Security forces face a major test as many in Kashmir appeared set to celebrate Pakistan’s independence day on Sunday by hoisting hundreds of its flags as a mark of defiance against New Delhi.
Police and intelligence sources said they expect impromptu rallies and celebrations across the region, which has been roiled by weeks of violent street protests against last month’s killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani by security forces.
Kashmiri separatists traditionally raise Pakistan’s flag on its independence day, but this year a wave of public unrest against Wani’s killing is sweeping the valley, where at least 58 people have been killed, mostly in police firing. The region remains under a curfew for 35 straight days and internet services remain suspended .
Public anger has also been fuelled by what locals see as New Delhi’s apathy towards the suffering of Kashmiris and its alleged refusal to find a political solution to the region’s problems. An all-party meeting called by the government on Friday also failed to assuage feelings in Kashmir.
Large swathes of rural Kashmir, the south in particular, appeared to be out of the purview of security forces, giving Lashkar-e-Taiba militants a free run, sources said. The army has also suspended operations to limit civilian fatalities.
Underscoring the security challenge, a blast in a market in Poonch wounded a dozen people on Saturday, police said.
Lt Gen Satish Dua, head of the 15 Corps told HT, “We only launch operation based on specific intelligence because we don’t want collateral damage. The marrying up of actual terrorists with agitators has become a big challenge.”
Separatist groups have also asked people to pray for Pakistan’s stability after every namaz on Sunday. They have asked India’s 70th independence day on Monday to be marked as a black day and all roads leading to Indian celebrations to be blocked. India and Pakistan, which won independence from Britain on the same day, celebrate a day apart.
For most years, August 14 has been a regular day in Kashmir. This year, sources said, many Kashmiri youth were preparing makeshift stages for rallies and marches in south and north Kashmir. Hundreds of “homemade” Pakistani flags were being distributed.
“People are collecting bamboo sticks and wooden poles for hoisting the (Pakistani) flags,” said a resident of South Kashmir.
Hoisting another country’s flag is not unlawful so long as the intent is not to defame or disrespect India or show disloyalty. In Kashmir, however, the unfurling of Pakistani flag is usually not so much for love of that country as it is to spite India, analysts said.
“It is just hopelessness and hatred for India that youth are celebrating Pakistan day,” said senior journalist Sheikh Mushtaq.
Sources said Pakistani flags are likely to come up on electric poles and on old, abandoned buildings. The old quarters of Srinagar’s downtown area, a known protest venue, is also a concern for security forces, who have been asked to avoid taking action against protestors.
The early days of Kashmiri insurgency in 1990s saw militant groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen celebrate Pakistan’s independence by taking out flag marches and parades. Its flag would be unfurled and the national Anthem of Pakistan would fill the air. However, even back then, the participation by civilians in those celebrations was rare.
But Kashmiris could be looking at Pakistan and that country appears to be entering the civilian narrative after a gap of many years.
“At least they are raising the issue of our freedom. What is India doing? Only firing at us. (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi and his ministers think it is an economic problem. Pakistan understands our pain,’’ said Nissar Ahmed, a farmer in Tral.
Another Tral villager, Ghulam Nabi told HT, “An all-party meeting took place and they spoke more about PoK and Balochistan than us Kashmiris.
“We have been deceived by Delhi once too often. We are in no mood to be fooled. The youth of Kashmir have taken things into their own hands.”
(With Abhishek Saha in Srinagar)