SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Police shot dead at least 13 people in Indian Kashmir on Tuesday as Muslim protests against what they termed an economic blockade by Hindus over a land row began to morph into independence calls, officials said.
Violence swept up the neighboring Hindu-dominated Jammu region as well, where two people were killed and several injured when thousands of Hindu and Muslim protesters clashed with each other and with police.
In Kashmir, at least 200 people, including 85 policemen, were hurt and 13 protesters killed in a dozen separate incidents of police firing a day after a separatist leader was killed by police while trying to lead Muslim traders into Pakistan.
Muslim protesters shouted slogans against the government as Kashmir’s main separatist alliance, the All Parties Hurriyat (Freedom) Conference, buried senior leader Sheikh Aziz, among the four people killed by police as he led Monday’s march.
“This is not protest against land transfer, in fact this is anger against India,” Pakiza Dar, a college teacher, yelled.
“Down with security forces, we want freedom,” others shouted.
The land row has sparked some of Kashmir’s worst religious riots in recent years. At least 20 people have been killed and hundreds injured.
The dispute began after the Kashmir government promised to give forest land to the trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine visited by Hindu pilgrims. Many Muslims were enraged.
The government then backed down, angering many Hindus in Jammu and polarizing Indian Kashmir, which is split between the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city.
The row has severely curbed trade between the two areas, and prompted Kashmir traders to try and sell their goods in neighboring Pakistan.
The protests have widened to become pro-independence rallies, some of the biggest since a separatist revolt against New Delhi broke out in the region 20 years ago.
On Tuesday, some 20,000 Muslims defied a curfew in Bandipora, about 60 km (40 miles) north of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, to protest against Monday’s killings.
Analysts said the protests had brought the focus back on Kashmir and endangered a sputtering 2004 peace process between India and Pakistan that had helped bring down violence.
“I see this will have a bad impact and considering that Pakistan is going through a bad turmoil now, the overall impact on the peace process will not be very positive,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a senior strategic analyst.
Experts said political groups were trying to gain mileage ahead of general elections next year, with the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, shepherding the Hindu cause in Jammu and separatists fuelling anti-India feelings in Kashmir.
India reacted angrily to a statement by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, condemning “excessive and unwarranted force” in Kashmir.
“Such statements by leaders of a foreign country do not help the situation. Nor do they contribute to creating the atmosphere necessary for the dialogue process between India and Pakistan to move forward,” India’s foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement.
Indian authorities also denied there was any economic blockade and said lorries, guarded by policemen and soldiers, were plying the region’s main 300-km (185 mile) highway, the only land link between Kashmir valley and the rest of India.
The Indian government said it was trying to find a solution through negotiations and help traders sell their goods across the border in Pakistan.
Additional reporting by Ashok Pahalwan, Nigam Prusty and C.K. Nayak; Editing by Jon Boyle