- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2010

NEW DELHI | Fourteen civilians and an Indian police officer were killed in clashes Monday in India-controlled Kashmir after a TV channel played a video that showed the destruction of a Koran in United States.

Ongoing anti-India protests in the Muslim-majority region merged with outrage over the Koran desecration to spark a cycle of violence that included the torching of government buildings and an attack on a school run by a Christian missionary.

With 15 deaths reported Monday, the toll resulting from protests has topped 80 since mid-June in Kashmir. Nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan have fought over this border area they share since gaining independence in 1947.

“We had law-and-order problems in dozens of places today. In today’s incidents, [Indian forces opened fire] at about dozen places in which [14] civilians died, besides one policeman,” said Kuldeep Khoda, police chief of the Jammu and Kashmir state.

He said 45 civilians and 113 officers were injured in the violence.

“The loss of property is huge,” Chief Khoda said. “Buildings, police stations and a local school [run by the missionary] were attacked and burned.”

The police chief said the violence erupted after Press TV, an Iranian channel, reported that a Koran had been destroyed in the United States.

A Florida pastor who had threatened to burn copies of the Koran on Saturday to mark the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks called off his plan late last week.

But Press TV apparently aired video of another man destroying a Koran in Tennessee.

“News reports have stated that on Saturday, Sept. 11, one misguided individual in the United States desecrated the Holy Koran by tearing pages from it,” U.S. Ambassador Timothy J. Roemer told reporters in New Delhi.

“On behalf of everyone at the U.S. Embassy in India, I condemn such acts as disrespectful, intolerant, divisive, and unrepresentative of American values. The deliberate destruction of any holy book is an abhorrent act,” Mr. Roemer said.

“We are also dismayed to see reports that a school and a church in Kashmir and Punjab [another Indian state] have been attacked and destroyed by rioters,” the ambassador said. “We strongly support local authorities’ appeal for calm and an end to the violence.”

Chief Khoda said the violence was instigated by Hurriyat Conference, a Kashmiri separatist group led by Syed Ali Geelani. The police chief played video clips at a news conference to support his claim.

The Hurriyat Conference is a legally recognized coalition of nonviolent separatist groups, though it is thought to include representatives from various militant factions. (“Hurriyat” means “freedom” in Urdu.)

Kashmiri separatists want to break from Hindu-majority India and form a separate state, while Pakistani-backed militant groups in Kashmir want it to merge with Muslim-majority Pakistan.

India’s ruling center-left government led by the Congress Party had proposed economic packages and limited autonomy for the Kashmir region to end a renewed upsurge against New Delhi’s rule.

But separatists and India’s main opposition, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), rejected the offer.

Meanwhile, India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act — which allows security forces to shoot, arrest and search — has alienated Kashmiris, and human rights violations have been reported frequently in the area.

The Indian government, which held a meeting of its Cabinet committee on security Monday, is weighing the option of diluting the special power of the armed forces in the region to assuage the Kashmiris’ anger. Some officials fear that weakening the armed forces will help the separatists.

The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has blamed the latest unrest in Kashmir on a section of separatist leaders and the Pakistani-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Lashkar-e-Taiba was behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 people.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference, has said the Indian government’s promises of employment opportunities for youths in the region carry no hope for the 10 million Kashmiris.

“Kashmir is not an economic issue. Kashmiris want right of self-determination and total troops withdrawal,” he said last month.

A survey released in May by Robert Bradnock of the London-based think tank Chatham House shows that 87 percent of Kashmiris on the Indian side have serious concerns about unemployment.

“New Delhi must show the imagination and creativity to start a new chapter,” said Amitabh Matto, an analyst on Kashmir issues.