A collective punishment

I received a call yesterday evening from a colleague in Anantnag. He wanted an appointment with a neurosurgeon for a patient with a brain tumor, he asked if I could fix it in the hospital  where I work.

I gladly said ‘yes’ and fixed the appointment for Wednesday and when I told my colleague that his patient should come on Wednesday, he requested me to find an alternate day.

Unmindful of the highway crisis that had set-off a new storm in Kashmir-my colleague reminded me that his sick patient could not undertake the trouble of traveling to Srinagar on a day when no civilian movement was allowed.

While we are looking at the options of how and where to see the patient, the 270-km stretch of national highway connecting Srinagar with Jammu and major towns and districts of the state has been closed for civilians on Sundays’ and Wednesdays’. And something happened on a Wednesday that is worthy of note and gives me- a resident of a conflict zone a feeling of Deja Vu:

‘On Wednesday, in order to cross the highway in South Kashmir’s Anantnag district, a civilian approached the magistrate for approval. The officer on duty, an executive magistrate, stamped and signed the man’s hand allowing him to use the road in Sangam.

A photo of the man’s right hand, which had a stamp, signature and the date on it, along with a handwritten note saying “allowed to Sangam”, soon went viral on social media’(The Wire-11 April  ) Circa 2019.

And, I recount my memory of a similar incident in the ’90s which I thought would never get repeated and I had carefully preserved it in my book:

“I remember how my class fellow made it to college from the Downtown Srinagar on a day when no one was allowed to move out of his locality as there was a crackdown. I can imagine how he must have got up from the rows of people sitting in an odd posture.

 I can imagine how he must have pleaded with the khaki guarding his group. I can imagine how he must have reasoned with him to set him free-for appearing in his exams. I can imagine how he must have convinced him….We saw him outside the examination hall.

We witnessed his tremble and tremor. We saw his parched lips, heard his cracking voice….And he showed us his hand, drenched in sweat with marks of faded ink on it….It was a ‘pass’, he said, written by one of the officers on his hand; it helped him negotiate various layers of security as he moved towards his college…he dared not go back; ‘the faint faded pass’ on his hand would not be accepted, and he preferred to stay back in the hostel but still hesitated to wash his hand….Maybe he would need the pass someday, so he let the imprint last till it would..”(White man in Dark p32)-Circa 1990.

Restrictions and bans are not new to Kashmir. Those who are criticizing the highway ban now, know for sure how they have implemented bans in various forms and modes over the last 30 yrs.

The traffic of Srinagar is diverted when Darbar opens in Srinagar for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening ritualistically over the last 30 years.

The whole city is thrown into chaos while our elite race along the empty roads. By what standards is the job of secretariat employees and bosses more important than other public servants? Why was that ban never questioned and even now when Durbar will open in Srinagar, this practice will continue. If someone would have asked this question then, the highway ban would not come so easily.

The ‘collective punishment’ theory is not new to Kashmir. From a ban on mobile phones to a ban on prepaid phones, a ban on SMS, slowing down of the internet and extended periods of internet blockade we have seen it all.

A few years back on 15th August, my neighbor’s mother died early morning. 15th August is a day of celebration in the entire country for it signifies a day when India gained her independence from British rule.

But, Kashmir gets disconnected this day without fail for the last three decades. All means of connectivity eg. Mobile phones, landline, and internet are cut-off for a major part of the day.

Our neighbor had migrated from a village and all his relatives still live there. So, with everything off, he could not contact his brothers and relatives back home.

He could not communicate with a grave-digger and other people involved in the rituals for the dead. So, there laid a dead woman, her grieving son and neighbors waiting for the connectivity to be restored. An announcement was made in the nearby mosque calling for volunteers to come over and help the helpless neighbor with the last rites of his mother.

We waited in the scorching heat of summer for the connectivity to be restored and the woman was buried late in the evening a few hours after the connectivity was restored because relatives had to come from far-off places.

Well! This is how we have been getting punished and imprisoned on a day which is undoubtedly an ‘auspicious’ day. When elsewhere on this day prisoners are fed ‘Pulao’ and sweets are distributed among criminals, we here cannot even bury our dead.

I don’t know how I can convince my children that we cannot take them out for a picnic to the tourist spots of picturesque Anantnag on Sundays. I cannot convince my mother that she cannot visit her relatives in other districts on Sundays. How can we justify this unique punishment? The highways are our ways too, we pay for their maintenance.270 km is too long a stretch to be closed.

Forget about the economic losses associated with Highway ban, someone has to address the concern of masses, the concern of patients. It is humiliating and greatly disturbing not to be allowed to cross a road without a pass.

The attendance in the hospitals of Srinagar on OPD’s has already fallen by 25% if newspaper reports are to be believed. (Greater Kashmir 11th April) Major cardiac, neurological, neurosurgical and other emergencies require immediate medical attention where each second is precious not to be wasted in a struggle for ‘passes’.

Roads are our arteries, so when arteries are blocked ischemia sets in, death occurs and this is what it is coming eventually to . A  Wednesday of no movement, a  Sunday of no movement and all other days of either chaotic movement or sluggish movement, have come to define our highway sadly!

The highway ban is frustrating and painful. It does not go with the concepts of equality and humanity. Forget politics, there is a human element in it. The stories I recounted are real and pinching –each one of us has a chest full of them. Pray  the ban is revoked- for it injures the psyche of a population sandwiched in a conflict zone.