August 15, 2019 / 11:48 AM / 10 days ago

In Kashmir's Srinagar, only a few celebrate India's Independence Day

SRINAGAR (Reuters) - India tightened security on Thursday in disputed Kashmir, sealing off many roads with barbed wire in the main city of Srinagar, as government officials and security forces held an Independence Day parade attended by only a few local people.

An Indian security force personnel keeps guard alongside a road during restrictions after the government scrapped the special constitutional status for Kashmir, in Srinagar August 15, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

Streets were empty outside the Sher-i-Kashmir cricket stadium, where the event was held, with most residents of the city keeping indoors as a travel and communications blockade in Indian-controlled Kashmir entered its 11th day.

India’s crackdown followed a decision to strip the mainly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir of the right to set some of its own laws, a move that has prompted sporadic protests in the past week.

A dance troupe of about 50 young men and women in colourful traditional attire was called into Srinagar from the state’s other main city of Jammu, said Archana Sharma, the group’s leader, adding that she was a television anchor.

“We will perform the cultural dances of Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir,” said Sharma. “We will return to Jammu this evening, because communication is a big problem here.”

The city of Jammu is largely Hindu.

Surrounded by television cameras, Sharma’s group performed to patriotic songs with lyrics about making India a stronger nation. Similar performances were also held by the cultural units of the police and border security forces.

During Thursday’s parade, there were fewer than 500 spectators in the stadium, most of them from the security forces or government officials.

The stadium was sealed at least a week in advance for security reasons. It has a capacity of at least 2,000, a local police official said.

Surveillance helicopters and drones with cameras hovered overhead.

PELLET WOUNDS

While a crowd of journalists from New Delhi attended, there were only a few from Kashmir, as most of Srinagar’s more than 150 newspapers have been unable to publish, hit by the travel curbs and telecoms blackout.

“Long Live Mother India,” chanted a group of about two dozen men from outside Kashmir, carrying large Indian flags made of cloth, as they clustered in one corner of the stadium.

Satya Pal Malik, appointed governor by New Delhi to run Jammu and Kashmir, praised India’s decision to revoke the state’s special status and hive off the Buddhist enclave of Ladakh as a separately administered area.

Speaking from a carpeted podium, he said the moves would bring prosperity and development to the region, adding that he believed Jammu and Kashmir would become a big hub for tourism and industrial employment.

“The changes brought about by the union government are not just historic, but have opened a new vista of development,” Malik said.

“Recruitment of new militants has witnessed a downward trend, while stone-pelting incidents after the Friday prayers have all but ended.”

Witnesses from several parts of Srinagar have reported stone-peltings each evening, and Reuters witnessed at least two of them in the past few days.

On Wednesday, Reuters reporters met four men who displayed injuries they said were caused by pellets that security forces fired in the city’s northern neighborhood of Soura.

‘BLACK DAY’

Many Kashmiris said India’s Independence Day was a bleak time for them.

“It is a black day for us. Indians are free but we Kashmiris are yet to get freedom,” said Srinagar resident Bilal Ahmad, 38. “If we had been independent, we would not have been caged like this.”

On an empty street a short walk from the stadium, Gulam Ahmed, a white-bearded 70-year-old Kashmiri man sat alone on a pavement outside a shuttered shopfront, where the faint sound of the stadium dances could still be heard.

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“I’m tired of sitting at home, so I am sitting outside,” he said, pointing to the end of the street, where he used to work as a cobbler, repairing and polishing footwear, until the restrictions were imposed.

“I haven’t worked in 10 days,” he said. “I am sick but have no money to buy medicines.”

He looked up suddenly as a helicopter whirred in the air, keeping watch on deserted streets.

Edited by Martin Howell and Clarence Fernandez

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