Iranian TV's Role in Kashmir's Deadly Protests

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Mukhtar Khan / AP

Kashmiri Muslims carry the coffin of Yasir Rafiq, a relative of senior separatist leader Yasin Malik, during his funeral in Srinagar, India.

Last week's deadly outburst in Kashmir, sparked by reports of a Koran being desecrated in the US, claimed two dozen lives as police fired on rampaging mobs. In the wake of this summer's widespread political unrest, alleged footage of Americans tearing pages out of a Koran on Sept. 11 prompted protesters, mainly Shiite Muslims, in the Indian-controlled territory to defy curfews, torch a Christian school and try to burn another. Government officials believe Iran's Press TV, which is popular among Kashmir's Shia, played a major role in instigating the violence.

"It is surprising that only this television channel [Press TV] based in Iran showed one unknown individual without verification or any authenticity desecrating the holy Koran," said the region's Chief Secretary S. S. Kapoor, who added that the broadcast "seems to be a deliberate act and conspiracy to instigate innocent sentiments of people."

He announced a ban on airing Press TV across the predominantly Muslim region, where anti-India sentiments run high and often find expression on the streets. Press TV, which claimed that the Muslim holy book had been torn up and burned in Washington as well as in other US cities, criticized the ban, saying the channel's popularity in Kashmir over the past three months has made Indian authorities nervous.

Press TV had also broadcast a message from Iranian leader Sayyid Ali Khamenei, who talked about the "insane, hateful, and disgusting insult to the holy Koran in the US," alleging the desecration took place under police protection and describing it as a calculated move by centers that have pursued the policy of Islamophobia and anti-Islamism for many years.

He cautioned Muslims, however, not retaliate by attacking what is held sacred in other religions. "Public discord among Muslims and Christians is exactly what the enemies and those who planned this insane theater desire," he said. "And what the Holy Koran has taught us is the opposite of what they did."

But his plea was ignored by his followers in Kashmir.

Shiite protesters went after symbols of Kashmir's tiny Christian minority, whose numbers total just 25,000 out of the Indian region's population of more than 11 million. People from Shiite-dominated villages in the Baramulla district walked long distances to target the hilly township of Tangmarg, where they committed arson and other acts of violence including torching C.M.S Tyndale Biscoe Memorial School, which was started by Christian missionaries in 1880.

Witnesses in Tangmarg said Ali Muhammad Sofi, a local leader of the ruling National Conference (NC), and his son spoke to the protesters in the town's main square and helped whip them into frenzy. Police shot and killed one protestor, sparking another surge of anger, in which several government buildings and vehicles and other public property were damaged or set ablaze. As police tried to quell the mob, six more protesters were killed. Bashir Manzar, a local editor, said in an interview that Tangmarg residents tried to resist the outsiders but were outnumbered.

Elsewhere in the region, 15 people were killed in clashes with security forces, including three who were shot dead in Mendhar, a town with a sizeable Shiite population.

The police authorities, however, chose to blame the violence on separatists, with some government officials claiming that vested interests including the separatists capitalized on the reported Koran desecration in order to stir up mayhem.

Some analysts, on the other hand, see in last week's happenings another expression of the Indian Kashmir population's protracted political discontent.

"The situation in Kashmir was already volatile," said Sheikh Showkat Hussain, a professor of human rights and international law at the Kashmir University, Srinagar. As the holy month of Ramadan was drawing to a close, he added, "failure of the government to take any measures on the eve of Eid al-Fitr to address the situation has catalyzed the cycle of violence."

Meanwhile, separatist leaders in Kashmir worried that the attacks on Christian schools would help the Indian government — which has on several occasions floated the idea that radical Islamist groups are behind the stone-throwing protests — justify the use of extreme force by the police. In June, after a 17-year-old student was fatally struck by a tear gas shell, more than 70 enraged civilians were killed by police firings.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the region's chief Muslim cleric and chairman of a faction of separatist Hurriyat (Arabic and Urdu for "freedom") Conference alliance, doesn't want the recent Koran-related incidents to overshadow Kashmir's struggle for independence from India. He went on TV and urged people to "maintain calm and not to resort to violence over the alleged desecration of Koran in the US as that would only harm our otherwise just cause."