SRINAGAR, India — Tens of thousands of Kashmiri Muslims marched Wednesday to a town where seven people were killed over the weekend, defying a rigid curfew in another day of massive protests against Indian rule in the Himalayan region.
Long lines of people carrying green and black protest flags thronged a big prayer ground in Khrew, a town south of Indian-controlled Kashmir's main city Srinagar, even as India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram appealed for an end to the violence.
The government was ready for a dialogue with Kashmiri people, Chidambaram said in a statement in India's Parliament.
The federal government has sent reinforcements to help the beleaguered state administration tackle the increasingly violent crowds who have clashed with paramilitary soldiers. At least 45 people have died over the past seven weeks.
On Wednesday, scores of civilian vehicles fitted with loudspeakers ferried people from neighboring towns and villages to pay homage to those killed in police firing and a blast at a police station in Khrew on Sunday. They chanted slogans "Go India, go back" and "We'll take bullets on our heads but we'll not give up."
Thousands of government forces stepped back to avoid clashes as the protesters asked them through loudspeakers to withdraw from the streets and not to try to stop the march, said resident Abdul Ahad.
Three of the seven people were gunned down by security forces who opened fire on thousands of protesters on the streets of Khrew on Sunday. The remaining four civilians were killed in a blast at a police station after it was set on fire by residents angry at the earlier shooting. A lot of explosive material used in quarry blasting was stored in the police station and it might have fueled the blast, police said.
The recent unrest in the Himalayan region is reminiscent of the late 1980s, when protests against New Delhi's rule sparked an armed conflict that has since claimed 68,000 lives, mostly civilians.
Police drove through the streets of Srinagar, the main city in Indian Kashmir, and other towns, warning residents for a second day Wednesday that they would be shot on sight if they defied the round-the-clock curfew imposed in the divided Himalayan region.
But angry residents went out and shouted pro-independence slogans in a neighborhood in Srinagar where a young man had died in police firing on Tuesday. They chased away police and paramilitary soldiers, said a police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The protesters later burned a government jeep parked in the neighborhood, he said.
The officer said hundreds of people also came out in the small towns of Sopore and Kupwara and chanted pro-independence slogans.
There were no reports of any clashes between protesters and government forces, he said.
The federal government has sent nearly 2,000 additional paramilitary soldiers to Kashmir, paramilitary spokesman Prabhakar Tripathi said.
Another 300 troops of the Rapid Action Force, specially trained to tackle violent mobs, were also on their way to Kashmir, he said.
But the decision to send more security forces to stamp out the protests has not gone down well with Kashmiris. They accused New Delhi of adding to the heavy security presence in Kashmir while not reaching out for a political dialogue.
"India has declared war on the people of Kashmir," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a key separatist leader who has been under house arrest for nearly a month now.
"Rather than reaching out to people and trying to sort out their genuine political demands, India is further militarizing this place by sending more troops," Farooq said Wednesday.
Chidambaram said the government had initiated a "quiet dialogue with key political groups and individuals" in 2009. But it was interrupted by an attempt on the life of an interlocutor, Fazal Haq Qureshi, by an assailant who fled after the attack.
Muslim-majority Kashmir is divided between predominantly Hindu India and Muslim-majority Pakistan but claimed by both. Separatist politicians and militants in Kashmir reject Indian sovereignty over the region and want to carve out a separate homeland or merge with Pakistan.