Troops, Kashmir protesters clash as rebel leader killed – Tens of thousands of people defy curfew

SRINAGAR: Kashmiri villagers carry body of Burhan Wani, chief of operations of Indian Kashmir’s largest rebel group Hizbul Mujahideen, during his funeral procession in Tral. —AP
SRINAGAR: Kashmiri villagers carry body of Burhan Wani, chief of operations of Indian Kashmir’s largest rebel group Hizbul Mujahideen, during his funeral procession in Tral. —AP

SRINAGAR: Indian troops fired on protesters in Kashmir yesterday, killing at least one and wounding scores of others as tens of thousands of people defied a curfew and participated in the funeral of a top rebel commander a day after he was killed by Indian forces, officials and locals said. Burhan Wani, chief of operations of Hizbul Mujahideen, Indian-controlled Kashmir’s largest rebel group, was killed in fighting Friday after Indian troops, acting on a tip, cordoned a forested village in southern Kashmir’s Kokernag area, said Police Director-General K. Rajendra.

As news of the killing spread on Saturday, widespread clashes erupted in several neighborhoods in southern Kashmir as thousands of residents hurled rocks at Indian troops, who responded by using live ammunition, pellet guns and tear gas, two police officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy. They said that a man was killed and scores of other people were wounded in police firing, and that protesters torched at least three police stations in the region.

Street clashes also spread to Indian Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar as scores of residents tried to march in the streets. Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in entirety by both. On India’s side, separatist politicians and rebels reject Indian rule over the region and have been fighting for independence or merger with Pakistan since 1989. Separatist leaders asked people to march to southern Tral town for Wani’s funeral yesterday. Rajendra said Wani’s body was handed over to his family but warned that no one would be allowed to march to Tral. “Only locals will be allowed to participate in his funeral,” he said.

‘We want freedom’

However, by yesterday afternoon, tens of thousands of mourners joined Wani’s funeral procession in Tral town in defiance of the restrictions, chanting “Go India! Go back!” and “We want freedom!” Earlier, thousands of armed police and paramilitary soldiers in riot gear fanned out across most towns and villages. They laid razor wire and erected steel barricades on the streets and drove through neighborhoods, warning residents to stay indoors. Two rebel comrades of Wani were also killed in Friday’s gunbattle.

Wani, in his early 20s, had become the iconic face of militancy in Kashmir over the last five years. He was a household name and his video clips and pictures were widely circulated among young people in Kashmir. Unlike the rebel leaders of the early 1990s, Wani did not cover his face in videos widely circulated on cellphones. Inspector-General Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gillani described his killing as the “biggest success against militants” in recent years. Indian officials, fearing that the killing could lead to violent protests in the already troubled region, suspended an annual Hindu pilgrimage to a mountain cave which draws about half a million people each year.

Officials also suspended cellphone services in southern parts of Kashmir and blocked mobile internet in rest of the region to prevent anti-India demonstrators from mobilizing. Shops, businesses and government offices were shut following the security lockdown and a general strike called by anti-India separatists. Authorities also postponed school and college examinations and suspended rail services. Wani was a small-town boy and the son of a school principal. Handsome and media savvy, he was widely credited for reviving armed militancy in Indian Kashmir in recent years, using social media like Facebook to reach out to young Kashmiri men.

Noor Ahmed Baba, a political scientist at Central University of Kashmir, said Wani “rose to become the symbol of resistance and defiance against the Indian state, mainly because he was politically sharp in his messages.” “He revived militancy at a time when people were waning away from armed struggle and became a youthful face of the rebellion, a hero for not just young men but even so many older people,” he said. Most people in Kashmir have long resented the Indian presence, and support rebel demands for an independent Kashmir or a merging with Pakistan. More than 68,000 people have been killed in the uprising and the subsequent Indian military crackdown. – AP

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