Police opened fire on protesters in Indian Kashmir on Monday, wounding at least four, witnesses said, after a week of escalating demonstrations over the deaths in late May of a teenage girl and young woman.
Many locals accuse Indian troops or paramilitary forces of raping and killing the two, part of what they say is a broader pattern of sexual violence used to intimidate and humiliate the civilian population.
Military leaders call such accusations slander.
The protests followed the release of a police forensic report Sunday that indicated the girl and woman had been raped. But it stopped short of giving a cause of death.
The last week has seen a general strike, the suspension of rail service, the detention of a prominent political leader and at least 400 demonstrators injured and one killed.
The protest Monday was the largest so far, with up to 15,000 people trying to reach Shopian -- 37 miles south of Srinagar -- where the bodies were found, despite a police lockdown.
As demonstrators neared the town, said Wasim Khalid, a reporter with the Rising Kashmir newspaper, police opened fire when the crowd refused an order to stop. At least four people were wounded, one or two of them critically, he said. Other media reports said at least seven were injured.
“People are very frustrated, and they’re expressing it,” said Sheik Shaukat Hussain, a law professor and human rights expert at Kashmir University.
Hussain said he was at a hospital near Shopian visiting relatives when four of the young men who had been hit by gunfire were brought in.
“All had bullet injuries on their legs and on other parts of their bodies,” he said.
D.K. Pathak, Srinagar-based inspector general of the Central Reserve Police Force, a paramilitary unit, said any curfew or lockdown measures by security forces were necessary because of people disobeying the law.
Pathak declined to comment on the accusations that members of the military were involved in the deaths or rapes of the woman and girl, citing the ongoing investigation.
Residents in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir have often been antagonized by heavy-handed security measures during the government’s decades-long fight against separatists and insurgents infiltrating from the Pakistani side of the disputed region.
India and Pakistan have waged two wars over Kashmir since they split in 1947. Anti-India sentiment runs strong in much of Muslim-majority Kashmir, which is claimed in its entirety by both countries.
The current protests were sparked by the May 30 discovery of the Muslim victims’ bodies in a stream bed. The 17-year-old and her 22-year-old sister-in-law had gone for an evening walk to a nearby orchard and never returned.
Kashmir’s top elected official, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, said in a news conference June 1 that an autopsy and initial investigation found no evidence of rape or murder. “Initial investigations also did not establish involvement of troops,” he said.
This was followed shortly by another government statement that the two probably drowned.
“The stream was knee-high,” said Khalid, the reporter. “Initially people weren’t so angry, but from there the protests grew.”
Local doctors then examined the bodies and found multiple bruises inconsistent with drowning, Khalid said, as well as biological evidence of rape.
Under growing political pressure, police issued their own forensic report Sunday, which said that the woman and girl had been raped. No one has been charged and the cause of death remains under investigation, a police statement said.
Human rights groups have long accused the Indian army of using rape and molestation as an intimidation tactic in its fight to contain separatism and unrest in Kashmir. In a 2006 report, Human Rights Watch said rights violations by all sides in the conflict continued to alienate the population.
“Indian security forces have raped women in Kashmir during search operations, particularly in remote areas outside of major cities and towns,” it said.
Shopian residents are particularly sensitive to such allegations because of an alleged mass rape in a Kashmiri village in 1991 in which male residents were driven out of about 45 houses by security personnel and the female residents then raped, professor Hussain said.
The state government has promised to launch a judicial investigation into the deaths of the teen and young woman, but the protests have continued. Rights groups say such investigations are often intended only to calm public anger.
“This has been going on for the past 20 years,” Hussain said. “Most of the time there’s an inquiry, but once sentiment dies down, they exonerate the accused. If you see the record of the Indian armed forces, it’s not exactly exemplary.”