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Page last updated at 06:00 GMT, Thursday, 26 June 2008 07:00 UK

Kashmir shrine violence spreads

By Altaf Hussain
BBC News, Srinagar

Protests in Kashmir against transfer of land for a pilgrimage
The separatist groups say the decision to transfer land is a 'conspiracy'

Protests over the controversial transfer of forest land for a popular Hindu pilgrimage have spread in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Three people have been shot dead by police in three days of protests in India's only Muslim-majority state.

Wednesday's unrest shut shops and offices in Srinagar and other towns, and left roads empty of traffic.

Every year, thousands of Hindus flock to Amarnath cave, considered one of the holiest shrines of the Hindu faith.

The authorities say temporary structures are needed for the pilgrims, but protesters accuse officials of seeking to change the demographic balance in the area.

'Conspiracy'

The protests began after the state government transferred 40 hectares of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board - the organisation which organises the pilgrimage.

The government said the land was needed for the construction of pre-fabricated huts and toilets for the pilgrims.

Local environmentalists protested against the decision and local politicians joined them in opposing the issue.

The separatist groups say the transfer of land to the shrine board is part of a "conspiracy to settle non-local Hindus in the valley with a view to reducing the Muslims to a minority".

The protests have now spread to the southern towns of Shopian, Pulwama and Anantnag where shops are closed and roads empty of traffic.

Pilgrims on the way to Amarnath
Amarnath cave is considered one of the holiest shrines of the Hindu faith

Businesses are also closed in the border town of Handwara where students of a college led a protest march joined by local residents. A similar protest has been reported from Kangan.

Srinagar and the neighbouring district of Ganderbal are observing a complete shutdown for a second consecutive day.

Two protesters were killed when police fired to disperse crowds on Wednesday, one at Mazhama outside Srinagar and one in the city itself.

Another man was hit by a bullet on Monday and died of his injuries later the same day.

The leader of a group protesting against the transfer of land, Mian Qayum, has been placed under house arrest.

Pro-India political parties like the opposition National Conference and constituents of the governing coalition - the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and the Communist Party-Marxist (CPI-M) - have also opposed the transfer of land.

The PDP patron and former state chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayed, has said the government should revoke the land transfer by the end of the month.

Much of the controversy is being blamed on the former governor of the state, Lieut-Gen (retired) SK Sinha, who left office on Tuesday.

The governor is the ex-officio head of the shrine board.

Gen Sinha has said the shrine board is not answerable to the state's law-making assembly. He has refused to answer questions put to the shrine board by the law-makers.

The controversy has brought together the separatists - the hard-line and moderate factions of the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) - who have decided to carry out a joint campaign against the land transfer.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has threatened to block supplies of essential commodities to the valley of Kashmir if the campaign against the land transfer does not stop.


SEE ALSO
Police stop Hindu pilgrim march
01 Jul 04 |  South Asia
Indian pilgrimage dates extended
29 Jun 04 |  South Asia
The pilgrimage to Amarnath
06 Aug 02 |  South Asia

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