‘We won’t give an inch’: India faces defiance in ‘Kashmir’s Gaza’

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Shafaqna Pakistan: Young men sit beside a pile of rocks and a bonfire, protecting the only entrance to a besieged neighbourhood they call “Kashmir’s Gaza” as a mosque loudspeaker broadcasts slogans of liberation.

In an act of defiance against New Delhi’s controversial decision to strip the Muslim-majority region of its nominal autonomy, Kashmir’s “Gaza” neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar has sealed itself off from security forces.

Since India scrapped Article 370, Soura’s residents have erected ramshackle barricades of tin sheets, wooden logs, oil tanks and concrete pillars, and dug trenches to keep soldiers at bay amid daily protests against India.

“They can only enter Soura over our bodies. We won’t give even an inch of land to India,” Mufeed, a resident who volunteers to guard the neighbourhood at night, said.

“Just like Gaza is resisting Israel, we will fight for our motherland with all our might,” Mufeed added.

Three-decade conflict

Kashmir has waged a three-decade-long armed rebellion against Indian rule with tens of thousands of lives, mostly civilians, lost in the conflict. India and Pakistan both rule a portion of Kashmir but claim it in full.

Ahead of the announcement, India rushed tens of thousands of extra troops to the restive region to join over 500,000 already in the valley, and imposed a strict clampdown fearing further unrest.

But protests have broken out, with the lower-middle-class Soura locals leading the way. At least 15,000 people rallied on August 9 –– the biggest demonstration in Indian-administered Kashmir so far.

Indian officials and media initially challenged such a protest ever took place that was reported by foreign media.

The demonstrators were met by troops firing live ammunition, tear gas and pellet guns to disperse the crowds, with more than two dozen people reportedly wounded.

Go India, go back’

Soura, a crammed lakeside community of more than 2,000 homes, is surrounded by troops on three sides.

The renowned mosque Jenab Saeb has become an assembly point for thousands of protesters in the neighbourhood.

Every night, residents march through its narrow lanes, carrying torches and passing graffiti with the words “Freedom for Kashmir” and “Go India, go back”.

Locals pass along messages if they spot any police movement on the main highway just beyond Soura.

Police forces, who have deployed drones and helicopters, tried to enter Soura at least three times but were pushed back by stone-throwing youth, some also armed with axes and harpoons.

Familiar with police’s crowd-dispersing tactics, protesters use saltwater to wash their faces after chilli and tear gas are fired, and wear helmets and glasses to protect themselves against pellets.

Three youths have so far been arrested after venturing out from the area.

“They (India) are testing our resilience and they will definitely fail,” local Nahida said.

“We defeated them last time and even if this situation continues for years, we won’t give in.”

Despite the Soura protests, authorities stress that Kashmir has remained largely peaceful since the lockdown.

Soura has long been part of restive Kashmir’s history since the region was divided between India and Pakistan after independence from the British in 1947.

It was the birthplace of Kashmir’s former prime minister Sheikh Abdullah, who agreed to join India as a state with limited autonomy rights.

His National Conference party –– which has fought for more autonomy while being under Indian rule –– ran the state for more than three decades, with his son Farooq Abdullah and grandson Omar Abdullah becoming chief ministers.

Farooq and Omar were detained by New Delhi as part of the lockdown.