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Last Updated: Friday, 18 April, 2003, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Eyewitness: Rare Kashmir rally
By Altaf Hussein
BBC correspondent in Srinagar

Muslim women at Srinagar rally
People were brought from far and wide to hear the speech
Buses carrying people into Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir began arriving for the prime minister's rally by 0930 on Friday morning.

Two hours later, a queue of buses a kilometre long could be seen stretching down Residency Road and the Maulana Azad Road.

But there were no traffic jams - shops and businesses were closed and residents preferred to stay indoors.

They were responding to a general strike called by the main separatist group, the Hurriyat conference, and the Hizbul Mujahideen militant group.

The strike call received an overwhelming response across the Kashmir Valley.

Yet, thousands turned up at the rally in open defiance of the militants.

Price

Most of them were activists and supporters of Chief Minister Mufti Sayeed's People's Democratic Party (PDP).

There are many things that I hope this government will do for me
Undergraduate Showkat Ahmed

They were identified by the small green party flags that they carried in their hands.

Many of them vied with one another to shake hands with the ministers or assembly members from their respective areas.

After all, they had to mark their presence so they could demand their price later on.

A young man from Ganderbal constituency, Ghulam Mohammad, told me that he had been promised a job by the minister of public health engineering, Kazi Afzal.

"He [Kazi] told me he would get me a job if I came here."

Showkat Ahmed, who is an undergraduate, said: "I have not come necessarily for a government job. There are many things that I hope this government will do for me."

Economic woes

Among the audience was a leader of Kashmir's boat house hoteliers, Ghulam Ahmed Koloo.

Atal Behari Vajpayee at Srinagar airport
Vajpayee: Landmark address
He said: "Our tourism industry has been in a shambles for the past 13 years.

"They [the government] gave us soft loans in 1997. Today, we hope those loans will be written off."

There was hardly anyone who spoke of anything other than economic problems.

Politics appeared to be of little concern to them.

Although the Congress party is a part of the ruling coalition, its flags were conspicuous by their absence.

But I came across one person who claimed to be a member of the party.

Poetry

The participants in the rally had to pass through metal detector frames erected at half a dozen gates around the Amer Singh Club grounds, the venue of the rally.

Every participant was frisked by the police who wouldn't leave anything to chance.

The rally passed off peacefully, with no attempt by the militants to disrupt it.

None of the participants looked as if they feared violence.

The participants were mostly men; but there were about 100 women sitting in front of the rostrum.

The crowd cheered a number of times during the prime minister's speech, particularly when he talked of creating 30 million jobs in the past three years.

There was thunderous applause when he recited a couplet of a renowned Kashmiri poet, Mehjoor, which says: "Come O gardener and restore the glory of spring in the garden."




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