Indian security forces have fired tear gas and shot live rounds in the air to disperse mass protests in Indian-administered Kashmir‘s main city as thousands rallied against New Delhi’s stripping of the region’s autonomy, according to local sources.
The protests erupted afternoon prayers on Friday, with thousands of people marching towards the centre of Srinagar ignoring a curfew imposed as part of an unprecedented security lockdown in the disputed region, exclusive footage obtained by Al Jazeera showed.
Some demonstrators were carrying black flags and placards saying “We want freedom” and “Abrogation of Article 370 is not acceptable.”
India’s Hindu-nationalist government on Monday revoked Article 370 of India’s constitution, limiting the region’s decision-making powers and eliminating its right to its own constitution.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi also downgraded Indian-administered Kashmir from statehood to two federally administered territories – Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh – ruled directly by New Delhi.
Al Jazeera’s Priyanka Gupta, citing local sources, said the police fired live bullets in the air and used “tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets” to push protesters back
“We understand there have been injuries,” she said, reporting from the Indian capital, New Delhi. Some were wounded from pellet guns, she added.
A police officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters news agency that 10,000 people attended the protest. The protesters gathered in Srinagar’s Soura area and were pushed back to the Aiwa bridge, the officer said.
A witness told Reuters “some women and children jumped into the water”, while another said: “They [police] attacked us from both sides.”
India sent some 10,000 additional troops to the Muslim-majority region in the lead-up to its announcement on Monday, imposing a curfew on parts of the territory, shutting down telecommunications and arresting political leaders. Nearly 700,000 Indian soldiers are deployed in Indian-administered Kashmir, where civilian protesters and armed rebels either want independence or a merger with Pakistan.
‘No faith in India’
Earlier on Friday, security forces eased restrictions to allow Muslim worshippers to attend noon prayers in their neighbourhood mosques. The main Jama mosque in Srinagar remained closed, however, and a police officer posted there told Reuters he faced regular attack from young people throwing stones.
In a narrow alley behind the mosque, 32-year-old Tariq Ahmed warned of a backlash against the Indian government once it relaxed the curbs on movement in the city.
“If they (authorities) have used force on unarmed Kashmiris, we will also react with force,” Ahmed, a university worker, told Reuters.
“We have no faith in the Indian government. They should let us protest. Otherwise, the only option is armed struggle.”
Residents of Kashmir fear the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) scrapped the region’s special status to shift its demographics, partly by allowing outsiders to own property there. Article 370 had barred Indians from outside the territory from permanently settling and buying land there.
Modi, however, defended the status change as necessary to free the region from “terrorism and separatism”. In a speech on Thursday, he also said the move would boost economic growth and pledged to expedite development projects.
Pakistan, China protest
The scrapping of Kashmir’s special status has also heightened tensions with neighbouring Pakistan.
The two nuclear-armed countries claim Kashmir in full, but each governs a portion.
In response to New Delhi’s move, Islamabad expelled the Indian envoy, suspended trade, halted cross-border train services and banned Indian films.
Thousands in Pakistan also staged rallies on Friday, with protesters in the southern city of Karachi setting fire to effigies of Modi, calling him a “terrorist” and criticising the United Nations for its inaction.
Protests also took place in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and in Lahore and Quetta.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi headed to China’s capital, Beijing, on Friday for hastily arranged talks with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
China, which also controls a section of Kashmir in Ladakh, protested this week after India reaffirmed its claim to Beijing’s territory on the Aksai Chin plateau. India and China fought a border war in 1962, after Chinese forces occupied the Himalayan plateau.
China’s foreign ministry released a statement after the meeting with Qureshi, saying Beijing was “seriously concerned about the turbulence and escalating tensions” in Kashmir.
“China will continue to firmly support the Pakistan side in safeguarding its legitimate rights,” the statement continued, adding that the Kashmir issue should be resolved at the United Nations. “Both Pakistan and India are China’s friendly neighbours … We call on both sides to focus on national development and peace in South Asia,” the statement continued.
Qureshi released a video statement after the meeting in which he added: “I am very pleased that China once again proved today that it is Pakistan’s reliable friend”.
India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is to visit Beijing from Sunday for talks with Wang.