Silent Disquiet?

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The lockdown, now into fourth week, offers no idea about when Kashmir will return to routine

Almost three weeks after the parliament unilaterally withdrew the special status to Jammu and Kashmir and reorganised the state into two federally governed Union Territories (UT), Kashmir is still closed. With no alteration in the unprecedented deployments, nobody actually knows where the “reasonable restrictions” start or end. In certain areas the security apparatus manning the concertina barricading are discouraging people to move around. At the same time, in some belts within and outside Srinagar the movement is being encouraged.

Barring Fridays, the uptown Srinagar witnesses impressive movement of the private transport during mornings and evenings. The movement to peripheral towns is also possible during wee hours and after sunset. But the schools, business establishments, the public transport and most of the government offices continue to remain locked.

Authorities, last week, announced the phase wise opening of the schools but it did not take off. Now the focus is to get the employees to the offices so that their movement adds to the street footfall. Last week, various government agencies approached few sections of the trade, suggesting them to resume the routine. So, far it has not led to a breakthrough. Seemingly, the immediate priority is to get Lal Chowk crowded so that the camera frame gets a better view.

People are spending their days shuttling between the local markets and mosques as most of the time is spent before the TV. Some of the markets do open later in the evenings for quick provision sales. Unlike routine, the vegetable sellers push their carts into the localities and help people get their supplies. Right now, most of the vegetables consumed by the market are locally grown. Owing to the halt in tourism and return of the seasonal labour, the local produce is able to manage the local requirements, the people in the trade say.

A quick drive to Soura through Foreshore Road – Mala Bagh axis offers an idea of the enormous deployments. The interiors have deserted streets, closed shops and complete silence. Between Hazratbal and Soura, there are half a dozen spots where road has retained tell-tale marks of some recent protests, the remains of burnt tyres, stones and bricks. Barring Friday, there was no restriction on any kind of movement. But the number of cars plying on the roads dramatically goes down as one gets into the old city. There are ambulances and two-wheelers being stopped by the paramilitary-men at the concertina wire barriers and let go after some questions.

This monotonous life prevails in the city and most of the sub-urban belts of Kashmir. However, in villages the residents are spending their days in fields and the orchards. “We go to the orchards after the sunrise and return before the sunset,” one resident from a Shopian village said. “There is lot of deployment and it is scary.”

In most of the south Kashmir, residents said, they witness almost two flag marches by the army on daily basis. Usually, a convoy of twenty or more vehicles passes through the main and inner routes at slow speed, twice a day. “They do not touch anybody but their passage is a message in itself,” the resident, speaking anonymously said. “The police have already conveyed to the people that in case of any tension, they may not be able to help anymore.”

“Contrary to the expectations that the people will come out on streets and it will be a bloody stand-off, the people have responded maturely and stayed calm,” one broadcast journalist who has visited certain peripheral areas in the last fortnight said. “People, right now, have decided against speaking up and are apparently on a protest strike voluntarily.”

This is for the first time in recent history that there is no single person from Kashmir’s political class, divided on ideological basis, who could respond to the situation. This is because the government arrested almost everybody.

Though the official spokesman refused to offer any major details on the political arrests, reports suggest that more than 150 political arrests have been made. Authorities had designated six premises across Kashmir as additional jails in anticipation of the situation that rose after August 5. In anticipation of the political arrests, insiders in the political class said the security was withdrawn from their multiple properties and, on their preference, retained at one place only. Politicians in Jammu and Kashmir had cops guarding their ancestral homes in the villages, their official residences in Srinagar and Jammu. This time, the security was withdrawn and they were secured at one place.

“I visited the security lines recently and I saw the entire premises full with the vehicles, it was like a huge parking lot,” one journalist said. “On enquiry, I was told that more than 500 vehicles were withdrawn from the political class in recent days.”

There are more than 45 politicians in the Centaur Lake View Hotel in the SKICC premises, a designated sub-jail. More than 100 including lawmakers have been kept under house arrest with huge deployments outside.

Mirwaiz Umer Farooq was arrested and later driven to his home and kept under house arrest. Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah were first retained under house arrest at their homes but were later shifted to Hari Niwas, the erstwhile palace that was renovated during Ghulam Nabi Azad’s era. A few days later, Mehbooba, according to reports was shifted to a hut in Cheshma Shahi. All the politicians under arrest are being treated under the prevailing jail manual, official sources said.

There are lot of interesting developments in circulation about the political arrests but no official is confirming the same, insisting they are rumours.  One report said that Mehbooba and Umar were taken to Delhi for a night and flown back to their respective sub-jails. Same story is in circulation about Sajjad Lone, who is detained at SKICC.

Dr Farooq Abdullah is under house arrest at his Gupkar residence. He somehow managed to get out and talked to certain media outlets on the first day of the restrictions. Since then, however, he is not permitted out of his premises. Incidentally, one of his daughters, living in the same piece of land and separated just by a wall, had approached the High Court seeking a meeting with her father. Well before the court could pass the directions, the authorities had granted her permission for a meeting thus making her plea in-fractious automatically.

Mehbooba’s daughter is also under house arrest, according to various TV channels that broadcast her letters in the last three weeks.

Outside the SKICC, there is usually a crowd of people – mostly the relatives of the detained politicians, waiting for a meeting. Outside Srinagar, one hut in Gulmarg has also been designated as a sub-jail where one lawmaker is being held for more than a fortnight now.

Nobody in the government is offering an idea about the number of people who were arrested in last three weeks. An international wire agency had put the number of arrests at 4000 but there are people in Kashmir saying it could be more. But there is no official count available.

Invariably, the police stations across Kashmir get good crowds every day. These are relatives of the detained. Since the police station is the government’s outpost on security front, the families approach the police first. In certain cases, the detained are being retained locally but in a lot of cases, they have been flown to jails outside Jammu and Kashmir. A number of civil society members have also been rounded up.

At least two national parties – the Congress and the CPI (M), attempted sending their leaders to Srinagar. Former Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad flew to Srinagar soon after the parliament adjourned sine die. But he was stopped at the Srinagar airport and flown back. Same was the case with senior leftist leaders Sitaram Yechury and D Raja who were also arrested and sent back to Delhi. They had actually come to see their colleague, Mohammaf Yousuf Tarigami, who is unwell and under house arrest.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi announced his Srinagar visit. Accompanied by 11 other politicians including Azad, the group was from nine different opposition parties. The state government conveyed in anticipation that the visit could impact the ground situation as it would also violate the restrictions imposed across Kashmir. The government did not permit them to move out of the Srinagar airport. They had, however, insisted that they would like to meet the political class that has been held in detention for all these days. Interestingly, Rahul led team’s Srinagar flight coincided with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with the US president Donald Trump in Paris on the sidelines of the G7 meeting. Trump has been quite vocal on the situation that was created in Kashmir in wake of the abrogation of the special status.

There have been some smaller protests in the localities, some of which turned violent as well and resorted to stone pelting when stopped from marching ahead. Even the officials admitted some of these instances during routine media briefing. People at many places where such protests took place admitted that the paramilitary personnel responded with caution and restraint. Though a lot of pepper and tear smoke was used, alongside the shot guns, to manage these street protests, mostly in old Srinagar city, nobody was killed in the action, the officials insisted.

A number of people were injured in the police action, however. A doctor at the SMHS Hospital, speaking in complete anonymity said they are under the directions that the injured, if not critical, should be quickly treated and sent home. “We may not be able to tell you the number of people we treated and, may be, we may not have details as well,” he asserted. “But whatever the number, it is very very small.”

Hospital officials do admit that the situation has led to the abrupt fall in the number of patients. Most of the OPDs are closed as not many patients are able to make to the hospitals. In certain department in SMHS, Super Speciality Hospital, and the SKIMS number of the surgical interventions has witnessed a minor shift.

Kashmir’s all the tertiary care hospitals have ensured their staff reaches the hospital in time. However, the staffers said they are facing problems on account of the connectivity. They say once they leave their homes, they are unable to talk to their families which remain tense till they return.

Though most of the hospital labs are working normally, insiders said they are about to have problems on reagent availability. “The problem is not of purchasing them,” one doctor admitted, “the crisis is how to contact the supplier?” Neither of the major hospitals in Kashmir have more than three to five cell phones working. Even the hospital exchanges lack outside connectivity.

In the last three weeks, the counter-insurgency front is apparently on a halt. However, there was one incident somewhere in Baramulla in which one militant and a policeman were reportedly killed. Details of the incident, hitherto, are not fully available.

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