As the lives of four Western hostages held by Islamic guerrillas dangled in the balance, Kashmiri Muslims on Tuesday demonstrated their massive opposition to Indian rule, shutting down the state’s summer capital as the rest of the country marked Indian independence day.
“The bandh (strike) is total throughout the Valley,” a government official in Srinagar said. “All major district headquarters are closed. Transports are off.”
Along placid Dal Lake, in the heart of this capital of more than 570,000 people, Indian army troops and paramilitary forces greatly outnumbered strolling civilians and anglers. Shops had their metal shutters pulled down and only a few taxis drove through the streets. A flag-raising ceremony led by Gov. K.V. Krishna Rao at Bakhshi stadium during the morning was chiefly attended by Indian government officials and army and police.
Indian officials, meanwhile, said there had been no wavering in the government’s refusal to grant the demands of the shadowy Al Faran group, which abducted six Western tourists in mountainous southeastern Kashmir last month.
On Sunday, the body of one of the kidnapped trekkers, Hans Ostro, 27, of Norway, was found beheaded near a village.
In New Delhi, India’s capital, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao used the traditional Independence Day address to blame neighboring Pakistan for Ostro’s murder and the unrest in Kashmir, and to reject the calls of Kashmiri separatists.
Kashmir is India’s only state where Muslims are in the majority, and on Monday, Pakistan’s independence day, green and white Pakistani flags were displayed in Brinagar and throughout the Vale of Kashmir by Kashmiris who seek unification with Pakistan.
Gunfire rattled throughout the night as separatist militants fired on security posts and soldiers shot back, residents said.
Other Kashmiri Muslims, perhaps a majority, want outright independence for the former Himalayan Principality, whose maharaja, a Hindu, chose in 1947 to join India. That year, invading Muslim tribesmen captured a third of the state for Pakistan, an act that Rao, India’s prime minister, denounced in his Tuesday speech as illegal.
Indian officials have said they intend to hold elections in Kashmir as a way to defuse the crisis, but the upsurge in violence has clearly stymied their plans.