in the region, burdened by sectarian skirmishes and natural threats like landslides and heavy precipitation, is beyond capacity. In response, the government of India-controlled Jammu-Kashmir opted to set aside 100 acres of land in the area for more accommodations for religious travelers.

This alarmed some members of the region’s Muslim majority, who saw the move as a subversive measure to populate the area with more Hindus, sparking protests that have claimed 15 lives since June, three of those this past week.

On July 1, the local government rolled back its May decision. Time magazine writes “That, in turn, led to a backlash from Hindus in the Hindu-majority Jammu region of the state, with right-wing parties,” such as the Bharatiya Janata Party, “jumping in to protest against what they alleged was capitulation to ‘Muslim separatists.’”
Hindu-led protests ensued in Jammu, where they are a majority. But now, Muslims in Srinagar, Jammu-Kashmir’s summertime capital, say that Hindu hard-line protesters have turned their anger on to them, setting their homes ablaze and attacking Muslim truck drivers.

Binoo Joshi, a BBC correspondent in Jammu, said “that there have been a few stray incidents of Hindu mobs roughing up Muslim [truck] drivers, but no widespread violence against Muslims in the south of the state,” and that police have quelled the situation.

Two police officers have been killed in the protests, reports ABC News in an online video.

But Muslim drivers of shipping companies still feel uneasy. Thursday marked the second day of a Muslim-led strike from work. State security forces fought stone-throwing Muslim demonstrators with tear gas and batons. Roads in the Kashmir Valley are at a standstill. Fresh fruit has been left to rot as drivers refuse to take the wheel, spelling millions of dollars in losses for the agriculture industry. Medicines are in short supply, and weddings are being cancelled due to a lack of mutton.

Background: The Jammu-Kashmir conflict

The summer’s protests are an abrupt end to several years of what the BBC terms “relative calm” in the region. India and Pakistan have disputed over territorial claims to Jammu-Kashmir since 1947, when the British drew up borders in the region.

Much of the conflict between India and Pakistan centers on Kashmir, a Himalayan region claimed by and divided between both nations. The border was drawn by the British in 1947 and according to the Council on Foreign Relations, was the root cause of two of the three wars between Pakistan and India. “The ongoing dispute over the region brought the two countries to the brink of another war in 2002,” writes the think tank.

Reactions: Discussing the conflict

Groups from Indian capital Delhi are heading to Srinagar to assess the situation. On Thursday Gov. N.N. Vohra arrived in the area, arguing that the protesters blocking roads were merely causing “a traffic disruption, not an economic blockade.”

An all-party delegation led by Shivraj Patil, the Indian home minister, is scheduled to arrive in the area on Saturday to hold talks with the Amarnath Shrine Board, and possibly with the demonstrators, as well.

Tilak Raj Sharma, a spokesperson for the protesters, has hesitant optimism for the planned discussion. “If the dialogue takes up concrete proposals, there can be some movement forward. The question of giving up our stir before anything has been discussed does not arise,” he said in the Hindustan Times.

Hindu nationalist group Srashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or National Volunteers’ Organisation, rebuffed a call for dialogue from a 30-member delegation of the Nationalist Muslim Front over the land apportionment row.

"The land allocated for the pilgrims needs to restored. This is not a view held by Hindus only but by people of all religions across the country," RSS head K.S. Sudarshan was quoted as saying by Indian national wire service Press Trust of India.

See BBC coverage

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