(New York) - The Indian government should order troops and police to refrain from using lethal force against violent protesters in Jammu and Kashmir unless absolutely necessary to protect life, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on political parties and groups leading the protests to end their dispute peacefully and do all they can to prevent acts of violence.

Ongoing protests by Muslims and Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir state since June 2008 have turned increasingly violent, claiming nearly 40 lives, injuring hundreds, and fueling religious hatred. Security forces have used tear gas and opened fire using live ammunition as well as rubber bullets to control protesters who set fires, damaged government property, hurled stones and in some cases, attacked policemen. On August 11 and 12, 2008, as violence escalated, Indian security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing at least 15 people.

Human Rights Watch said the Indian security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, which call upon law enforcement officials, including members of the armed forces, to apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and only in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The UN principles allow lethal force only when it is “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

“With violence escalating, the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir is again at the brink of catastrophe,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To end this cycle of tragedy, the government should order security forces to act with restraint and all parties should try to settle the dispute peacefully.”

Violence erupted in Jammu and Kashmir after a state government decision in May 2008 to transfer uninhabited forest land to a Hindu trust to build temporary shelters during an annual Hindu pilgrimage called “Amarnath Yatra.” Once the decision became public knowledge in June, Muslim Kashmiris protested against the land transfer and the transfer order was revoked. This sparked off anger among Hindu Kashmiris. Demonstrations in the Jammu region have paralyzed the state in recent weeks.

The state of Jammu and Kashmir has been in conflict for the last two decades, and tens of thousands of civilians have died, caught between separatist militants and Indian security forces. While militants have been responsible for human rights abuses, Kashmiris have long complained about violations by Indian troops who go unpunished for serious crimes including extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances. The violence had reduced since 2003, but the recent protests show that the Kashmir issue is yet to be resolved.

The Indian government has called upon all parties to come together to solve the Amarnath Yatra dispute. However, with both national and state elections due in a few months, political parties and separatist groups are inciting the violence and using the dispute to fuel their own political agendas.

“Political leaders and civil society in Jammu and Kashmir should seek a mutually agreeable solution to the immediate crisis, so that peace is restored,” said Ganguly. “However, unless there is justice for previous crimes, Jammu and Kashmir will remain a tinderbox that can be set aflame by anyone with a vested interest in the conflict.”