Rocks, punches, chairs and abuses flew thick as hundreds of furious supporters of Kashmir's independence clashed on Sunday with pro-Pakistan rivals on a street in Srinagar—in one of the biggest-ever public showdowns between the two ideologies.
Sixteen people—including 12 civilians and four policemen—were injured and top separatist leader Yasin Malik, who supports freedom for Kashmir, was holed up in a building surrounded by hundreds of pro-Pakistan rioters until Sunday evening, local police officer Farooq Ahmed said.
However, the tally of injured could be higher as the street fights lasted for hours. An HT reporter saw terrified people rushing out of the area into narrow alleys, some holding their bloodied faces. Photographers were warned not to take pictures and witnesses said some of them were beaten up.
The rioting began after Malik inaugurated his first-ever office in downtown Srinagar, the century-old stronghold of the family of Kashmir's chief priest Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the moderate faction of the separatist All-Parties Hurriyat Conference.
Malik arrived for the inauguration ceremony after marching with some 3,000 supporters through its lanes in a show of strength, on the shoulders of an activist.
Downtown Srinagar, a maze of narrow lanes, has been a hub of the 17-year-old insurgency in Kashmir. In 1989 and the early 1990s, it was considered by many as a "liberated zone", where armed terrorists brandished weapons. Even today, it is a hotspot—of dissent against Indian rule in the state. News photographers avoid taking pictures of protests there as they have been attacked for doing so in the past.
Kashmir's separatist politicians and armed terrorists have been divided for years over the aim of their campaign—whether Kashmir should be a free nation or merge with Pakistan. But a confrontation between political groups has never flared as violently as it did on Sunday. It is expected to worsen the divide among Kashmir's separatist politicians.
"What do we want? Independence!" frenzied members of Malik's Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front shouted in Urdu as the inauguration began. But within minutes, dozens of people in the crowd raised clenched fists and began shouting in Punjabi: "Long live Pakistan!"
Malik frowned on them but did not make any comment, and ignored them in his speech. But soon the two sides began pushing and punching at each other, pausing only during a portion of Malik's speech in which he indirectly referred to the apparent incursion into Mirwaiz stronghold. "I have not come here to do politics. I have lots of places to go to if I have to do politics," Malik said.
"Downtown Srinagar is the place that has shown immense hospitality to terrorists, much more than anywhere else in Kashmir." Minutes later, a stampede began. Plastic chairs could be seen being smashed on people's heads. Mobs chased opponents, pinned them down on the road and kicked them.
In the distance, soldiers of the CRPF watched in silence. Two hours later, police moved in to guard the second-floor JKLF office as mobs threatened to torch it.
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