By Zeba Siddiqui
NEWDELHI (Reuters) – The leader of a hardline Hindu group in India on Thursday justified the beating of two street vendors from mostly Muslim Kashmir by his members, saying “suspicious” Kashmiris had to be watched after a deadly bombing in the disputed region.
The assault on the fruit sellers by the saffron-shirted activists has been widely condemned in the Hindu-majority country where the Feb. 14 killing in Kashmir of 40 paramilitary policemen by a young suicide bomber has stirred patriotic anger and calls for war with Muslim Pakistan.
A Pakistan-based Islamist group claimed responsibility for the bombing in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan, which like India claims Kashmir in its entirely, denied involvement.
While the nuclear-armed Indian and Pakistani militaries have clashed along their disputed border, many ordinary Indians have turned their anger on Kashmiris, who live throughout the country.
The fruit vendors were attacked in the northern city of Lucknow on Wednesday.
But what might have been just another altercation in a series of such incidents in recent days hit the headlines when the assailants, who slapped and hit the two men with a wooden stick, posted video of it on social media.
The attackers were members of the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Dal (VHD) group and their leader was unapologetic.
“Yes, my workers beat them. After the attack on our army men with the help of Kashmiri jihadis, there is anger among the public,” the group’s president, Ambuj Nigam, told Reuters by telephone from Lucknow.
“The Kashmiris pelt stones at our soldiers and wave the Pakistani flag. Why should we tolerate that?”
Indian forces have faced a separatist insurgency in the Himalayan region for decades and protesters often clash with the police and troops.
Nigam said the two hawkers had looked “suspicious” so his members asked them for identity cards. His men had called the police but they had taken took too long to arrive, he said.
“Sometimes, when the police are late, we have to take matters into our own hands,” he said.
He said he had ordered his 50,000 members across India to “keep an eye on Kashmiris” to check if they are engaged in “illegal acts”.
The videos show the Kashmiri men cowering on the pavement as they are slapped and beaten with a stick by two men wearing saffron-coloured shirts.
One of the Kashmiris is heard wailing as he is pulled up by his shirt collar and slapped, before he runs off. A passerby intervened and managed to stop the other Kashmiri man from being beaten further.
Police said four men had been arrested for the assault and the two Kashmiris were free to sell their goods at the spot again.
“We will take action against the people responsible,” senior police official Anand Kumar told a news conference.
The central government has ordered authorities across the country to protect Kashmiris.
Lucknow is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. It is ruled by Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-robed Hindu priest who has been criticised for anti-Muslim speeches.
The state is a major battleground for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist ruling party in a general election due by May.
Nigam said Facebook had blocked his account after he posted video of the assault on the vendors.
(Additional reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal in NEWDELHI; Editing by Martin Howell)