SRINAGAR, India – Government forces in the Indian portion of Kashmir on Thursday fatally shot four villagers and wounded 25 others who were protesting the alleged desecration of the Muslim holy book by border guards, police said.
The violence — which came during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — could trigger widespread protests in the disputed Himalayan region, with separatist groups that reject India's sovereignty over the region calling for three days of strikes and demonstrations beginning Friday.
The protesters accused the Indian Border Security Force soldiers of entering a religious seminary Wednesday night looking for Kashmiri militants in Dharam, a village 220 kilometers (140 miles) south of Srinagar, the main city in Indian Kashmir.
The head of the seminary, Qari Shabir, said the border guards tore pages of several copies of the Quran after beating a school caretaker.
As thousands of villagers marched to the seminary on Thursday to protest the alleged desecration of the Qurans, government forces opened fire to stop them, wounding several, Shabir said.
After the protesters dispersed, civil and police authorities reached the village and tried to calm the angry villagers, he said.
Thousands of people from other areas then came and joined the protesters. They resumed the march, leading to scuffles with government forces, who again fired at the protesters, Shabir said.
"We were protesting the desecration of the holy book and instead of looking into this heinous act, they fired at us," Shabir said.
Four of the villagers were killed and 25 were wounded, said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Indian Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde ordered a probe into the incident. "I assure that any use of excessive force or irresponsible action shall be dealt with strictly," he said in a statement.
Rights groups say such investigations rarely lead to prosecutions and are mainly used to try to calm public anger.
Officials said thousands of people gathered in the area to protest Thursday's incident. Protests also took place in other parts of Kashmir, and a key highway was closed.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, with both countries claiming the disputed Himalayan region in its entirety.
Anti-India feelings run deep in Indian-held Kashmir, where about a dozen rebel groups have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989. More than 68,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
The rebel groups have largely been suppressed by Indian troops in recent years, and resistance is now principally expressed through street protests.