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Archive for the ‘Indian Peninsula’ Category

India hangs 4 men convicted for fatal New Delhi gang rape

March 20, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) — Four men sentenced to death for the gruesome gang rape and murder of a woman on a New Delhi bus in 2012 were hanged Friday, concluding a case that exposed the scope of sexual violence in India and prompted horrified Indians to demand swift justice.

The four stood trial relatively quickly in India’s slow-moving justice system, their convictions and sentences handed down less than a year after the crime. India’s top court upheld the verdicts in 2017, finding the men’s crimes had created a “tsunami of shock” among Indians.

“The four convicts were hanged together at 5.30 a.m.,” said Sandeep Goel, head of the Tihar Jail in New Delhi. The victim, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, was heading home with a male friend from a movie theater when six men tricked into getting on a private bus. With no one else in sight, they beat her friend and repeatedly raped the woman. They penetrated her with a metal rod, causing fatal internal injuries. They dumped both victims on the roadside, and the woman died two weeks later.

Asha Devi, the mother of the victim, thanked the judiciary and government after the convicts were hanged. “Today, we got justice and this day is dedicated to the daughters of the country,” she told reporters. “I could not protect her but I was able to fight for her.”

Devi said she hoped that courts in India will end delays in rape cases and punish convicts within a year’s time. The case drew international attention at the time and prompted Indian lawmakers to stiffen penalties for rape, part of a wave of changes as India confronted its appalling treatment of women.

Facing public protests and political pressure after the attack, the government reformed some of India’s antiquated laws on sexual violence and created fast-track courts for handling rape trials that formerly could last more than a decade.

The new laws prescribed harsher punishments for rapists and addressed new crimes, including acid throwing and stalking. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Friday that justice had prevailed and it was of utmost importance to ensure the dignity and safety of women.

“Together, we have to build a nation where the focus is on women empowerment, where there is emphasis on equality and opportunity,” he said on his Twitter account. Hundreds of police were deployed outside the jail to control a crowd that waited to celebrate the executions. Dozens of people held placards hailing the hangings. The crowd chanted slogans like “Justice for women” and cheered by clapping and blowing whistles.

Another suspect had hanged himself in prison before his trial began, though his family insists he was killed. The sixth assailant was a minor at the time of the attack and served three years in juvenile detention.

Amnesty International India condemned Friday’s executions, saying they “mark a disheartening development.” It called again for India to abolish the death penalty. “There is no evidence that the punishment acted as a particular deterrent to the crime and will eradicate violence against women,” the group said in a statement.

The executions were carried out as two recent attacks renew attention to the problem of sexual violence in India. Activists say new sentencing requirements haven’t deterred rape, with Indian government data showing police registered almost 34,000 cases in 2018.

The real figure is believed to be far higher since stigma surrounding sexual violence keeps victims from reporting their attacks to police.

Prayers at fire-bombed mosques as India’s riot toll grows

February 28, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) — Muslims in a northeastern neighborhood of India’s capital returned for weekly prayers at fire-bombed mosques on Friday, two days after a 72-hour clash between Hindus and Muslims that left at least 40 dead and hundreds injured.

Five days after they started, it was still unclear exactly what sparked the riots — the worst communal violence in New Delhi in decades — and the death toll at hospitals was continuing to rise. “If they burn our mosques, we will rebuild them again and pray. It’s our religious right and nobody can stop us from practicing our religion,” said Mohammad Sulaiman, who was among about 180 men who prayed on the rooftop of a mosque that was set on fire in the unrest.

Tensions between Hindu hard-liners and Muslims protesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi government’s Hindu-first policies had been building for months when the violence exploded Sunday night, on the eve of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first state visit to India.

Kapil Mishra, a local leader of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party who lost his Delhi state assembly seat in recent elections, demanded at a rally Sunday that police shut down a Muslim-led protest in the city or else he and his followers would do it themselves.

And it appears they did. Hindus and Muslims attacked each other with guns and swords, metal rods and axes, leaving the streets where the rioting occurred resembling a war zone. There was a heavy police presence in the neighborhood on Friday. On one riot-torn street, Hindus shouted “Jai Shri Ram,” or Long Live Ram, the Hindu god, as Muslims attempted to reach a mosque damaged in the riots.

Several Muslim residents told The Associated Press that most Muslim families had locked up their homes and fled the area. The passage of a citizenship law in December that fast-tracks naturalization for some religious minorities from neighboring countries but not Muslims earlier spurred massive protests across India that left 23 dead.

The protest violence is the latest in a long line of periodic communal clashes that date to the British partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, when the country was split into secular, Hindu-majority India and the Islamic state of Pakistan.

The protection of India’s religious, cultural and linguistic diversity is enshrined in its constitution. But communal tensions have occasionally flared into deadly riots, beginning with partition itself, when Hindus living in what is now Pakistan migrated to India, and Muslims in modern India to Pakistan.

Clashes claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and people of other religions. This week’s death toll marked the worst religiously motivated violence in New Delhi since 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards, triggering a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 Sikhs in the capital and more than 8,000 nationwide.

In 1992, tens of thousands of Hindu extremists razed a 16th-century mosque in northern India, claiming that it stood on Ram’s birthplace. Nearly 2,000 people were killed across the country in the riots that followed.

The religious polarization that followed saw Modi’s right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party emerge as the single largest party in India’s Parliament. In 2002, the western Indian state of Gujarat erupted in violence when a train filled with Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob. A fire erupted — it remains unclear whether it was arson — and 60 Hindus burned to death. In retaliation, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the state.

Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time. He was accused of tacit support for the rampage against Muslims, but a court ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing. Violent large-scale clashes between Hindus and Muslims last took place in New Delhi in 2014, months after Modi’s party came to power, in a largely poor neighborhood close to where this week’s rioting occurred. That violence left three dozen people injured.

Ashutosh Varshney, a professor at Brown University who wrote a book about Indian riots, said the worst has been averted — at least for now. “If it had reached the scale of Delhi 1984 or Gujarat 2002, it would have doomed Indian politics for many years to come and brought India closer to the kind of Hindu-Muslim polarization that the current ruling party would ideally want, but is finding it hard to manufacture,” Varshney said.

BJP leaders, who have sought to demonize Muslim protesters as a threat to India, may see some gain from the violence, Varshney said. But it comes at a cost, the international perception that India under Modi has become ungovernable, he said.

Government spokesman Raveesh Kumar denied the Modi government had inflamed religious tensions in India and failed to protect minority Muslims. “These are factually inaccurate and misleading, and appear to be aimed at politicizing the issue,” he said. “Our law enforcement agencies are working on the ground to prevent violence and ensure restoration of confidence and normalcy.”

He added that Modi had “publicly appealed for peace and brotherhood.” “We would urge that irresponsible comments are not made at this sensitive time,” he said.

Death toll rises to 24 from Delhi riots during Trump trip

February 26, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) — At least 24 people were killed and 189 injured in three days of clashes in New Delhi that coincided with U.S. President Donald Trump’s first state visit to India, with the death toll expected to rise as hospitals continue to take in the wounded, authorities said Wednesday.

Shops, Muslim shrines and public vehicles were left smoldering from violence between Hindu mobs and Muslims protesting a new citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for foreign-born religious minorities of all major faiths in South Asia except Islam.

Twenty-four deaths were reported at two hospitals in New Delhi, officials said. The clashes were the worst communal riots in the Indian capital in decades. The law’s passage in December earlier spurred massive protests across India that left 23 dead, many of them killed by police.

The dead in this week’s violence included a policeman and an intelligence bureau officer, and the government has banned public assembly in the affected areas. Police spokesman M.S. Randhawa said 106 people were arrested for alleged involvement in the rioting.

Officials reported no new violence Wednesday as large police reinforcements patrolled the areas, where an uneasy calm prevailed. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval toured the northeastern neighborhoods of Delhi where the rioting occurred, seeking to assure fear-stricken residents including a female student who complained that police had not protected them from mobs who vandalized the area and set shops and vehicles on fire.

While clashes wracked parts of the capital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted a lavish reception for Trump, including a rally in his home state of Gujarat attended by more than 100,000 people and the signing of an agreement to purchase more than $3 billion of American military hardware.

On Wednesday, Modi broke his silence on the violence, tweeting that “peace and harmony are central to (India’s) ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times.”

New Delhi’s top elected official, Chief Minister Arvind Kerjiwal, called for Modi’s home minister, Amit Shah, to send the army to ensure peace. Police characterized the situation as tense but under control. Schools remained closed.

Sonia Gandhi, a leader of the Congress party, India’s main opposition group, called for Shah to resign. She accused Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of creating an environment of hatred and its leaders of inciting violence with provocative speeches that sought to paint Muslim protesters against the citizenship law as anti-nationalists funded by Pakistan.

New Delhi’s High Court ordered the police to review videos of hate speeches allegedly made by three leaders of Modi’s party and decide whether to prosecute them, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

The clashes escalated Tuesday, according to Rouf Khan, a resident of Mustafabad, an area in the capital’s northeast. Khan said mobs with iron rods, bricks and bamboo sticks attacked the homes of Muslims while chanting “Jai Shri Ram,” or “Victory to Lord Ram,” the popular Hindu god of the religious epic “Ramayana.”

As Air Force One flew Trump and his delegation out of New Delhi late Tuesday, Muslim families huddled in a mosque in the city’s northeast, praying that Hindu mobs wouldn’t burn it down. “After forcing their way inside the homes, they went on a rampage and started beating people and breaking household items,” Khan said of the mobs, adding that he and his family had to run and take shelter inside a mosque that he said was guarded by thousands of Muslim men.

“I don’t know if our house was burned or not, but when we were running away we heard them asking people to pour kerosene and burn everything down,” Khan said. Some of the dead had bullet wounds, according to Dr. Sunil Kumar, medical director of the Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital.

Others came to the hospital with gunshot and stab wounds and head injuries. Among them was Mohammad Sameer, 17, who was being treated for a gunshot wound to his chest Wednesday at Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital.

Speaking to The Associated Press after having an operation, Sameer said he was standing on his family’s apartment terrace watching Hindu mobs enter Mustafabad when he was shot in the chest. “When Sameer was shot, I took him on my shoulders and ran downstairs,” said the boy’s father, Mohammad Akram. “But when the mob saw us, they beat me and my injured son. He was bleeding very badly. While they were beating with sticks, they kept on chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans and threatened to barge inside our homes.”

Akram said he managed to get his son into a vehicle, but they were stopped several times by Hindus demanding they pull their pants down to show whether they were circumcised before they managed to escape from the area and reach the emergency room. Muslims are generally circumcised, while Hindus are not.

In Kardampura, a Muslim-majority area where a youth was shot and killed on Monday, hundreds of police personnel in riot gear patrolled the area and asked people to stay indoors, while residents said they were living in fear.

“We are scared and don’t know where to go,” said one resident, Dr. Jeevan Ali Khan. “If the government wanted, they could have stopped these riots.” Close by, black smoke still rose on Wednesday afternoon from a market that sold tires and second-hand car parts in Gokalpuri as fireman tried to douse the smoldering fire.

The violence drew sharp reactions from U.S. lawmakers, with Rep. Rashida Talib, a Democrat from Michigan, tweeting, “This week, Trump visited India but the real story should be the communal violence targeting Muslims in Delhi right now.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned the killing of Muslims, saying: “Now 200 million Muslims in India are being targeted. The world community must act now.” Trump told reporters Tuesday that he had heard about the violence but had not discussed it with Modi. Instead, Trump gloated about his reception in India.

India has been rocked by violence since Parliament approved the citizenship law in December. Opponents have said the country is moving toward a religious citizenship test, but Trump declined to comment on it.

“I don’t want to discuss that. I want to leave that to India and hopefully they’re going to make the right decision for the people,” he said. It was the worst religiously motivated violence in New Delhi since 1984, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards, triggering a wave of riots that resulted in the deaths of more than 3,000 Sikhs in the capital and more than 8,000 nationwide.

In 1992, tens of thousands of Hindu extremists razed a 16th-century mosque in northern India, claiming that it stood on the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. Nearly 2,000 people were killed across the country in the riots that followed.

The religious polarization that followed saw the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party emerge as the single largest party in India’s Parliament. The Congress party and regional parties courted Muslim votes by portraying themselves as defenders of minority rights.

In 2002, the western Indian state of Gujarat erupted in violence when a train filled with Hindu pilgrims was attacked by a Muslim mob in a small town. A fire erupted — it remains unclear whether it was arson — and 60 Hindus burned to death. In retaliation, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the state.

Modi was Gujarat’s chief minister at the time. He was accused of tacit support for the rampage against Muslims, but a court ultimately cleared him of wrongdoing. Still, for several years the U.S. included him on a travel ban. Hosting Trump in Gujarat was important symbolically for Modi.

Violent large-scale clashes between Hindus and Muslims last took place in New Delhi in 2014, months after Modi’s party came to power, in a largely poor neighborhood close to where this week’s rioting occurred.

A Muslim-owned shop was set on fire, Hindus pelted a mosque with stones, and dozens of angry Muslim men attacked Hindu homes. About three dozen people were injured.

Associated Press journalists Ashok Sharma and Shonal Ganguly in New Delhi, and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.

India pours on the pageantry with colorful welcome for Trump

February 24, 2020

AHMEDABAD, INDIA (AP) — India poured on the pageantry with a joyful, colorful welcome for President Donald Trump on Monday that kicked off a whirlwind 36-hour visit meant to reaffirm U.S.-India ties while providing enviable overseas imagery for a president in a re-election year.

More than 100,000 people packed into the world’s largest cricket stadium, giving Trump the biggest rally crowd of his political career, for the pinnacle of the day’s trio of presidential photo-ops. Trump visited a former home of independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and he also planned to tour the famed Taj Mahal.

Nearly everyone in the newly constructed stadium in Ahmedabad in western India sported a white cap with the name of the event, “Namaste, Trump” or “Welcome, Trump,” and roared for the introductions of both Trump and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Trump opened his speech by declaring that he traveled 8,000 miles to deliver the message that “America loves India, America respects India and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”

The boisterous scene featured soldiers on camels, a mix of songs from Bollywood hits and Trump’s campaign rally playlist, including an Elton John hit that seemed to puzzle most of the crowd. Trump basked in the raucous reception that has eluded him on many foreign trips, some of which have featured massive protests and icy handshakes from world leaders. In India, he instead received a warm embrace — literally — from the ideologically aligned and hugger Modi.

The sun-baked city of Ahmedabad bustled as Trump arrived, as the streets teemed with people eager to catch a glimpse of the American president. Newly cleaned roads and planted flowers dotted the roads amid hundreds of billboards featuring the president and first lady Melania Trump. Thousands lined his motorcade route, shy of the up to 10 million that Trump speculated would be on hand.

His first stop was Gandhi’s home, where Trump donned a prayer shawl and took off his shoes to create the incongruous image of a grandiose president quietly walking through the humble ashram. He inspected the spinning wheel used by the famed pacifist and looked at a statue of monkeys representing Gandhi’s mantra of “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil” before departing for a far more boisterous setting: the mega-rally at the world’s largest cricket stadium.

Trump’s motorcade traveled amid cheers from a battery of carefully picked and vetted Modi loyalists and workers from his Bharatiya Janata Party who will stand for hours alongside the neatly manicured 22-kilometer (14-mile) stretch of road to accord the president a grand welcome on his way to the newly constructed stadium. Tens of thousands of police officers were on hand to keep security tight and a new wall has come up in front of a slum, apparently to hide it from presidential passers-by.

On the way to the stadium, Trump’s motorcade crossed over a river where a barge was emblazoned with “TRUMP” and onlookers chanted “Modi!” The stadium was packed with revelers, many of whom sported Trump and Modi masks, as they sat in 80-degree temperatures. The “Namaste Trump” rally was, in a way, the back half of home-and-home events for Modi and Trump, who attended a “Howdy Modi” rally in Houston last year that drew 50,000 people.

Trump lavished praise on both Modi and the democracy he leads, touting an effort to lift residents out of extreme poverty, saying “India gives hope to all of humanity.” “Your nation is doing so well, we are very very proud of India,” he said. “The story of the Indian nation is a tale of astounding progress.”

Trump’s foreign visits have typically been light on sightseeing, but this time, the president and first lady are to visit the Taj Mahal. Stories in local media warn of the monkeys that inhabit the landmark pestering tourists for food and, on occasion, menacing both visitors and slingshot-carrying security guards.

Images of American presidents being feted on the world stage stand in contrast to those of their rivals in the opposing party slogging through diners in early-voting states and clashing in debate. This trip, in particular, reflects a Trump campaign strategy to showcase him in his presidential role during short, carefully managed trips that provide counter-programming to the Democrats’ primary contest and produce the kinds of visuals his campaign can use in future ads. His aides also believe the visit could help the president woo tens of thousands of Indian-American voters before the November election.

The visit also comes at a crucial moment for Modi, a fellow populist, who has provided over a steep economic downturn and unfulfilled campaign promises about job creation. When Trump touches down in Delhi later on Monday, he will find a bustling, noisy, colorful capital that also is dotted with half-finished construction projects stalled due to disappearing funding.

The president on Tuesday will conclude his whirlwind visit to India with a day in the capital, complete with a gala dinner meetings with Modi over stalled trade talks between the two nations. The two nations are closely allied, in part to act as a bulwark against the rising influence of nearby China, but trade tensions between the two countries have escalated since the Trump administration imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium from India. India responded with higher penalties on agricultural goods and restrictions on U.S. medical devices. The U.S. retaliated by removing India from a decades-old preferential trade program.

Perhaps alluding to tough negotiations over trade, Trump lightheartedly told the rally crowd: “Everybody loves him, but I will tell you this. He’s very tough.” Eyes will also be on whether Trump weighs on in the protests enveloping India over its Citizenship Amendment Act. It provides a fast track to naturalization for some migrants who entered the country illegally while fleeing religious persecution, but excludes Muslims, raising fears that the country is moving toward a religious citizenship test. Passage has prompted large-scale protests and a violent crackdown.

Typically, Trump has not publicly rebuked world leaders for human rights abuses during his overseas trips. But one senior administration official said the U.S. is concerned about the situation and that Trump will tell Modi the world is looking to India to continue to uphold its democratic traditions and respect religious minorities.

Sheikh Saaliq contributed reporting. Lemire reported from Delhi.

Poll pitch for India’s capital plays up growing divisions

February 07, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) — Campaigning for a crucial state election in India’s capital has reached a fever pitch as members of the Hindu nationalist-led government call for violence against minority Muslims and invoke the specter of arch-nemesis Pakistan to reverse course after a pair of losses in recent state polls.

Critics call the incendiary religious appeals a tactic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to win at the polls and divert attention from the sluggish economy, which expanded at a 4.5% annual pace in the last quarter, its slowest rate since mid-2018.

The election Saturday has also been seen as a referendum on the ruling party’s response to nearly two months of protests across India against a new citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for some migrants of neighboring countries living in the country illegally of all South Asia’s major religions except Islam.

Modi’s party had anticipated a windfall in state elections after a landslide victory in national polls last year. A move last summer to revoke disputed Kashmir’s semi-autonomy and put the Muslim-majority region under lockdown, and the passage of the new citizenship law, have won him praise from supporters but little reward at the polls. BJP lost two important state elections last year.

The election in New Delhi, where 14.6 million voters are likely to cast ballots on Saturday, pits Modi’s party against the incumbent Aam Aadmi Party, or “common man” party, whose pro-poor policies have focused on fixing state-run schools, provided free healthcare and waived bus fare for women during the five years it has been in power.

A win would likely embolden Modi and his party, while a loss could further dent his image as an unstoppable political force. During the campaigning that ended Thursday, Modi and other senior party leaders have focused their ire on a 45-day long sit-in led by Muslim women who have been blocking a highway for weeks through New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, a working-class neighborhood, to protest the citizenship law.

Modi has referred to the protesters as part of a “political design” and a “conspiracy.” “This dog-whistle is basically a signal to his faithful to view the ongoing protests in Delhi through the lens of a well-cultivated prejudice against Muslims,” said Shuddhabrata Sengupta, an artist and curator and longtime Modi critic.

Other BJP leaders, however, have been more blatant. A member of Parliament from Modi’s party cautioned at a public rally that the sit-in demonstrators would “enter people’s homes, rape women and then kill them off.” Another minister characterized the protesters as “traitors” and led a crowd in chanting the slogan “shoot them.”

Last week, a gunman fired shots at the protest site. As the police took him away, a video of the incident showed him saying: “In our country, only Hindus will prevail.” The man was immediately arrested and was in police custody.

For the Delhi election campaign, Modi tapped the top elected official of India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who is known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric. Adityanath recently told a crowd assembled in Uttam Nagar, a densely-populated neighborhood in the capital, that Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal, New Delhi’s top elected leader, was dividing the country.

“Whenever Kejriwal is happy, Pakistan is happy too,” he said. The BJP has over the years amplified its Hindu nationalist agenda fuelled by Modi’s extraordinary popularity. By contrast, Kejriwal and the AAP have emphasized good governance, and a push to improve education and healthcare since its inception in 2013. In 2015, it went on to win a historic mandate in Delhi and beat the incumbent Congress party by bagging 67 out of 70 seats.

The Congress, a third party in contention for Saturday”s polls, has run a lackluster campaign and is expected to fare poorly. But Congress, AAP and other opposition parties have banded together to denounce the BJP’s “communal polarization.”

Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga, a BJP candidate and party spokesman, told The Associated Press that “nationalism is one of our main agenda and we will speak against those who plan to break India.” Campaigning in the acrimonious election has also garnered admonishment by India’s election commission, which oversees the polls.

It banned two star campaigners from Modi’s party for 72 hours for hate speech. Sanjay Kumar, a political scientist at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said many of the remarks made by politicians in the run-up to the polls qualified as such. And many Delhi voters blame the commission for failing to curb the rhetoric.

“The election commission should be more willing to recognize the threat posed by statements that are communal-driven,” said one voter, Shadab Abdullah.

India’s crackdown hits religious freedom in disputed Kashmir

December 10, 2019

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — For years Romi Jan’s mornings would begin with the plaintive call to prayer that rang out from the central mosque in disputed Kashmir’s largest city. The voice soothed her soul and made her feel closer to God.

Not anymore. For nearly four months now, the voice that would call out five times a day from the minarets of the Jamia Masjid and echo across Srinagar has been silent, a result of India’s ongoing security operations in this Muslim-majority region.

“The mosque closure is a relentless agony for me and my family,” Jan said. “I can’t tolerate it, but I am helpless.” Already one of the most militarized places in the world, last summer India began pouring more troops into its side of Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety. It implemented a security lockdown in which it pressed harsh curbs on civil rights, arrested thousands of people, blocked internet and phone service, and shuttered important mosques.

All of this was laying the groundwork for the Hindu nationalist-led government’s Aug. 5 decision to strip Kashmir of its semiautonomous status and remove its statehood, moves it knew would be met with fury by Kashmiri Muslims, most of whom want independence or unification with Pakistan. The government said the restrictions were needed to head off anti-India protests and violence.

While some of the conditions have since been eased, some mosques and Muslim shrines in the region either remain shuttered or have had their access limited. Muslims say this is undermining their constitutional right to religious freedom and only deepening anti-India sentiment.

The centuries-old Jamia Masjid, made of brick and wood, is one of the oldest in this city of 1.2 million, where 96% of people are Muslim. When it’s open, thousands of people congregate there for prayers.

Romi would take her two children there every day and sit inside the compound while they would play. “I would forget all my miseries there,” she said. Now, when her kids ask why they can’t go to the mosque, she draws a blank face.

“I open my window of the house which faces the mosque and show my kids the soldiers that are stationed outside it,” Romi said. That it’s a target for authorities is neither surprising nor new. Friday sermons at the mosque mainly revolve around the Kashmir conflict, and its surrounding neighborhoods are often where stone-throwing protesters clash with government forces as part of an ongoing anti-India rebellion.

Authorities have banned prayers at the mosque for extended periods during unrest in 2008, 2010 and 2016. Official data show the mosque was closed at least 250 days in those three years combined. Mohammed Yasin Bangi, the 70-year-old whose voice has called out the prayers at the mosque for the last 55 years, said the current restrictions are the worst he has seen.

“During earlier restrictions, we would be sometimes allowed to offer evening prayers. But not even once during this time around,” he said. “The closure of the mosque has robbed me of my peace. I’ve been subjected to spiritual torture.”

A top police officer in the city, speaking on condition of anonymity in keeping with department policy, said authorities decided the mosque could reopen last month for Friday prayers but mosque officials refused.

A mosque official speaking on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals said they refused because authorities sought assurances that there would be no protests or speeches against Indian rule.

Rohit Kansal, Kashmir’s chief government spokesman, declined to comment. Officials from the Home Ministry in New Delhi, which oversees internal security in the country, did not respond to requests for comment.

Freedom of religion is enshrined in India’s constitution, allowing citizens to follow and freely practice religion. The constitution also says the state will not “discriminate, patronize or meddle in the profession of any religion.”

But even before the current security operation in Kashmir, experts say conditions for India’s Muslims have been growing worse under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which came to power in 2014 and won a landslide re-election in May.

In June, the U.S. State Department said in a report that religious freedom in India continued a downward trend in the year 2018. India’s foreign ministry rejected the report. In August, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation raised concerns about India’s lockdown in Kashmir and called for authorities to ensure that Kashmiri Muslims could exercise their religious rights.

The ongoing restrictions in Kashmir have also included gatherings at Muslim shrines and religious festivals. In August, worshipers were told to host the prayers for the festival of Eid-al-Adha inside small neighborhood mosques rather than in the large outdoor gatherings that are normal. In September, authorities banned the annual Muharram processions that mark the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson.

Last month, during the yearly celebration of the birth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad, authorities blocked all roads leading to Dargah Hazratbal, the region’s most revered Muslim shrine. Only a few hundred devotees were allowed to pray there — far fewer than the tens of thousands the event has been known to draw.

Authorities on Monday allowed thousands of people to gather at a Sufi shine in downtown Srinagar for an annual celebration. Restrictions on such gatherings are particularly galling to Kashmiri Muslims because they have long complained that the government curbs their religious freedom on the pretext of law and order while promoting and patronizing an annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath Shrine in Kashmir that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Sheikh Showkat, a professor of international law and human rights at the Central University of Kashmir, warned that such a duality in policy sent a clear message that the government no longer remains impartial toward different religions and further alienates the people of Kashmir.

“It no way augers well for any peace,” he said. “Whether it triggers further radicalization or not, it definitely infuriates people about the safety and security of their faith. It can also snowball into a mass mobilization against the state.”

Syed Mohammed Tayib Kamili has been leading annual prayers at Kashmir’s Khanqah Naqashband shrine since 1976. Indian authorities stopped last month’s gathering from taking place. The decision, which was met with anti-India protests, was the first time the prayers had not been held in the shrine’s 399-year history, Kamili said.

“They have not only violated constitution,” he said, “but also invited wrath of the divine power.”

Associated Press writer Sheikh Saaliq contributed to this report.

Devastating factory fire kills at least 43 in Indian capital

December 08, 2019

NEW DELHI (AP) — Authorities said an electrical short circuit appeared to cause a fire that killed at least 43 people in a factory in central New Delhi early Sunday, as relatives of the workers who were trapped inside identified the dead from photos on police officers’ phones.

Assistant New Delhi police commissioner Anil Kumar Mittal said that “the fire appears to have been caused by electric short circuit,” adding that authorities were investigating whether the factory was operating legally.

The building’s owner, Rihan, who goes by one name, was detained on suspicion of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, Mittal said. Firefighters had to fight the blaze from 100 meters (yards) away because it broke out in one of the area’s many alleyways, tangled in electrical wire and too narrow for vehicles to access, authorities said.

A resident of the area, Mohammed Naushad, said he was woken by people wailing at around 4:30 a.m. He went outside to find smoke and flames shooting out of a building near Sadar Bazaar, New Delhi’s largest wholesale market for household goods. Inside, he found the fourth floor engulfed in flames. One floor below, he saw “20 to 25 people lying on the floor.”

“I don’t know if they were dead or unconscious, but they were not moving,” Naushad said. He said he carried at least 10 people out of the flames on his shoulders and into the arms of emergency responders.

Maisuma Bibi, a day laborer making plastic handbags, survived the blaze. She said she was sleeping in a room with about 18 other women and children on the building’s first floor when she woke to find a bag full of plastic parts on fire. Her brother-in-law carried her to safety, she said.

Outside a mortuary that was guarded by dozens of police officers, some of the workers’ relatives said they had received phone calls from the men trapped inside, who begged them to call the fire brigade.

Many of the men were migrant workers from the impoverished border state of Bihar in eastern India, relatives said. They earned as little as 150 rupees ($2.10) per day making handbags, caps and other garments, sleeping at the factory between long shifts.

Many of the victims were asleep when the blaze began, according to Yogesh, a police spokesman who uses one name. Dr. Kishore Singh said rescuers brought victims to his government-run hospital and two others in the city. Another 16 people were being treated for burns or smoke inhalation and were in stable condition, Singh said.

Police barred relatives from entering Lok Nayak hospital, where some of the victims were taken. Relatives of the workers cried, consoled one another and jostled for information. “I was told by someone my nephew is inside, but I haven’t seen him,” said Mohammad Moti, who was searching for his 22-year-old nephew, Mohammad Chedi.

Fire Services chief Atul Garg said it took 25 fire trucks to put out the blaze. About 60 people, including some of the dead, were taken out of the building, Mittal said. New Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, appeared at the scene of the fire, promising victims’ families compensation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the fire as “extremely horrific.” “My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. Wishing the injured a quick recovery,” Modi tweeted. Fires are common in India, where building laws and safety norms are often flouted by builders and residents. In 1997, a fire in a movie theater in New Delhi killed 59 people. In February this year, 17 people were killed by a fire in a six-story hotel in the capital not far from Sunday’s blaze that started in an illegal rooftop kitchen.

Associated Press photojournalist Manish Swarup contributed to this report.

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