HIGHWAY BAN TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS

The banning of civilian vehicular movement on the 270-kilometre stretch from Udhampur to Baramulla districts of National Highway 44 in Kashmir has drawn the ire of locals across the political, ideological and occupational divide.

An April 3 order from the state’s home department said that the highway will be completely banned until May 31 for civilian traffic on Sundays and Wednesdays from 4 am to 5 pm to “facilitate the movement of security forces convoys” into the Valley.

The official order attributes this move to the ongoing movement of security convoys into Kashmir to ensure the smooth conduct of the upcoming parliamentary elections. This ban has come on top of the daily stoppages on civilian traffic at multiple locations across the highway that also facilitate the movement of army and paramilitary convoys.

As the highway is the only stretch of road that connects the Valley to the outside world, the order is likely to cause heavy disruptions in day-to-day lives of Kashmiris. This includes medical patients, schoolchildren, business owners, government employees, farmers and orchardists as well as drivers of public transport.

Bashir Ahmad Basheer, chairman of the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers-cum-Dealers Association, agreed. “We won’t be able to even visit our orchards, let alone export the fruits that lay in cold storages across Kashmir,” Basheer said.

He believes that this unprecedented order will also delay the import of the much-needed pesticides and fungicides into the Kashmir Valley, which will end up adversely affecting the crop yield. “We demand the immediate revocation of this inhumane act,” he said.

While the government has assured that the ban doesn’t apply in cases of medical and other emergencies, locals believe that the order is still unjustified and troublesome. As the rural areas in Kashmir lack proper medical facilities, patients are often referred to the Valley’s tertiary care hospitals and most of them are located in Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital. The only way for patients from both southern and northern districts to reach these hospitals is through this lone highway.

“Although we are not halted for long periods during the convoy movements, the security forces regularly stop and frisk the ambulance at multiple checkpoints on the highway. The security forces also, very often, verbally harass us,” an ambulance driver of one of the largest maternity hospitals in Kashmir, who regularly ferries critical patients into Srinagar’s tertiary care hospitals, told The Wire. “Also, while returning from Srinagar, if the ambulance is empty, then we are treated just like any other civilian vehicle,” he added, refusing to be identified for the fear of repercussion.

The ban is also set to impact the livelihood of private cab drivers who shuttle thousands of passengers into different districts of Kashmir every week. “With this order, we will be forced to stop the services of all of our cabs that run through this highway. Each day, we send almost 20 vehicles into Srinagar. This entire fleet will have to remain dysfunctional on Wednesdays and Sundays,” Nazir Ahmad, the secretary of SNDS sumo stand in south Kashmir’s Anantnag district, who himself regularly drives a cab to the capital, told . “This ban will be disastrous for our livelihoods and lead to further unemployment.”

Political parties in J&K, including the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and J&K Peoples Movement, on Monday approached the High Court on State Home department’s order to restrict civilian traffic twice a week on the national highway.

Peoples Conference’s chief Sajad Lone also wrote to Governor Satya Pal Malik.

The case was listed for Tuesday for a hearing. “This illogical order banning movement of civilians is totally against the spirit of Article 19 and Article 21 of the Constitution,” said Mr. Faesal, who topped IAS examination in 2010 and quit services earlier this year to launch a political party, J&K Peoples Movement.

Senior PDP leader Naeem Akhtar also filed a PIL against the highway closure. “Senior Advocate Jehangir Iqbal Ganai has filed the PIL, which is likely to be considered by a Division Bench on Tuesday,” said PDP spokesman Suhail Bukhari.

Peoples Conference chairman Sajad Gani Lone wrote to Governor Satya Pal Malik and sought its revocation.

The State government had from April 7 started imposing restrictions on civilian traffic twice a week on 271-km national highway in J&K and will continue till May 31.

Earlier in the day, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry also demanded the revocation of curbs.

“Modifications to the order and establishing of helpline numbers have brought no relief. It is an unmitigated disaster for the common man and our economy,” said KCCI president Sheikh Ashiq.

Former Chief Minister and NC vice-president Omar Abdullah uploaded a video of the movement of a convoy carried out on Monday on the social media to argue against the ban. “I’m simply trying to highlight the point that the architects of the highway closure have made no application of mind. Somehow this convoy on the highway is safe today but it wouldn’t have been yesterday and won’t be on Wednesday,” wrote Mr. Abdullah.

Calling it a dictatorial move on Twitter, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the separatist Hurriyat Conference group, urged the government “to withdraw this diktat and stop punishing people of Kashmir”. On Sunday, the first day of the ban, members of both Peoples Democratic Party and the National Conference, came out on the roads and tried to march towards the highway in defiance of the ban order.

Many Kashmiri students who have to travel through the highway to get to their universities and colleges, also face uncertainty in the coming weeks. “Our education already suffers due to frequent encounters, violence and general strikes. Now, this order will lead to further academic loss,” Irshad Ahmad, who studies International Relations at the Islamic University of Science and Technology, that is situated on the highway, said. “This order needs to be immediately revoked.”

Last week, the Jammu and Kashmir government, currently headed by Governor Satya Pal Mallik, had issued an unusual order, banning civilian traffic on the highway every Sunday and Wednesday until May 31. “Keeping in view the large movement of security forces on the national highway during the Parliamentary elections and associated possibility of any fidayeen terror attack on security forces’ convoys, the state government has notified specified days in a week for the movement of security forces from Srinagar to Jammu,” the order said.

It was on this highway that a suicide bomber from Pulwama district drove a car packed with explosives into a Central Reserve Police Force convoy, killing 40. On the two specified days, the order said, civilian traffic was to stay off the highway from 4 am to 5 pm.

In the Kashmir Valley, the order has set off ripples of outrage. On April 7, the first day of the ban, Kashmir’s mainstream politicians hit the streets in protest. Both the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement and the People’s Democratic Party have challenged the order in the high court. The case is listed for hearing on April 9.

After the outcry in the Valley, the government said there was no “blanket ban” on the movement of civilian vehicles on Sundays and Wednesdays. It announced exceptions for schoolchildren, government employees, emergency services and tourist vehicles, all of which would be allowed to pass after due scrutiny and verification. The government also appointed local magistrates to issue passes for people in emergencies.

“For medical emergencies, special magistrates will be on the roads and give out spot passes. Numbers will also be shared at district levels to ensure people don’t face any inconvenience [during] an emergency,” said Baseer Khan, divisional commissioner, Kashmir, at a press conference on Friday.

But these assurances have only fuelled anger, first against the order and then against the government itself. “Will a patient have to wait first for a pass from magistrate to travel to hospital? This is oppression,” said a resident of Bijbehara in South Kashmir’s Anantnag.

Menawhile, the Valley’s business community has projected a loss of Rs 30 crore to the economy for every day of the ban. “Apart from that, the worst affected is the transport community and labour class. We haven’t estimated that loss yet,” said Mohammad Yasin Khan, chairman of the Kashmir Economic Alliance, a conglomerate of various trade bodies in Kashmir.

“They [government] are least bothered. There’s no one whom you can talk to. There are advisors [to the governor] but it’s as equal as talking to a wall,” Khan rued.

Besides, Khan felt, the ban would hit tourism in the Valley. “When ordinary people from India visit Kashmir during this ban, they will feel there’s a war going on in Kashmir. Who’ll come here in such a situation? I think the exact consequences of this ban will show in a month or so,” he added.

Meanwhile, Kashmiris are already gearing up for the second day of ban, coming up on April 10. “Unlike Sunday, Wednesday is a working day. Schools, banks, offices and other institutions will be open,” said Fayaz Ahmad, an apple grower from Pulwama district. “It will be chaos and the government will be responsible for it.”