Protests continue in Kashmir valley as leadership divided over future (Roundup)

August 18th, 2008 - 9:10 pm ICT by IANS  

Srinagar/Jammu/New Delhi, Aug 18 (IANS) Tens of thousands of people were out on the streets in Kashmir Valley Monday chanting secessionist slogans even though their leaders appeared quite divided over the future direction of the movement.The threatened mass march to UN observers’ office did not materialise as authorities only allowed little groups to go there in batches.

In Hindu-majority Jammu thousands of protesters courted arrest over the Amarnath land row. But the new volatile edge in the state did not translate into any violence.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed concern over the growing divide between the two regions that form the troubled state but there was little sign of the deadlock being resolved amicably.

“All political parties, all right thinking people must work together to bring the situation under control,” the prime minister told reporters.

“Everybody has an obligation to contribute, all political parties… this is not a partisan issue.”

His comments did little to assuage tensions and there was no indication of what the government was planning to do to calm the troubled waters.

Tens of thousands supporting the cause of a “free Kashmir” congregated in Srinagar from all over the valley Monday and marched towards the UN office shouting pro-Pakistan slogans while security forces, asked to exercise maximum restraint, watched on.

The march to the United Military Observers’ Group (UNMOG) office in uptown Srinagar was sponsored by the separatist Hurriyat Conference to seek UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s intervention to resolve the long-standing issue of the future of the Kashmir Valley.

Leader of the hardline faction of the Hurriyat Syed Ali Shah Geelani said: “Our memorandum seeks UN intervention for the permanent resolution of Kashmir issue in the wake of the economic blockade imposed on the valley.”

Upping the ante, Geelani told the mammoth gathering at the Tourist Reception Centre, a short distance from the UN office: “We are Pakistanis and Pakistan is us because we are tied with the country through Islam.”

But the ideological clash with the moderate faction of the Hurriyat was apparent.

Taking a dig at the moderate Hurriyat leaders who shared the stage with him, Geelani said the leadership issue of the Kashmiri separatist movement was “solved today”.

“Do you have faith in my leadership? I will be faithful to you till my death and will carry everyone along,” he said, as the crowd applauded him shouting in unison “zaroor” (certainly).

In his speech, moderate Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq called for a trilateral dialogue over Jammu and Kashmir, whose ownership is disputed by India and Pakistan.

“We ask India to start a dialogue over Kashmir, open the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road for trade and release all Kashmiris in Indian jails,” he said.

Pro-independence leader Yasin Malik said that Kashmiris want “complete freedom” — implying from both India and Pakistan.

The two factions of the Hurriyat Conference had been at loggerheads till recently but got united when the Kashmir Valley saw protests against the transfer of government land to the Amarnath shrine management two months ago.

The state government cancelled the order — provoking protests in Jammu region and triggering an unprecedented communal divide in the state.

On Monday, the 24th day of the shutdown in Jammu, many thousands came out to court arrest but police said they did not have vehicles to accommodate them.

“Hum matwale kahan chale, jail jail chale!” (Where are we heading, to jail, to jail!) they shouted along with chants of “Bam Bam Bhole” for Lord Shiva, to whom the Amarnath shrine is dedicated to.

What appeared to be crowd of few hundreds first swelled and the streets soon filled up.

In Udhampur, the garrison town on the Jammu-Srinagar highway, 66 km north of Jammu, the police lobbed teargas shells to disperse a crowd of more than 15,000.

Monday’s demonstrations by the Shri Amarnath Sangharsh Samiti (SASS), the conglomerate of various groups coordinating the agitation, would be followed by women courting arrest on Tuesday and children on Wednesday, said Brigadier Suchet Singh, a Samiti leader.

“We have no count of how many came to court arrest. It was a never ending protest it seemed,” said a police official while the SASS put the figure at 300,000 people.

The charged mob ransacked the Jammu office of NDTV after the TV news channel was labelled partisan by the SASS. The mob also searched for the channel staff who had to run for their lives, an employee said.

“It was quite scary,” one of the NDTV staffers, not wishing to be identified, told IANS.

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