India's opposition politicians demand release of Kashmir activists


Opposition political parties held a public meeting in the Indian capital on Thursday, demanding the release of hundreds of activists detained in Indian-administered Kashmir and the immediate resumption of communication services.

The restive Kashmir valley was placed under a security and communications lockdown on the eve of the government's move on 5 August to abrogate laws that gave the Muslim-majority region greater autonomy and split it into two federally administered territories.

The opposition meeting came as restrictions on movement in Indian-administered Kashmir were relaxed in a few more areas but mobile and Internet connectivity remained suspended for the 18th day.

There were small, scattered protests in central areas of the region's main city Srinagar, which remained tense with posters appearing in several areas in which separatist leaders called for a "massive march" on Friday to protest the government's move.

Most primary schools remained closed on Thursday with a few reporting thin attendance. Government offices were functioning but shops and markets stayed closed.

The disputed Kashmir region is divided into two parts, one administered by India and the other by Pakistan. Both claim the region in its entirety and have fought two wars over it. India-administered Kashmir has seen a deadly secessionist movement since the mid 1980s and India accuses Pakistan of aiding and abetting Kashmiri separatists, a charge Pakistan denies.

Tensions between the nuclear-capable South Asian neighbours have spiked after India abrogated constitutional provisions that granted Jammu and Kashmir autonomy to make its own laws and restricted ownership of property and government jobs to people from the region.

All top and second-rung leaders of political parties other than India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), separatist leaders, some leading Muslim clerics as well as social activists are among those arrested since 4 August and remain in custody.

Local journalists estimate that more than 3,000 people may have been arrested, but this could not be confirmed by journalists.

"This was done to prevent any law and order situation," a local government official said over phone, but he did not any details of the number of people arrested.

Leaders from the Indian National Congress party, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), Kashmir's National Conference Party and others joined the Delhi protest meeting called by the Dravida Munnetra Khazhagam (DMK), a regional party from southern Tamil Nadu.

"If there is normalcy in Kashmir why did you stop us from going there to see for ourselves?" CPI-M general secretary Sitaram Yechuri asked.

Several opposition politicians were prevented from leaving the airport at Srinagar, the region's main city, when they flew in over the past two weeks.

"You are hiding what is the reality there and this cannot continue," Yechuri said.

The opposition leaders also demanded the lifting of restrictions on communication in the region and free access to the media. 

"We have to recognise that this is no longer a democracy," Congress party lawmaker and a former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said. "How can you change laws without consulting the people of the region ... What they have done is totally unconstitutional."

He demanded that local politicians be immediately released.

"You keep them behind bars and say everything is right ... In the 21st century how can there be a siege of an entire state?"

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was meanwhile in Chantilly, near Paris, on Thursday for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said after their meeting that India and Pakistan should resolve their differences on Kashmir bilaterally.

Macron said he would make the same point soon to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as well as conveying France's concern for "preserving stability in the region and the fight against all forms of terrorism."

The abolition of Kashmir's autonomy was a matter of Modi's "full sovereignty, as far as the judicial aspects are concerned," Macron said.

France would be "attentive" to the "interests and rights" of civilians in both Indian-administered and Pakistani-administered Kashmir, he added.

Modi himself made no specific reference to Kashmir, although, speaking through a translator, he thanked France for "valuable cooperation... in facing cross-border terrorism."    (dpa)

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