The state governor, Girish Saxena, has ordered an inquiry into the security forces, who set fire to hundreds of shops and houses and allegedly massacred more than 55 Kashmiri civilians in revenge after separatists ambushed a military patrol. The incident is one of the worst atrocities by Indian paramilitary forces in their attempt over the past three years to crush an uprising by Muslim militants in Kashmir.
The latest Kashmir killings are sure to strain relations between Hindus and Muslims in other parts of India. More than 1,000 Indians died in religious strife last month after Hindu zealots wrecked a Muslim shrine in the northern town of Ayodhya and the wounds between the two communities have yet to heal. At least 20 people have died in clashes in Bombay over the past two days.
Eyewitnesses in Sopore, a town surrounded by apple orchards in the high mountain valley of Kashmir, said that early on Wednesday Muslim separatists attacked a patrol of Indian security forces, killing at least one member of the Border Security Force. Then, for more than four hours, the security forces, who are mainly Hindus, wreaked revenge in a crowded shopping district. One Muslim woman said: 'They went berserk. They were shooting women and children at random.'
The Border Security Forces sprayed a public coach with machine-gun fire, killing the driver and more than 15 passengers, said witnesses. Three other cars were also fired on, and then the paramilitary forces set the vehicles ablaze. Next, they began herding the native Kashmiris into shops and houses, said witnesses. Then the security forces shot them, splashed paraffin over the bodies and set the buildings alight. Officially, more than 250 shops and 50 homes were destroyed, but Kashmir sources claim that more than 450 buildings were burnt down. Another 25 bodies may still be trapped in the smoking rubble, claim witnesses.
Initially, the Indian government claimed that the deaths occurred during a shoot-out between Muslim militants and the paramilitary forces, when an explosives cache belonging to the militants blew up and flames spread to nearby dwellings.
But this version failed to explain why so many of the bodies were riddled with bullets.
Thousands of Kashmiri Muslim women defied a curfew and marched through Sopore yesterday protesting against the killings. In Delhi, the Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, ordered the state governor to visit the demolished area of Sopore and authorised a payment of pounds 2,275 to relatives of the deceased. Human rights organisations have criticised Mr Saxena for failing to stop the excesses of the Indian security forces in Kashmir. Few members of the security forces involved in hundreds of documented cases of rape, torture and murder have ever been punished.
In New Delhi, prominent Muslim leaders and left-wing politicians demanded the sacking of Mr Saxena and also called for a parliamentary delegation to be sent to Kashmir.
Kashmir has remained under a virtual news blackout over the past few months. The Kashmir valley is surrounded by Himalayan peaks and telecommunications with the rest of India were paralysed after a micro-wave transmission tower was sabotaged. The government blames the militants for the sabotage, but the Kashmir separatists claim that the government did it to shield the ruthless tactics of the Indian security forces from outside scrutiny.