Kashmir shuts down ahead of Supreme Court hearing

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A general strike and curfew brought Indian-administered Kashmir to a standstill Thursday ahead of a landmark Supreme Court hearing centered on the region’s autonomy.

Separatist leaders have threatened major protests if the Supreme Court annuls a constitutional provision that bars Indians from outside Kashmir from buying land or seeking government jobs in the territory.

Businesses, schools and public transport across Kashmir followed separatist demands to stay closed while government forces rolled out razor wire and spiked steel barriers across deserted roads in the main city Srinagar to block demonstrations.

Srinagar residents said they were prevented from going out on the streets by major deployments of police and paramilitary troops.

“It is a curfew. No-one can go out,” one school teacher in the city told AFP.

Friday’s hearing in New Delhi has caused a major spike in tensions, adding to the near daily deaths in battles between government troops and rebels.

Government forces killed two suspected rebels in a gun battle in the northern district of Hajin during search operations Thursday. On Wednesday, rebels killed four police officers while Indian troops killed two militants.

Separatist groups say the legal challenge against the special privileges, which date back to 1954, is a bid by India’s Hindu nationalist government to alter Kashmir’s religious make-up.

“I caution the freedom loving people of the state to remain vigilant against these ploys to change the Muslim-majority character of the state,” top separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani said in a statement released late Wednesday calling for the strike.

Kashmir has been divided between Indian and Pakistani sectors since their independence and split in 1947. Both claim the former Himalayan kingdom in full.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wants to end Jammu and Kashmir state’s special status in Indian law, saying it is an obstacle to outside investment.

Rebel groups have been fighting Indian government forces in Kashmir for decades, demanding an independent state or merger with Pakistan.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have died in the fighting.