SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Protesters shouting “we want freedom” took to the streets of Kashmir on Thursday as a land dispute between Muslims and Hindus boiled into a litmus test of New Delhi’s hold on the troubled Himalayan region.
The row pits Muslims in Kashmir against Hindus in Jammu — the two main regions which make up the state of Jammu and Kashmir — in what is one of the hardest challenges facing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government since it took office in 2004.
At least 23 people have been killed and over 500 injured in clashes between Muslim protesters and police this week, hospital records show.
The protests are some of the biggest since a separatist revolt against New Delhi broke out in the region 20 years ago.
The dispute over land allocated to Hindu pilgrims visiting a shrine in Kashmir has snowballed into a full-scale anti-India protest, uniting Kashmiri separatists and reviving calls for independence.
A curfew remained in force in many parts of the state, but the protests seemed not to have spread elsewhere.
“I strongly condemn the reign of terror let loose by the Indian forces against the besieged people of Kashmir,” said Mohammed Yasin Malik, who led a protest in Srinagar.
“Indian troops cannot suppress our struggle.”
The dispute began after the Kashmir government promised to give forest land to a trust that runs Amarnath, a cave shrine visited by Hindu pilgrims. Many Muslims were enraged.
The government then rescinded its decision, which in turn angered Hindus in Jammu who attacked lorries carrying supplies to Kashmir valley and blocked the region’s highway, the only surface link with the rest of India.
Challenging the blockade, Kashmiris took to the streets.
Muslim Pakistan, which controls part of Kashmir, condemned the violence, sparking angry protests from India which accuses its nuclear-armed rival of supporting Kashmiri separatists.
Through Wednesday night, thousands of Kashmiri protesters shouted anti-India slogans, condemning security forces. Hundreds of Muslims also assembled in mosques and shrines which relayed the slogans on loudspeakers.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch urged India to show restraint.
“The Indian government should order troops and police to refrain from using lethal force against violent protesters in Jammu and Kashmir unless absolutely necessary to protect life,” it said.
(Reporting By Sheikh Mushtaq; Editing by Krittivas Mukherjee and David Fox)