Truck Drivers Test Volatile Kashmir Valley Border

10 August 2008
The Times (London)
Rhys Blakely

Srinagar: Separatist factions in Indian-controlled Kashmir will today embark on an unprecedented test of the volatile border that splits the disputed region between India and Pakistan. More than 400 truck drivers will attempt to break a virtual siege of the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley by Hindu extremists by driving produce to markets in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan. The route, which spans one of the most heavily fortified frontiers in the world, has been closed since Partition. The convoy’s political backers, who say Kashmir’s economy has been crippled by a blockade of the only highway into the region, fully expect a show-down with Indian security forces, which have been ramped up sharply in the wake of the worst Hindu-Muslim violence in the region in two decades. Mirwaiz Omer Farooq, a prominent Kashmiri separatist leader who was yesterday placed under house arrest in Srinagar, Kashmir’s Muslim-dominated summer capital, told The Times: “If our convoy is halted there will be trouble. Kashmiri public opinion is in favour of crossing this bloody line.” Tensions among forces along the “line of control” are already high after a flare-up of shooting incidents across the border in the past fortnight amid rumours that hundreds of Islamic militants were preparing to infiltrate India from the Pakistan side. The latest troubles to hit Kashmir were ignited in mid-June, when the state government rescinded a decision to gift about 100 acres of forest land to Amarnath, a Hindu cave shrine that hosts a revered stalagmite, to build shelters for pilgrims. The move, which followed violent demonstrations from Kashmir’s Muslim majority, triggered counter-protests from Hindus. Fifteen people have now been killed and hundreds injured in riots and running battles with police. Passions continue to run high among extremists on both sides. Tarun Vijay, a right-wing Hindu commentator, said: “The whole issue was created by separatist leaders who would like to stop the Hindu pilgrimage … The real motive is a complete Islamisation of the valley, after having successfully forced Kashmiri Hindus to leave the Valley.” There was further unrest in Srinagar over the weekend as police used tear gas to disperse mobs of stone-hurling Muslim youths. The clashes were triggered by the house arrests of several Islamic separatist leaders. There was also violence in Jammu, the state’s Hindu-dominated winter capital from which the siege of the Kasmir Valley has allegedly been co-ordinated and where tens of thousands of people have repeatedly defied an army-enforced curfew. A government delegation brought to Srinagar by the Home Minister Shivraj Patil yesterday failed to make progress towards a resolution. The main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist BJP, has threatened to launch protests across India if the Amarnath land is not given back to Hindus. It upped its rhetoric on Saturday when LK Advani, the party leader, told a party rally: “This is not a struggle merely for 100 acres of land. This is the struggle for the identity of our motherland.” The fight for independence by Kashmiri Islamic groups has ground on for 19 years and claimed more than 40,000 lives, according to the Indian Army. Separatists put the toll at more than double that figure.