x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Kashmir simmers over alleged rape and murder

Unrest threatens to cripple Srinagar's vital tourism industry, after protests over the alleged rape and murder of two Muslim women.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // Unrest ignited by the alleged rape and murder of two Muslim women last weekend has left one protester dead and more than 300 injured during street battles in Srinagar, and has threatened to cripple the valley's vital tourism industry. Tensions escalated on Thursday when a shopkeeper, Nissar Ahmed Mir, 27, was killed in the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir after being hit in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police during a violent demonstration.

Hours after asking Kashmiris to intensify protests over the alleged murders, the separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani, 79, was arrested, police said. He was moved to an undisclosed location so that he would not be able to call for further escalations. Dozens of other separatist leaders have been jailed or placed under house arrest. The corpses of Nelofar Jan, 22, and her sister-in-law Aasiya, 17, were found floating in a shallow stream in Shopian, 52km south of Srinagar, on May 30, hours after they went missing from their apple orchards. Police say the women appeared to have drowned, but their families accuse troops of raping and killing them.

Shakeel Ahmad Ahangar said the bodies of his wife, Nelofar, and his sister bore marks of violence and that "they evidently had been raped before their murder". But when police authorities announced that the autopsy revealed no evidence to suggest rape or violence, crowds began attacking policemen and official vehicles and buildings, including the government-run hospital in Shopian. The protesters allege that the doctors prepared a false autopsy report under pressure from police.

The Indian security forces have not responded to the allegations, but the newly elected Kashmir chief minister, Omar Abdullah, quickly ordered a judicial investigation into the deaths and said his government was committed to finding the truth. The Greater Kashmir newspaper yesterday reported the findings of the state-owned forensic science laboratory that confirmed that the victims had been gang-raped, though the Press Trust of India news agency has quoted an anonymous government source saying the results were inconclusive.

Ali Muhammad Sagar, a senior leader of the ruling National Conference party (NC), and a minister in the NC-Congress Party coalition government, promised that the results of a second post-mortem would be made public and action taken against any perpetrators within 48 hours, but they have yet to be released. The Muslim-majority Kashmir valley is considered to be the most politically sensitive region in the country, where anti-India sentiment runs deep. An insurgency against the Indian rule has claimed 47,000 to 100,000 lives since its outbreak in 1989, and incidents such as the one in Shopian often bring Kashmiris in to the streets to vent their frustration. The security forces often meet such outbursts with the use of force, as has happened over the past six days.

During the current bout of violence, the economy of the scenic region of nearly seven million has ground to a halt. Hundreds of Indian and foreign tourists have left the valley, crippling one the region's most important industries. Tour operators say that many bookings for the coming weeks have been cancelled, dashing hopes for an economic resurgence after a large turnout in last month's general elections seemed to signal a turn away from support for separatists.

Mr Abdullah, the chief minister, said the strikes would hurt Kashmir's poor the most, many of whom depend on tourism for their survival. "It is our duty to create a conducive atmosphere for the promotion of tourism," he said, adding that tourism should not suffer because of politics. But Mr Geelani, the separatist leader, insisted that "peaceful strikes and protests are the only option left for the hapless people of Kashmir to express themselves before the world."

yjameel@thenational.ae