Protests Over Disputed Shrine Paralyze Indian Kashmir for Seventh Day

Thousands of police attempted unsuccessfully to keep people off the streets in Indian Kashmir on Sunday as mass protests continued for a seventh day against what demonstrators charge is a government plan to build Hindu settlements in the Muslim-majority region.

As the unrest deepened Sunday and a 22-year-old protester died, bringing the week's death toll to four, police and paramilitary soldiers turned out in full force in Srinagar, the region's main city, in an attempt to enforce what amounted to an undeclared curfew.

"We're not allowing anybody to come out on the streets," said Hilal Ahmed, an officer leading a contingent of police and paramilitary troops in Srinagar.

But the police could not keep the roads clear, and protesters burned tires, blocked roads and marched in what have become some of the largest protests against Indian rule since a separatist rebellion broke out in the Himalayan region nearly two decades ago.

Police used tear gas and fired live ammunition to disperse the crowds, said Prabhakar Tripathi, a spokesman for the Central Reserve Police Force.

Imtiyaz Ahmed, who authorities acknowledge was shot by police officers, became the fourth person to die in the protests. He died Sunday in Srinagar's main hospital, said Dr. Wasim Qureshi, the hospital's superintendent.

Hundreds carried Ahmed's body from the hospital to his neighborhood in Srinagar while chanting anti-India slogans.

Hundreds have been wounded and scores of vehicles set on fire in the past week, said Tripathi.

The protests were sparked by the recent transfer of 99 acres of land by the state government to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, a trust running a Hindu shrine, to construct facilities for hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who flock there every year.

Protesters believe Indian authorities plan to turn the structures into a permanent settlement for Hindus to change the religious balance in the Muslim-majority region.

Indian officials dismiss the allegations, saying India has never tried to encourage Hindu migration to the region, India's only Muslim-majority state. The Indian constitution also prohibits outsiders from buying land in Kashmir.

In an attempt to defuse the tension, the state's top elected official said authorities would revoke the controversial land transfer in the next Cabinet meeting. Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad did not say when the meeting would be held.

Protest groups dismissed the move as a stall tactic and vowed to continue with the demonstrations.

The unrest has already resulted in significant political fallout.

The Peoples Democratic Party, a major partner in Jammu-Kashmir state's ruling coalition, withdrew its support of the government over the land transfer issue on Saturday night.

"The government has not acted with deliberate speed to diffuse the crisis," Abdul Aziz Zargar, senior leader of the pro-India party, said in a letter to Azad. "It's therefore our moral responsibility to dissociate from the government without any further delay."

Azad called the decision "unwise," but said it did not threaten his administration's stability, according to Greater Kashmir, a local newspaper.

Businesses, schools and government offices remained closed Sunday as separatists and civic group leaders vowed to press on with the protests.

"Our protests will continue until we achieve freedom from Indian domination," Mirwaiz Omer Farooq, head of the moderate faction All Parties Hurriyat Conference, told a crowd of protesters in Srinagar. The crowd chanted "We reject Kashmir's auction" and "We want freedom."

The shrine at the heart of the dispute attracts pilgrims who come to see a large icicle in a cave that Hindus revere as an incarnation of the Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration.

In the past, Islamic separatists have targeted the pilgrimage, claiming that Hindu-majority India uses the annual religious event as a political statement to bolster its claim over Kashmir, which is divided between Pakistan and India but claimed by both.

About a dozen militant groups have been fighting since 1989 for Kashmir's independence or its merger with neighboring Pakistan. At least 68,000 people have been killed in the conflict.