You won’t find any parallels in modern democracies where people are expected to vote but at the same time their movement is restricted by closing the highway. This is nothing less than a democratic façade. At least, it is not a way to win the hearts and minds of people in a troubled state like Jammu and Kashmir.
Nothing can be more ill-advised than to ban the civilian traffic for two days a week on the 271-km stretch of National Highway 44 between Udhampur and Baramulla. The ban came into force on April 7 and will last till May 31. The main reason proposed for the ban is the smooth movement of armed forces for the conduct of Lok Sabha elections in the state.
The idea got traction after the February 14 suicide attack on a CRPF convoy on the highway near Awantipora that killed 40 personnel. But the way LoC trade has been suspended and as some ‘flawed’ surveys in mainland India showed approval for a muscular policy in Kashmir BJP is trying the play the Kashmir card to the hilt.
On Sundays and Wednesdays, between 4 a.m. and 5 p.m., only pre-determined categories of civilian traffic will be allowed on the highway with clearance from the authorities.
Ever since the ban came into effect people, particularly in South Kashmir, are facing extreme hardships during Wednesdays and Sundays. As a person from medical background I believe the most terrible impact is on the healthcare.
The patients used to visit the hospitals and private clinics mostly on Sundays. The government’s argument is that the officials on duty take due care of such cases. But how was an ambulance stopped for hours at Lower Munda because of which a patient named Abdul Qayoom Banday died.
How was SDM Duroo, Ghulam Rasool Wani, manhandled by the armed forces who was on way to perform his election related duties? There are a number of other such examples where patients are unable to reach the hospitals and government employees facing inconvenience due to lack of public transport. But the Governor administration is unmoved by these miseries people face on the roads.
The next sector which is seriously hit by the highway ban is the education. No doubt school buses are allowed to ply on the road but not all students avail the institutional transport facilities. They travel in the public transport. As a result they fail to attend classes on Wednesdays which violates the fundamental right to education.
The other sectors which are hit by the highway ban include tourism, horticulture, dairy products, vegetables and other essentials needed on daily basis. The famous Tulip garden in Srinagar was thrown open to the general public. But in the current season most of the people from South Kashmir, particularly the government employees, were unable to visit the garden due to the highway closure on Sundays.
The political parties from Kashmir have strongly condemned the ban on civilian traffic on the highway. National Conference president Dr. Farooq Abdullah said: “The Srinagar-Jammu Highway was not closed even during the Kargil war. Is the Governor’s administration trying to make Kashmir a colony?”
Now the issue landed in the court of law. Petitions have been filed in the J&K High Court arguing that the restrictions violate Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. The J&K High Court sought responses from the Central and State government. But it will take time for court to decide the case and set the masses free from the “open air prison”.
The convoy movement on Srinagar-Jammu highway happens on all seven days a week. So it defies logic why there should be a ban on the civilian movement for two days. As NC Vice President Omar Sahab rightly said that the administrative decisions in Jammu and Kashmir are driven more by ego than by logic. We can only hope that a new civilian government in J&K comes soon and brings some respite to the besieged masses.
Dr. Bashir Ahmad Veeri is a former member of the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Council from National Conference. Views are personal