India carries out its most severe crackdown on Kashmir in more than 20 years

For weeks, Indian authorities have carried out a campaign of night-time raids, rolling curfews and stopping travellers at roadblocks, but have failed to stop the rebel attacks and angry public rallies.

Kashmiri Muslims shout religious and pro-freedom slogans as Indian policemen stop them from from participating in a religious procession during a curfew in Srinagar, India-controlled Kashmir. Dar Yasin / AP Photo / October 10, 2016
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SRINAGAR // Indian forces are carrying out their most severe crackdown in more than two decades against civilian protesters in Kashmir, with police saying on Monday that more than 8,000 people had been arrested in recent months.

That includes the estimated 450 civilians being held, possibly for up to six months without trial, under a security law that critics and activists say breaches international human rights laws. New Delhi has said that the separatist rebels – and civilians who help them – are undermining the country’s territorial integrity and forcing authorities to keep the India-controlled portion of Kashmir under tight control.

“This is so far the biggest crackdown against miscreants, who have taken everything hostage to their protests and stone throwing here,” a senior police officer said.

For weeks, Indian authorities have carried out a campaign of night-time raids, rolling curfews and stopping travellers at roadblocks, but have failed to stop the rebel attacks and angry public rallies.

On Monday, government forces were battling a group of suspected rebels near a main road near the saffron-rich town of Pampore, on the outskirts of the region’s main city of Srinagar.

Gunshots and grenade blasts were heard from the site, where units of the army’s special forces, paramilitary soldiers and counterinsurgency police had cordoned off and encircled one of the compound’s buildings, according to an officer.

The officer said the two sides were exchanging intermittent gunfire. One soldier was reported injured.

Scores of people gathered on nearby streets to chant anti-India slogans in a show of solidarity with the rebels.

India has faced a separatist challenge in Kashmir since 1947, when it and neighbouring Pakistan gained independence and launched the first of two wars they would fight over their opposing claims to the Muslim-majority region.

India blames Pakistan for arming and training rebels to cross the heavily militarised border that divides Kashmir between the two countries. Pakistan, however, denies the allegation and says it offers the rebels only moral support.

Most people in India-controlled Kashmir favour independence or a merger with Pakistan. Rebel groups have been fighting in the region since 1989, and more than 68,000 people have been killed in the armed uprising and ensuing Indian military crackdown.

While anti-India protests are common during warmer summer months, this year’s have been especially fraught amid widespread anger over the killing of a popular rebel commander in a July raid.

India has responded with a clampdown that has nearly paralysed daily life.

More than 80 civilians have been killed and thousands injured in clashes with police and paramilitary troops. Two policemen have also been killed and hundreds of government forces injured in the clashes. Police said they had detained at least 8,000 people on suspicion of participating in anti-India protests and throwing rocks at government troops, including more than 400 people picked up in night-time raids in the past week alone.

Officers were still hunting for at least 1,500 more people suspected of participating in protests, according to three other top police officers overseeing the crackdown operations.

Rights activists have expressed alarm over the government’s targeting of protesters. Authorities arrested thousands of suspects in the early 1990s, but almost all of them were either suspected militants or people accused of harbouring them.

“The state is arresting non-combatant activists and protesters at an alarming and unprecedented rate,” local human rights lawyer Pervez Imroz said. “This crackdown marks the Indian government’s failure to reach a political solution to the issue.”

Activists have long campaigned against India’s armed forces special powers act, which gives troops sweeping powers to interrogate or shoot suspects on sight. Also, under the draconian act, federal army and paramilitary soldiers cannot be prosecuted in civilian courts unless federal approval is granted.

* Associated Press