SRINAGAR, India (AP) — Indian government forces used tear gas and wooden canes Friday to disperse hundreds of Kashmiri workers who clashed with them at a sprawling camp for Hindu pilgrims heading for a Himalayan cave, leaving dozens of people injured, police said.
Nearly 200 tents pitched for Hindu pilgrims were burned down in a fire that erupted during the clashes in Baltal in the Indian portion of Kashmir, said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
Baltal is the base camp for the Hindu pilgrims heading to the Amarnath shrine, an icy stalagmite in a mountain cave, 4,115 meters (13,500 feet) above sea level. Hindus worship the stalagmite as an incarnation of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and regeneration.
The Kashmiri workers pitched the camp's tents and looked after the pilgrims. Baltal is about 110 kilometers (70 miles) northeast of Srinagar, the main city in Indian Kashmir.
The pilgrimage attracts hundreds of thousands of people from across India for two months and tens of thousands of troops guard the pilgrims.
Police said the trouble started on Thursday night following a squabble between an official manning a community kitchen at the site and one of the local workers.
Angered by the stabbing of one of their colleagues, the workers burned down the community kitchen, a police officer said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to talk to reporters.
On Friday, the laborers fought pitched battles with the police and paramilitary forces who tried to disperse them with tear gas and batons, the officer said.
At least 30 Kashmiri workers, 10 policemen and seven Hindu pilgrims were injured in the clashes, the officer said.
The workers accused government forces of setting nearly 200 tents on fire.
"After the clashes and burning of the community kitchen, the government forces set our tents on fire. It was a pure revenge," worker Abdul Ahad said when reached by the phone.
Shailendra Kumar, a top government administrator, said authorities were looking into the allegations. "The fire quickly spread as it was a windy day," he said, adding that the dozens of fire engines controlled the fire that raged for nearly three hours.
He said the violence at the site was quelled by security forces. The pilgrims' march to the cave shrine was suspended temporarily on Friday.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and the neighboring countries claim the disputed Himalayan region in its entirety.
Since 1989, a militant uprising and an Indian military crackdown has killed more than 68,000 people in Kashmir.
Muslim rebels and separatist politicians, who reject Indian sovereignty in Kashmir, accuse Hindu-majority India of using the pilgrimage as a political statement to bolster its claim over the Himalayan region.