Thousands of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters massed on a bridge to the disputed Kashmir region on Tuesday as officials sought to stop a flag-raising ceremony that could spark violence.
Workers of India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hold national flags and shout slogans during a protest on a bridge at Madhopur, in the northern Indian state of Punjab
Police faced off with flag-waving BJP workers as authorities sealed routes into Kashmir to thwart the planned raising of the national flag in the state that has been racked by unrest by Muslim separatists opposed to Indian rule.
Police forced about 7,000 marchers on to buses and drove them away, police sources said, while the remaining 2,500 protesters attempting to cross the border from the Jammu region into Kashmir faced arrest or detention.
Officials in Kashmir fear that the symbolic show of Indian cental control over the disputed region could reignite separatist protests in which more than 100 people were killed last year.
The BJP has gained political ground through recent pressure on the ruling coalition struggling with graft and it hopes to show the government’s weakness on Kashmir, a potent symbol of India’s territorial integrity, with state elections looming.
But the main oppostion party risks a backlash. The government has criticised it for “divisive politics” and its nationalistic rhetoric may alienate secular Indians and other political parties.
“There is no justification whatsoever to push a political agenda that will certainly affect peace and law and order in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” Home Minister P. Chidamabaram said in a statement.
“It would be most unfortunate if the BJP leaders defy the restrictions placed by the state government or deliberately cause a breach of the peace.”
The state government, backed by the ruling Congress party, sealed all road links into the state, media reported, a day after BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley were detained at the airport in the main Kashmiri city of Srinagar and sent back out.
Senior BJP officials have said raising the national flag in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, to celebrate India’s Republic Day on Wednesday, was a patriotic right, and have vowed to push on with their march to the city.
“We have started march towards J&K … We are marching in a group of 500 people holding tricolour (flag)… Huge police presence on the other side of the bridge,” Swaraj, the BJP leader in the lower house of parliament, posted on Twitter.
Republic Day has traditionally been a lightning rod for anti-Indian protests in the Himalayan region which is at the heart of hostilities between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, who both claim it.
“The (BJP’s) aggressive and adamant stand … betrays a dangerous inability to understand the subtlety and calibration needed in a place like Jammu and Kashmir,” the Indian Express newspaper said in an editorial.
“Aggressive postures aimed at little more than self-serving polarisation will do no good to any cause, least of all one proclaimed in the name of this country’s unity.”
Militants backed by Pakistan have been battling Indian security forces in Muslim-majority Kashmir since 1989. Tens of thosuands of people have been killed in the violence.