Indian police detain more than 100 Kashmiri activists and pro-independence leaders in raids amid tensions with Pakistan, and ahead of court ruling over Kashmir’s special status with India that could stoke further violence in disputed region.
More than 100 pro-independence activists and leaders in India-administered Kashmir were detained in overnight raids, police officials said on Saturday, even as New Delhi pushed over 10,000 more soldiers in the disputed region following a suicide attack which killed nearly four dozen Indian paramilitary soldiers.
The development comes as residents heard passing helicopters and fighter jets overnight near the de facto border called Line of Control [or LoC], a sign of escalating tensions between India and Pakistan days after a suicide car bombing killed at least 44 Indian soldiers and wounded two dozen others on February 14.
Build up for voting?
Police, however, said the detentions is part of a crackdown on groups that might cause trouble ahead of Indian elections set to be held by May.
“The arrival of more troops and the arrests of leaders and activists of separatist groups is part of an election exercise undertaken to ensure free and fair elections,” said one senior police official in the state.
Businesses across Kashmir were shut on Saturday, some in protest at the arrests and with others fearing conflict between India and Pakistan.
Many in Kashmir are wary of a military strike over the suicide bomb and residents in several areas reported unusual military air activity on Friday night.
Authorities did not comment on the reported fighter aircraft and helicopters flying over the territory.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is set to seek re-election.
“Anti-election campaigns will not be allowed and separatists will be detained to ensure free, fair and transparent elections in the state,” the police official said.
Last week’s attack has also raised tensions between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan, that both claim Kashmir in full but rule it in part. India blames Pakistan for harbouring rebel groups operating in Kashmir.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied the allegation.
‘This isn’t a one-week battle’
Following the attack, India retaliated by removing any trade privileges offered to Pakistan, and it is now preparing to send as many as 100 companies [or 10,000] more troops to the bitterly contested area, according to a letter from the country’s home ministry seen by TRT World.
India has stationed over 500,000 troops in the region since 1989 when the popular armed revolt broke against New Delhi’s rule.
“India will exercise all instruments at its command, whether it is diplomatic or otherwise,” India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said in New Delhi late on Friday.
“This isn’t a one-week battle. It’s to be undertaken in various forms.”
Pakistan warns India
Islamabad in return has warned it would respond with “full force” if attacked.
The overnight arrests in the region included those of many senior members of Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), a socio-religious organisation that wants Kashmir to be independent from India.
JeI’s leader, Dr Abdul Hamid Fayaz and Yasin Malik, the head of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) that wants independence from both India and Pakistan, were among those detained.
A spokesman for India’s home ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the arrests or troop deployments.
Next week India’s Supreme Court is also expected to hear a petition attempting to remove an article in the country’s constitution that prevents Indians from buying land and properties in India-administered Kashmir.
Hindu nationalists and BJP supporters have campaigned against Article 35A.
If passed it could further escalate tensions in the region.
Article 35A is key to Article 370, which is the original provision that establishes the ties between Kashmir and India.
Kashmiris say the removal of 35A will trigger a demographic change as BJP will try to allow settlers in what they call the “Israeli model” who’ll favour Indian rule in the region.
A spokesman for JeI said the arrests of its members were a “well-designed ploy,” ahead of any such ruling.
Since independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan and India – both nuclear-armed nations – have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which is divided between the two but claimed by each in its entirety.
Most Kashmiris support rebel demands that their territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.
Trump talks of ‘very dangerous situation’
Earlier on Friday, US President Donald Trump voiced alarm at the “very dangerous situation” between India and Pakistan, warning that New Delhi was considering “very strong” action after an attack in Kashmir.
“It’s very dangerous situation between the two countries. We would like to see it stop,” Trump said, adding that the United States was seeking talks with Pakistan.