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Mobs, cops clash over Amarnath land

Srinagar, June 23: The separatist-led agitation against the transfer of forest land to the Amarnath shrine board turned violent in Srinagar today, leaving several protesters wounded in clashes with police.

Police fired tear gas at violent mobs in the Maisuma, Gaw Kadal, Khanqah Moula and other localities. Senior Hurriyat leaders, including Ashraf Sehrai, Shabir Shah and Nayeem Khan, were placed under house arrest to prevent them from leading a march.

Hurriyat hardliner Syed Ali Shah Geelani had planned the march from the Khanqah Moula mosque, but the government sent police and paramilitary to foil it.

Still, several separatists managed to reach the spot but were arrested, leading to clashes between the police and stone-throwing young men.

Geelani changed his programme and started a march from the Kani Kadal locality, which was joined by hundreds, and later addressed a gathering at Jahangir Chowk. He told the government to revoke the land transfer or face the consequences.

“Dozens of people, including Hurriyat leaders Ghulam Nabi Sumji, Massarat Alam, Firdous Shah and Mohammad Shafi Reshi, have been arrested while dozens of others have been injured,” Hurriyat spokesman Ayaz Akbar said.

The separatists have been leading the protests against the recent government order that handed 40 hectares at Baltal to the shrine board for the construction of facilities for Amarnath pilgrims.

Many mainstream political parties, such as the National Conference, too have opposed the move. The Congress’s ruling alliance partner, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has done an about-turn after initially backing the land allotment.

For the demoralised separatists, the allotment has come as a godsend, infusing life into their movement and bringing the two Hurriyat factions closer.

The two camps had been fighting since the hawks accused the moderates of playing a dubious role in the 2002 Assembly polls by fielding proxy candidates or secretly supporting the electoral process.

“The controversy has come at a time the (separatist) movement was almost fizzling out. (Outgoing governor S.K.) Sinha has offered them on a silver platter an issue on which Kashmiris are supersensitive. He has brought the situation back to square one and the state may again see an upheaval similar to 1990,” former bureaucrat and Kashmir expert M. Ashraf said.

“Kashmiris may not profess Islam the way the Arabs do, but they are very sensitive about any onslaught on their Islamic character. Sinha was openly promoting Hindutva here.”

At the root of the public opposition to the land allotment lie Sinha’s policies, viewed with deep suspicion by Kashmiris.

Sinha got the Amarnath yatra extended from one to two months despite opposition from the PDP-led government. The shrine board, which he heads, is widely seen as a body outside the control of the state’s legislature or government.

The protests in Kashmir have set up a backlash in Jammu, where hard-line Hindu groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have protested against any revocation of the land transfer. Parishad leader Praveen Togadia visited Jammu this week to mobilise support.

The state Congress, whose vote bank is concentrated in Jammu, is unwilling to revoke the order.

“Those opposing the land transfer are adharmik (irreligious). They have no respect for pilgrims,” Congress MP Lal Singh said.

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