Kashmir Protests Rage as India Mulls Army Law Repeal

Indian police opened fire on protesters in Kashmir, reportedly killing 13 people, as security chiefs met to consider a roll back of laws that give armed forces wide powers to use force and arrest suspects in the state.

Amid a sharp escalation in clashes, senior army officials and ministers were to discuss whether to withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in four regions of Kashmir in India’s northwest. As they gathered, troops in the region shot at tens of thousands of protesters leaving 13 dead, Associated Press reported, the latest fatalities of a 21-year uprising.

The day’s death toll was the highest since demonstrations backing independence reignited in June, when a police tear gas shell killed a young man, the news agency said. An anti-India insurgency has left at least 50,000 people dead in the Himalayan region since 1989.

Rolling back the Act “could be a good beginning to stem escalating violence,” said D. Suba Chandran, deputy director at the New Delhi-based Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies. Still, the Cabinet is “divided on what could be the starting point” for a sustained peace push, a process that would ultimately require giving Kashmiris greater autonomy, he said.

Pro-independence protesters in Kashmir, divided between India and Pakistan after independence from British rule in 1947, have defied curfews since the June killing. They have pelted police with stones, and burned offices and vehicles; before today about 70 people had died in police firing.

‘Abusive Law’

Under the 1958 Act, army and paramilitary officers can order the use of firearms, detain suspects without a warrant and enter any building to carry out detentions in areas the government has declared “disturbed”.

Troops are granted immunity from prosecution unless legal moves are sanctioned by the government. It was first applied to seven states in India’s northeast, and extended to Kashmir in 1990.

Human Rights Watch in 2008 urged India to repeal the special laws, arguing they had violated fundamental freedoms for 50 years. “The Indian government’s responsibility to protect civilians from attacks by militants is no excuse for an abusive law,” Meenakshi Ganguly, its South Asia researcher, said in a report.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told police chiefs on Aug. 26 that security forces need to develop “non-lethal” measures to control violent crowds. Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said Kashmir is caught in a “vicious cycle” of protest and police firing.

BJP Opposed

Singh today told army commanders that Kashmiri grievances had to be addressed and economic opportunities increased.

“Continuing tension in Kashmir is causing concern to all,” Press Trust of India quoted Defense Minister A.K. Antony as saying. “The Cabinet Committee on Security will discuss the situation in Kashmir seriously.”

The main federal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party said any dilution of powers given to the armed forces in Kashmir will allow separatists insurgents to step up their fight.

India has long accused Pakistan of supporting guerrillas targeting Kashmir. Pakistan says it offers only moral support to separatist groups.

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