JAMMU // Thousands of Indian Hindu-nationalist opposition supporters massed on a bridge to the disputed Kashmir region yesterday as officials sought to stop a flag-raising ceremony that could spark violence.
Police faced off with flag-waving Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers as authorities sealed routes into Kashmir to thwart the planned raising of the national flag in the state that has been racked by unrest by Muslim separatists opposed to Indian rule.
Police forced about 7,000 marchers on to buses and drove them away, police sources said, while the remaining 2,500 protesters attempting to cross the border from the Jammu region into Kashmir faced arrest or detention.
Officials in Kashmir fear that the symbolic show of Indian central control over the disputed region could reignite separatist protests in which more than 100 people were killed last year.
The BJP has gained political ground through recent pressure on the ruling coalition struggling with corruption and it hopes to show the government's weakness on Kashmir, a potent symbol of India's territorial integrity, with state elections looming.
But the main opposition party risks a backlash. The government has criticised it for "divisive politics" and its nationalistic rhetoric may alienate secular Indians and other political parties.
P Chidamabaram, the home minister, said: "There is no justification whatsoever to push a political agenda that will certainly affect peace and law and order in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,
"It would be most unfortunate if the BJP leaders defy the restrictions placed by the state government or deliberately cause a breach of the peace."
The state government, backed by the ruling Congress party, sealed all road links into the state, media reported, a day after the BJP leaders, Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, were detained at the airport in the main Kashmiri city of Srinagar and sent back out.
Senior BJP officials have said raising the national flag in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, to celebrate India's Republic Day today, was a patriotic right, and have vowed to push on with their march to the city.
Mr Swaraj, the BJP leader in the lower house of parliament, posted on Twitter: "We have started march towards J&K … We are marching in a group of 500 people holding tricolour [flag] … Huge police presence on the other side of the bridge,"
Republic Day has traditionally been a lightning rod for anti-Indian protests in the Himalayan region which is at the heart of hostilities between India and Pakistan, who both claim it.