SRINAGAR, (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Muslims marched through Indian Kashmir’s main city on Saturday, setting fire to government and police buildings in the latest of what are the biggest protests in two years against Indian rule.
Police fired tear gas and live ammunition into the air to disperse crowds in Srinagar, the heart of a 20-year insurgency against New Delhi’s rule of a region crucial to peaceful relations between India and Pakistan.
Three-month-long protests have killed 70 people so far, mostly stone-throwing protesters amid a series of civilian deaths blamed on the heavy-handedness of security forces. The protests have shown no sign of abating despite calls for calm by New Delhi and separatist leaders.
After special Eid prayers to mark the end of the Ramadan fasting month, tens of thousands people poured into the streets from mosques in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, waving green Islamic flags and chanting “There is no God but Allah” and “Go India, go back.”
The main demonstration was led by the region’s senior separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
“Mirwaiz Umar Farooq incited the situation by leading a procession to Lal Chowk from Eid Gah taking the advantage of the Eid congregation and thus vitiated the Eid celebration in Srinagar,” a police statement said.
Hundreds of trucks and buses brought people, many of them sitting on roofs and hanging out of windows, for Eid prayers which later turned into an independence rally.
The violence comes as New Delhi is trying to respond to demonstrations reminiscent of the late 1980s when protests against India’s rule sparked an armed separatist conflict that has so far officially killed more than 47,000 people.
Omar Abdullah, the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir state, earlier this week said “efforts were on to break the ice” but on Saturday said the separatists had betrayed his trust in them.
The scenic region, claimed by nuclear-armed rivals Indian and Pakistan, has been hit by strikes and curfews for three months. Protesters have defied curfews to attack police with stones and set security camps and police stations on fire.
“The law of jungle was prevailing in Kashmir and the troops were randomly killing Kashmiri youth to frighten people to submission,” Farooq said. “But our struggle will continue.”
A radicalised young generation, which has grown up in 20 years of violence and strife, is driving the violent protests, and analysts say mass protests rather than militant attacks to promote the cause of independence may prove a huge political challenge for the Indian government.