lockdown in Kashmir
The main city in Indian-administered Kashmir has been placed under lockdown in Kashmir following calls for residents to march en masse against the revocation of the territory’s special status.
Posters were put up overnight this week urging people to defy a ban on public gatherings and join a march in Srinagar after Friday prayers. It is the first such call to be made by separatist leaders since Delhi stripped the region of autonomy almost three weeks ago.
The roads leading to the office of the UN Military Observer Group, where protesters were instructed to march, were sealed off on Friday morning, with rolls of concertina wire and armored vehicles stationed in the middle of the road.
The office, located in Srinagar’s Sonwar neighborhood, was set up in 1949 after the first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The territory is claimed by India and Pakistan in full and ruled in part by both.
At a nearby roadblock, an elderly woman pleaded with the Indian paramilitary personnel to let her pass to go to a hospital. “I am an old woman. What harm will I do?” she asked in Kashmiri, a language many Indian paramilitaries do not understand.
An Indian paramilitary officer manning a roadblock told the Guardian his colleagues were under strict orders to keep the area isolated. “You know which office is there. We have been ordered not to allow anyone, not even the policemen,” he said.
It is understood that residents will be allowed to walk to local neighborhood mosques, but a Muslim shrine near the UN office was closed to prayer goers. The roads leading in and out of Srinagar’s volatile old city, where protests are frequent and violent, were also blocked with concertina wire.
In the past, protests have frequently taken place after Friday prayers. Two weeks ago at least 10,000 people reportedly took to the streets after restrictions were eased to allow residents to attend mosques. BBC footage showed security forces firing and using teargas to disperse crowds.
Despite heavy security, sporadic protests have continued over the past two weeks. At least 152 people have been hurt by teargas and pellets, according to data collected by Reuters from the region’s two main hospitals.
The government, which has not yet provided any figures of the injured in the sporadic protests, has said there have been no deaths in this month’s demonstrations.
Millions of people in Kashmir have spent almost three weeks under a communications blackout with no access to phone or internet services. Landlines were restored in many areas last weekend, but mobile services remain suspended. Though travel restrictions were eased earlier this week, markets and shops across Kashmir valley remained shut.
A sympathizer of a banned political group, who asked not to be named, told the Guardian this week that the region was a “burning volcano”. “It will erupt any time,” he said.
One poster distributed in Srinagar this week urged “every person, young and old, men and women” to march on Friday, according to Reuters, which said the call was made by the Joint Resistance Leadership, which represents all major separatist groups.
Most separatist leaders are understood to have been detained. Thousands of other people – including lawyers, businessmen, and mainstream politicians – have also reportedly been arrested by security forces.
The revocation of Kashmir’s special status is expected to face major resistance in the region. The move strips it of any autonomy, removing its constitution and rules that have prevented outsiders from buying land. Many Kashmiris fear that the change will alter the demography and traditions of the territory, India’s only Muslim-majority state.
Delhi’s actions have also escalated tensions with Pakistan, which claims Kashmir and has suggested India could carry out ethnic cleansing.
The US president, Donald Trump, who has repeatedly offered to mediate the matter, will raise the issue with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, this weekend when they meet on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in France, according to a senior US administration official.
Trump will press Modi on how he plans to calm regional tensions after the withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomy, and stress the need for dialogue, the official said.
Pakistan has long sought to internationalize the Kashmir dispute, but India has always rejected third party mediation and maintains that its recent actions in Kashmir are an internal matter.