June 26, 2008 / 11:48 AM / 11 years ago

Protests over Hindu lands escalate in Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Indian police battled thousands of stone-throwing Muslim protesters across Kashmir on Thursday as demonstrations over the transfer of forest land to a Hindu shrine trust spread in the region, police said.

A Kashmiri protester throws a tear gas canister back towards Indian police during a protest in Srinagar June 26, 2008. REUTERS/Fayaz Kabli

The protests are some of the biggest since a separatist Muslim insurgency broke out in 1989. Pakistan and India rule Kashmir in parts but both claim the region in full.

Two people were wounded when police fired at protesters in Anantnag, south of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. Dozens were injured in other parts of Kashmir when police fired teargas at protesters.

Authorities transferred nearly 100 acres of forest land in Kashmir to Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) to erect temporary shelters for thousands of Hindu pilgrims who annually trek to a cave shrine in the Kashmir mountain.

Hundreds of protesters carrying banners “Sale of Kashmir, not acceptable” and “Down with India, we want freedom,” marched through Srinagar before police fired teargas to disperse them.

Shops, businesses, schools and colleges remained closed in Kashmir, where tens of thousands of people have been killed in two decades of insurgency, in protest at the land move.

Three persons were killed in police firing since protests broke out on Monday.

Protesters say the land transfer was aimed at changing the demography of Kashmir, mainly Hindu India’s Muslim-majority region. Environmentalists say any construction on forest land could ruin the region’s fragile ecology.

Critics say the protests are politically motivated ahead of state elections due later this year.

“Back to ‘90s,” read a banner headline of Greater Kashmir, the region’s leading English language newspaper, referring to mass protests in the early 1990s when tens of thousands took to streets across the region demanding Kashmir’s cessation from India.

“The atmosphere is highly surcharged and there is hardly any way out in sight or any political solution available at hand to neutralise the situation,” Rising Kashmir newspaper said in its editorial “Kashmir on fire.”

The chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad, promised that there would be no construction on the transferred land at the base camp of pilgrimage.

During the two-month-long pilgrimage, thousands of devout Hindus from across India walk and ride ponies to the cave, situated at an altitude of 3,800 metres, to pray by an ice stalagmite they believe to be a symbol of Hindu god Lord Shiva.

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