On Wednesday Srinagar, a city of more than one million people, and some other parts of the predominantly Muslim vale of Kashmir witnessed demonstrations by residents - for the fourth day running - against alleged rapes by an Indian army officer at the weekend.
Traders in some areas went on partial strike in solidarity with a call made by an Islamic women's group Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Faith), which has accused India of using rape as a war weapon against the Kashmiri "freedom struggle".
Kashmir government officials said the strike call failed to evoke any response and that traders closed their shops temporarily in some Srinagar areas during demonstrations merely as a precautionary measure.
None the less, at Maisuma, a congested Srinagar locality, riot police used bamboo sticks and fired dozens of teargas canisters into mixed crowds of protesters, who responded by hurling rocks at policemen.
More than a dozen protesters and policemen were injured as a result of the street battles. Many demonstrators were taken to police stations on charges of rioting.
JKLF chief Yasin Malik led a rally
to the local UN observers' office
Police barricaded the Maisuma area to prevent attempts by the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) leader Muhammad Yasin Malik and his supporters to march on the office of the United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to present a memorandum.
The UNMOGIP was set up in 1949 to monitor a cease-fire agreed to by India and Pakistan to end their first war over Kashmir.
The small UN force has divided its time between Srinagar and Rawalpindi since 1951. It operates from Srinagar during summer and shifts to Rawalpindi towards the end of October every year for the winter months.
Separatist Kashmiri groups often lodge complaints against Indian rule at the UNMOGIP offices.
"We may tolerate
any atrocious act against us but not the disgrace of our mothers, sisters
Sayid Ali Shah Jilani,
Separatist Kashmiri leader
On Wednesday, no sooner had Malik along with his party spokesperson, Shaikh Abd al- Rashid, reached the UNMOGIP office on Gupkar Road in Srinagar to present a memorandum to one of the observers, than the duo were arrested.
The policemen made an unsuccessful attempt to snatch the document from the UN observer, witnesses said.
JKLF later said Malik and his colleague were beaten up by policemen when they tried to resist arrest while being pushed into a police vehicle, in which they were driven to the nearby Ram Munshi Bagh police station.
'History of loss'
The JKLF memorandum, copies of which were distributed to journalists later, calls for the UN's intervention to stop what it calls human-rights violations being committed by Indian security forces fighting a 16-year-old rebellion in Kashmir.
"The whole structure, method and aim of the Indian occupation has been brute and humiliating every Kashmiri now represents a concrete history of loss," it says.
Indian army has pledged to hold
an impartial inquiry into the case
Indian-administered Kashmir has been roiled by protests after the rape of 11-year-old Shugufta Rashid alias Shabnum and her mother Aisha Rashid, allegedly by an officer of the Indian army's counter-insurgency wing, Rashtriya Rifles, and his men in a remote village of frontier Kupwara district on Saturday night.
The protests show no signs of ending despite the investigations ordered by the local government and Indian army authorities into the rape reports.
A senior Indian officer, Major-General MS Balhara, visited the victims on Monday to assure them accused would be punished severely if found guilty. He sought the family's as well as local villagers' cooperation in holding impartial inquiries into the incident.
For his part, Kashmir's divisional commissioner, the highest civilian official, Khurshid Ahmed Ganai, has held a series of meetings with local army commanders and district authorities over the past two days, and pledged "severest punishment" for the guilty.
The rape charge has once again
put troop conduct under scrutiny
The army officer accused of the crime has meanwhile been shifted out of his command to facilitate the inquiry.
"He is constantly in touch with the army authorities, who wish to assure that severest punishment will be awarded to anyone found guilty," a government spokesperson said.
An Indian army spokesperson, Lt-Col VK Batra, has said the rape allegation will be investigated while describing it as false.
But the official assurances have failed to defuse the political storm stirred up by the incident.
On Tuesday, the chief of the ruling People's Democratic Party, Mahbooba Mufti, faced the wrath of the angry villagers as she came out of the victims' house at Badra Payeen Krala Gund, a sleepy village outside Handwara township, about 85km north-west of Srinagar.
Mahbooba, who is the daughter of chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayid, was forced to make a quick retreat from the village after a crowd heckled her and pelted her motorcade with stones.
India forces are battling over a
dozen rebel armies in Kashmir
Meanwhile, Kashmiri lawyers and university students have joined the protests over the incident.
On Wednesday, leaders and activists of the pro-Indian regional National Conference marched on the streets of Srinagar to condemn the alleged rape.
Sayid Ali Shah Jilani, who heads a pro-Pakistan faction of Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of Kashmiri separatist parties, and several other leaders and activists visited Badra Payeen Krala Gund to express solidarity with the victims and their family.
"We may tolerate any atrocious act against us but not the disgrace of our mothers, sisters and daughters," Jilani said later.
Given the timing of the scandal, shortly before Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil's visit to the state, it has caused tremendous embarrassment to the federal government.
During his visit, the home minister strongly denied the charge that Indian security forces are committing human-rights violations in Kashmir, and rejected as "disinformation" the reports of the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) that abuses peaked during the two-year-old Mufti Sayid rule.
Yasin Malik calls India's grip over
Kashmir 'brute and humiliating'
Asked about the alleged mother-daughter rape in Handwara, Patil passed the question to the chief minister, who said, "No rape has been committed on the minor and investigation has been ordered as far as molestation of the woman is concerned."
Patil's visit was meant to prepare the ground for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's first visit to Kashmir later this month.
Singh has ruled out any third-party mediation in the Kashmir issue, but said in a recent interview that India is willing to look at "all possible ways" of resolving the dispute and other outstanding issues bilaterally as long as Pakistan ensures that territory under its control will not be allowed to "promote cross-border terrorism".
"It is our honest belief that in the relationship between India and Pakistan, if a durable solution is to be found, it cannot be imposed from outside," he told Financial Times.
In a separate development, Kashmir police officials said 47 Muslim fighters, including some of their top commanders, laid down their weapons and foreswore violence at a ceremony on Wednesday at Nagrota outside the state's winter capital, Jammu.
Indian officials say Kashmiris are
fed up with 'terror and violence'
Kashmir police chief Gopal Sharma said, "They say they were fed up with terrorism and violence." He described the event as the "biggest ever mass surrender" since the announcement by the Kashmir government of its rehabilitation policy for fighters who surrender.
"In an attraction towards this policy, more and more terrorists are coming forward to surrender," he said.
A senior army officer speaking at the surrender ceremony, jointly organised by the army and the police, said, "They surrender because they see a future for themselves and their families."