More than a dozen people were killed and scores injured in confrontations in Kashmir on Monday following a report on an Iranian TV channel of the desecration of the Koran in New York on the anniversary of 9/11.
In the worst day of violence in the Himalayan valley since young Kashmiri Muslims began agitating for independence more than three months ago, dozens of government buildings were torched as protesters battled with armed police and paramilitary soldiers.
The arson and violence was particularly bad in two towns close to the state capital Srinagar — Tangmarg and Budgam, where a school run by a Christian missionary was attacked and torched.
Provincial police chief Kuldeep Khoda said 13 civilians and one officer were killed in the violence.
The number of civilians killed in the valley since June 17, when students first took to the streets in protest against the shooting of a teenager by paramilitary police, is estimated to be 87.
Although government buildings have been torched before in Kashmir, yesterday’s arson was on an unprecedented scale.
“The loss of property is huge,” Khoda said. “Government offices, courts, police stations, even an official’s residence were destroyed and burnt.”
The attack on the Christian-run school in Budgam was unprecedented too. Religious minorities, especially Hindus, have suffered at the hands of gunmen ever since a Pakistan-backed separatist insurgency began in the Srinagar valley in 1989. Yet ordinary Muslims have by-and-large remained loyal to the region’s tolerant Sufi Islamic tradition.
Kashmir’s separatist movement has been confined to the province’s Sunni Muslims. However, the Iranian TV report provoked its minority Shia Muslims to also take to the streets with placards bearing photographs of Ayatollah Khomeini.
As violence engulfed the valley, the local government banned the telecast of the Iranian TV channel. Timothy Roemer, the US ambassador, also tried to exert some damage control.
Roemer condemned the Koran desecration as “disrespectful, intolerant, divisive, and unrepresentative of American values. The deliberate destruction of any holy book is an abhorrent act.”
He added: “We are also dismayed to see reports that a school and a church in Kashmir and Punjab have been attacked and destroyed by rioters. We strongly support local authorities’ appeal for calm and an end to the violence.”
While Kashmir was in flames, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was presiding over a top security meeting in Delhi to consider the demand by Kashmiri Muslims for the removal of a special law, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives soldiers and police powers to shoot or arrest civilians.
It was widely expected that in an attempt to dampen the three-month-long popular agitation in Kashmir, Delhi would announce the withdrawal of the law from Srinagar and nearby towns.
But after deliberating for three hours, the security committee deferred its decision. Instead, the government has convened an “all-party” meeting to deliberate on the Kashmir situation. A major worry for Singh is the strong opposition from the Hindu rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party to any softening of Delhi’s stand.
“Kashmir is burning, but the government is dithering,” said Seema Mustafa, national affairs editor of the NewsX television channel.