Hindu Nationalist Murli Manohar Joshi abandons drive through tense Kashmir

Raju Gopalakrishna

SRINAGAR: A Hindu nationalist leader abandoned plans to drive through Kashmir to defy moslem militants on Saturday and accepted an offer of an official airlift.

A senior official said Murli Manohar Joshi, who has led an anti-separatist motorcade of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the southern tip of India, accepted the offer some 240 km (150 miles) from his northern goal, the rebellious city of Srinagar.

Police and the BJP said Joshi’s motorcade had been defeated by nature, in the form of landslides blocking the Himalayan highway to Srinagar, and not by militant vows to attack the convoy.

Joshi will take a military helicopter to Srinagar to hoist the Indian flag on Sunday, Republic Day, in defiance of militants who have raised the flag of neighbouring Islamic Pakistan in past years.

Rumours swept Srinagar that Joshi had been arrested but both the BJP and Kashmiri officials denied this.

Joshi had already trimmed his cavalcade to about 500 people from 50,000 after militants struck the boldest blow in their two-year-old revolt on Friday, blasting the regional police chief’s office as he discussed security for the BJP.

The bomb blast killed a police orderly and seriously wounded at least four officers of the region’s top security echelon.

On Saturday a prominent militant leader told Reuters several groups had worked together to plan the attack and that a volunteer had placed a time bomb in the office.

Javed Ahmed Mir, military chief of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which favours Kashmir’s independence from both India and Pakistan, said Joshi’s flag-hoisting ceremony would be stopped because it would symbolically establish Indian rule.

“We have formed death squads and ordered them to stop the ceremony whichever way they can,” he said in a telephone interview.

The army took control of the city’s Lal Chowk (Red Square), where Joshi plans to hoist the flag, with troops commandeering several homes in the area and placing machine guns and rocket launchers at street corners.

Indian authorities clamped curfews on Srinagar and other Kashmiri towns, to protect both the BJP and the security forces.

Reporters heard army officers with loudhailers telling residents cooped up in their houses that one bullet would invite instant and heavy retaliation.

Police reported five militant hit-and-run attacks in and around Srinagar on Saturday morning. The only casualty was a man, said by residents to have been unarmed, killed when paramilitary troops fired at their attackers.

Sporadic gunshots could be heard in Srinagar and Mir said: “There will be continuous action until Sunday evening.”

The BJP says Joshi’s 15,000-km (9,000-mile) “Ekta Yatra”, or unity march, is aimed at countering the Moslem insurgency in Kashmir and a decade-long revolt by Sikhs in the state of Punjab.

Opponents of the BJP, which has surged in just over two years from a fringe party to opposition status, allege the march panders to Hindu fundamentalists at the expense of the Moslem, Sikh and other minorities among India’s 850 million people.

Indian news agencies reported that 60 Sikh activists had been arrested when they tried to march through Kashmir in protest against the BJP motorcade on Saturday.

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