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From Calcutta to Kashmir

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By Avirook Sen

For a march that kicked off so close to my home in Calcutta’s Shyambazar, this thing has gotten somewhat out of hand, and more than somewhat ridiculous.

On January 12, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) youth wing flagged off what they called the ‘ekta yatra’ – a march for unity.

The plan was to converge on Lal Chowk in Srinagar, the arson-prone heart of Kashmir, from all over the country, to hoist the Indian tricolour on Republic Day. Assert a fundamental right, remind the fellow in the firan where it’s at, and so on. Alas, the plan lacked idiot-proofing from conception to execution.

A bunch of merry right-wing youth from Karnataka in the south, boarded a train bound for Kashmir. But sometime after midnight, when the train had barely gotten a fifth of the way there, the poor boys fell asleep, dreaming dreams of national unity.

Alert security forces grabbed their chance. At a station in Maharashtra, they detached the bogeys containing the future flag-hoisters from the mother train. They then attached the bogeys to a train headed back to Bangalore, where the volunteers had breakfast.

While the rest of us laughed our heads off, spokesmen for the BJP objected in the strongest possible terms: “Our workers had valid tickets!”

There is a sense of deja vu about these events. In late 1991, a year before they demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the BJP undertook almost the exact same march. The then president of the party, Murli Manohar Joshi, led the marchers.

Landslides (and a not a little Kashmiri outrage) prevented Joshi’s followers from reaching the spot. Joshi himself had to be flown in, amid what witnesses called the tightest security they had seen. Sympathetic commentators put the number of people getting to Lal Chowk at 40, including journalists. Curfew had been imposed on the town and announcements made that Lal Chowk had been handed over to the army.

There are varying reports of how the actual hoisting took place on January 26, 1992.

It is clear that security personnel helped Joshi with the flag, but when he was raising it to the pedestal of the clock tower on which it was supposed to fly, the rod broke and knocked the old man on the head. It has been reported that the flag was finally hoisted on a lamppost. Having raised the flag, a slightly dizzy Joshi left the scene and went off to plot the razing of a mosque.

Leading the marchers this time is a fellow called Anurag Thakur, MP, and the son of the chief minister of Himachal Pradesh. An official website lists his professions as “cricketer” and “industrialist”. Though what he really does is run an export house and make sure, with a little help from papa, that he’s in control of all cricket administration in his home state.

His own webpage has a picture of a cricket team with a trophy in front, he sits in the middle with a blue jacket, the boys are in white. The header reads: “If he can do this in sports, he can do better in politics. There is a need to bring young talent to the forefronts (sic) of politics.”

By the standards of Indian politics, this chap should visit the pediatrician if he catches a cold during his march, but at 36, he’s been pushed to the forefront all right.

Now all he has to do is find a suitable lamppost, and not injure himself, or cause injury to others. In Shyambazar, where it all began, Republic Day represents a peaceful holiday. That I have from the horse’s mouth.

India must stop restricting journalists in Kashmir

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Committee to Protect Journalists

New York, -National authorities in India must immediately address complaints from local journalists in Indian-controlled Kashmir who say they are being stopped from covering the government crackdown on protests that have killed 15 people.

In statements e-mailed to CPJ, the Kashmir Press Association, the Press Guild of Kashmir, the Kashmir Journalists Corps the Press Photographers, and the Video Journalists Association have complained that a government-imposed curfew has kept their staff from covering the situation.

In a message sent on Thursday, the Press Guild of Kashmir said the government has “virtually banned the local media but was extending all facilities to media persons coming from Delhi and other parts of India to cover the situation here.” The message said that even local journalists working for national and international media were having a hard time getting passes to allow them to move around during curfew hours, “while their counterparts who came from Delhi and other parts are roaming free to cover the events.”

The BBC reported that one of its BBC Urdu service journalists, Riaz Masroor, was stopped and beaten by police as he was going to collect his curfew pass on Friday. He suffered a fractured arm, the BBC said.

“It is illogical to restrict the movement of some journalists and not others,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “There is no justification for authorities to stop reporters from doing their job in Kashmir-whether they are locally based or are covering the story on assignment from another region.”

In a joint message today, the groups said the government’s claims that it had eased the restrictions were “eyewash” and that only some editors, but not field reporters, had been allowed to move during curfew hours. The groups said that many of the area’s more than 60 newspapers decided to suspend publication because of the small number of curfew passes issued to staff and continued attacks on media, a claim substantiated by the BBC and other reports.

Local and international media reports say thousands of police officers and troops from the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force have been deployed across the summer capital Srinagar city to enforce the curfew and restrict movement in and around the city. The Associated Press reported today that thousands of people defied a curfew across Indian-controlled Kashmir to pray in small mosques and in open fields, protesting India’s presence in the disputed area.

Journalists in Kashmir have long been abused. In January, one was shot and five others assaulted after a 22-hour battle between militants and local authorities in Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. CPJ has reported on many more incidents over the years.

Boy’s death: Srinagar on edge for day three

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Peerzada Ashiq

A motorbike round of Srinagar’s downtown area by the Hindustan Times brings to the forth a ghost town’s image. Spontaneous shutdown and severe imposition of “undeclared” curfew for the second consecutive day on Sunday kept protests, over killing of a school boy on Friday afternoon, by and large at bay.

Though a few skirmishes between small mask-wearing mobs and security forces were on in several areas. Dozens of angry stone-hurling protesters continue to be behind the bars in the two-day clampdown by the police, on even Sunday.

An HT reporter started motorbike ride of Srinagar’s downtown area from Hawal, the spot is half-a-kilometre away from sports stadium, Ghani Memorial Stadium, Rajouri Kadal, where the Class XII boy, Tufail Ahmad Matoo (17), was allegedly killed in police action against stone throwers on Friday afternoon demonstrations.

Soldiers wearing riot-gear and fingers on weapons’ trigger stay alert around the street corners facing alleys of small colonies, expecting stone-pelting youths.

Shouts are raised at a lone passerby to inquire his purpose of being on the road at Rajouri Kadal.

“Kahan jana hai, Kyun (where are you going? Why?),” shouted a soldier at an old Rajouri Kadal resident.

“To but milk and bread for our tea,” the resident replied meekly.

There is a common refrain among the residents at Nowhatta, Gojwara, Rajouri Kadal, Saraf Kadal, Safa Kadal, Naveed Kadal, Zaina Kadal, Habba Kadal, Khanyar, Rainawari, Nowshera and other areas.

“We are beaten up early in the morning when we try to venture out for milk and other essentials. This is to instill fear and to confine us to our homes only,” said Zahoor Ahmad, a Bohri Kadal resident.

Spread over 5 km square area, Srinagar’s downtown streets are manned by heavy deployment of soldiers in riot-gear and vehicles mounted with teargas guns.

Nowhatta, the centre of the downtown areas, is the hub of separatist supporters and also a bastion of All Parties Hurriyat Conference Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. Most lanes emerging from congested areas are blocked by concertina wires with razor-sharp edges. Every movement of civilian is chased away by baton waving soldiers accompanied by shouts.

“We have been able to calm situation in most of the areas today. We tried to relax Section 144 (not allowing assemblage of more than four persons simultaneously) and allow people to move,” SSP Srinagar Riyaz Bedar told the Hindustan Times.

The SSP’s office has being receiving calls from many people whose wedding was scheduled on Sunday, urging the police to allow movement of grooms and brides.

“This is marriage season. We are allowing marriage cavalcade to move,” said SSP Bedar. Due to unfolding situation in the backdrop of the youth’s killing, many marriage parties have been cancelled by residents.

The SSP said dozens of marriages are slated for Monday and Tuesday.

“We are reviewing the situation and a decision on whether to relax security or not will be taken tomorrow,” Bedar told the HT.

With Chautha (fourth remembrance day) of Matoo scheduled for Tuesday, Srinagar city, police sources said, will witness restriction on the coming days too.

Hardline All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) head Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani has given a Kashmir bandh call for Monday. He also has urged people to assemble at the youth’s house.

“The restrictions will continue and no one will be allowed to hold protest demonstrations,” said Mehraj Kakroo, Srinagar’s deputy commissioner.

At Khanyar, just 2 km away from slain youth’s colony at Saida Kadal, security forces ensure only three-wheelers carrying patients are allowed to move after thorough questioning.

Window panes of houses and cars stand smashed at Naidyar, Rainawari.

“Security forces chased a small group of protesters and banged windows. I am lodging an FIR. At slightest provocation, they (security forces) have damaged dozens of cars in the area,” said upset Hanief Ahmad, whose car was damaged in the CRPF action.

Despite severe restrictions, angry-youth engaged security forces at more than six places in downtown. Emerging from alleys, protesters pelted stones at an army convoy on a highway near Tengpora, Bemina. Four demonstrators, including one from far off Kargil area, were arrested by the police.

“One cannot stay off guard. Situation continues to be volatile. We are taking necessary action to control the situation,” said a Deputy Superintendent of Police posted at Bemina.

But uptown streets like Rajbagh, Wazir Bagh, Rambagh, Peerbagh and Barzulla, life was returning to normalcy and thin traffic was observed without restrictions.

Anger against police cover-up and disproportionate use of tear-gas shells and bullets, however, continue to simmer.

“We want justice. How can policemen who killed the boy go scot-free? They have to be hanged, otherwise will kill more innocent people,” said Amir Ahmad, relative of slain Matoo, while offering prayers at Shaheed Mazaar on the grave of Matoo.

Bangkok burns after Thai protest leaders arrested

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BANGKOK – Downtown Bangkok became a flaming battleground Wednesday as an army assault forced anti-government protest leaders to surrender, enraging followers who shot grenades and set fire to landmark buildings, cloaking the skyline in black smoke.

Smoke rises from burning fires in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, following the surrender of anti-government leaders, Wednesday May 19, 2010. Downtown Bangkok turned into a flaming battleground Wednesday as an army assault toppled the anti-government group’s leadership, enraging followers who fired grenades and set numerous fires that cloaked the skyline in black smoke.

Using live ammunition, troops dispersed thousands of Red Shirt protesters who had been camped in the capital’s premier shopping and residential district for weeks. Five protesters and an Italian news photographer were killed in the ensuing gunbattles and about 60 wounded.

After Red Shirt leaders gave themselves up to police, rioters set fires at the Stock Exchange, several banks, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, the Central World, one of Asia’s biggest shopping malls, and cinema that burned to ground. There were reports of looting.

Thai soldiers walk through an anti-government barricade during a military crackdown Wednesday, May 19, 2010, in Bangkok, Thailand. Seven leaders of Thailand’s Red Shirt protesters have surrendered to authorities after a deadly army assault on their fortified encampment.

Firefighters retreated after protesters shot guns at them, and thick smoke drifted across the sky of this city of 10 million people.

Smoke rises from burning fires in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, following the surrender of anti-government leaders to the police Wednesday, May 19, 2010. The Thai government is attempting to end the two month long standoff with Red Shirt protestors with a massive military crackdown.

Sporadic clashes between troops and protesters continued in the night at the site of former protest camp.

The chaos in Bangkok in the wake of the two-month protest will deepen the severe impact dealt to the economy and tourism industry of Thailand, a key U.S. ally and long considered one of the more stable countries in Southeast Asia. The Red Shirts had demanded the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government, the dissolution of Parliament and new elections.

Thai soldiers take up positions near Lumpini Park in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, May 19, 2010. Thai troops and armored vehicles converged early Wednesday around the barricaded encampment of anti-government protesters in downtown Bangkok and opened fire in what appears to be a final crackdown to disperse them.

A 10-hour curfew came into force in Bangkok and 18 other provinces at 8 p.m., and the government said army operations would continue through the night in the Thai capital.

It is the first time that Bangkok has been put under curfew since 1992, when the army killed dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators seeking the ouster of a military-backed government.

“Tonight is going to be another worrisome night,” government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.

The government also imposed a partial media blackout on local TV stations, saying all of them will have to air government-prepared bulletins.

A Thai looter carries his stolen items in a backpack as he walks in front of a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand on Wednesday May 19, 2010. Downtown Bangkok turned into a flaming battleground Wednesday as an army assault toppled the Red Shirt protest leadership, enraging followers who fired grenades and set numerous fires that cloaked the skyline in a black haze.

“They might be able to show their regular news programs. But we are concerned about their live broadcasts from the scenes,” Panitan said. “There will be more (government) programs … to be shown simultaneously by all stations,” he said.

Protesters had already turned their rage on the local media, which they have accused of pro-government coverage. They attacked the offices of state-run Channel 3, setting fire to cars outside and puncturing water pipes that flooded the building.

Thai army armored vehicles break down a makeshift barricade of anti government protesters at Lumpini Park in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, May 19, 2010. Thai troops opened fire Wednesday into the fortified encampment of anti-government protesters in downtown Bangkok, ramming armored vehicles into its tire-and-bamboo barricade in what appears to be a final crackdown after a week of deadly clashes.

“At Channel 3 need urgent help from police, soldiers!!!” tweeted news anchor Patcharasri Benjamasa. “News cars were smashed and they are about to invade the building.”

Hours later its building was on fire. Its executives were evacuated by helicopter and police rescued other staff. The English-language Bangkok Post newspaper evacuated its staff after threats from the Red Shirts. A large office building down the street from the Post was set afire.

Thailand’s stock exchange would be closed for the rest of the week after rioters set the building’s ground floor on fire, its president, Patareeya Benjapolchai, told The Associated Press.

The exchange, where about $600 million of shares change hands each day, may reopen on Monday, she said. The central bank, meanwhile, said all financial institutions in Bangkok including commercial banks would be shut Thursday and Friday.

Unrest also spread to the rural northeast of the country, where Red Shirts, who claim Abhisit’s government is elitist and oblivious to their plight, retain strong support.

Local media reported protesters set fire to government offices in the city of Udon Thani and vandalized a city hall in Khon Kaen. Udon Thani’s governor asked the military to intervene. TV images also showed troops retreating after being attacked by mobs in Ubon Ratchathani.

Thai soldiers aboard armored personnel carriers take aim at anti-government protestors in Lumpini Park in downtown Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, May 19, 2010. Downtown Bangkok turned into a flaming battleground Wednesday as an army assault toppled the anti-government group’s leadership, enraging followers who fired grenades and set numerous fires that cloaked the skyline in black smoke.

Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay described the chaos as anticipated “aftershocks.”

“There are violent-prone protesters who remain angry,” Satit told a news conference.

At least 74 people have been killed and nearly 1,800 injured since the Red Shirts descended on Bangkok in mid-March to press their demands. Of those, at least 45 people, most of them civilians, have died in clashes that started last Thursday after the army tried to blockade the protesters who had camped in the 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) Rajprasong district.

The final crackdown began soon after dawn Wednesday, as hundreds of troops armed with M-16s converged on Rajprasong, where high-end malls and hotels have been shuttered for weeks.

Armored vehicles crashed through barricades of piled tires and bamboo stakes, then soldiers gradually moved toward the protesters’ hub, opening fire and drawing return fire from militant Red Shirts, Associated Press journalists saw.

Bullets flew overhead and several grenades exploded near the soldiers, forcing them to pull back and take cover briefly before pushing forward. A Canadian freelance reporter was injured by grenade shrapnel. Two other journalists were wounded earlier, one Dutch man and an American documentary filmmaker. An Italian photographer was killed.

With no hope of resisting the military’s advance, seven top Red Shirt leaders turned themselves in on Wednesday afternoon, saying they cannot see their supporters – women and children among them – being killed anymore.

“Brothers and sisters, I’m sorry I cannot see you off the way I welcomed you all when you arrived here. But please be assured that our hearts will always be with you,” Nattawut Saikua, a key leader, said as he was being arrested.

“Please return home,” he said.

By mid-afternoon, the army announced it had gained control of the protest zone and the operations had ended – nine hours after troops launched the pre-dawn assault – although sporadic clashes with rioters continued into the night.