Two months after the Pulwama attack in which 40 CRPF men were killed, the government issued an unusual order banning civilian traffic on the Jammu-Srinagar highway on every Sunday and Wednesday until May 31. Ahead of the Parliamentary elections and citing security concerns as the reason to restrict civilian traffic the official statement states, “Keeping in view the large movement of security forces on the national highway during the Parliamentary elections and associated possibility of any fidayeen 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.”
To understand the implication of this order it is necessary to get an idea about this highway. While the stretch from Udhampur to the Banihal tunnel is mostly single lane, the highway widens after it branches out in the Valley, splitting into four lanes from Qazigund in South Kashmir to Narbal in Srinagar. After Narbal, the highway once again narrows to two lanes till Baramulla.
Since the highway is the only stretch of road that connects the Valley to the outside world, the order restricting civil traffic twice a week was bound to cause heavy disruptions in day-to-day lives of the people of Kashmir. Those particularly affected will be patients, school children, businessmen, government employees, farmers and orchardists as well as the drivers of public transport.
The restriction on movement of civilian traffic will add to problems already being faced by commuters due to the frequent closure of this highway on account of landslides and bad weather, which has forced the adoption of a one-way traffic system for commercial vehicles. Since J&K is heavily dependent on supply of essential commodities from outside the state, the highway becomes its lifeline and disruptions in vehicular traffic leads to scarcity of various items. It also causes prices to shoot up phenomenally due to hoarding by unscrupulous vendors and traders. It leads to widespread dissatisfaction and can create a crisis with the affected people taking to the streets in protest.
Srinagar has an airport but using that mode to transport goods and commodities is not only economically unviable but also far beyond the handling capacity of this airport.
Since Kashmir valley is a popular tourist destination, restrictions on civilian traffic will adversely affect the already tottering tourism industry. Similarly, this order will also disrupt the smooth movement of fruit-laden trucks from Srinagar during the crucial period of April and May. Due to the ban, those associated with the horticulture sector will also suffer from the impact on movement of fruits and vegetables which are perishable items.
The army hasn’t yet commented on this issue but former Army chief Gen VS Malik’s tweet slamming it as a “dumb idea” since it “goes against the core object of winning hearts and minds” and “shows forces becoming over defensive” seems to be in tune with the popular sentiments. Gen Malik is not the lone army man who has criticised this move as former Army chief Gen VK Singh who is part of the government has voiced his reservations and so has former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen DS Hooda. Gen Malik’s suggestion that there is a need to strengthen the local police, intelligence setup and improving ‘movement security’ reflects the positivity that the center needs to take serious notice of.
Facing criticism for closing down the highway connecting Jammu with Srinagar, the Union Home Ministry took refuge in statistics to claim the ban was for only 15 percent of total weekly hours. Underlining that the ban became necessary in the backdrop of the Pulwama attack, it has defended the step as a temporary measure that has been taken for ensuring safe movement of forces till May 31.
Political parties in the state, including the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and J&K Peoples Movement, approached the High Court on State Home department’s order to restrict civilian traffic twice a week on the national highway. The High Court issued a notice to the union ministries of home and defence and the state government to furnish a reply by April 19 to the petitions challenging the traffic order as it was in violation of fundamental rights of the people. Kashmir’s biz body has called for immediate revocation of the government order banning movement of civilian traffic on the Srinagar-Jammu highway for two days a week. They said the order does not augur well for a democratic set-up and has been rightly condemned by all stakeholders. Since this ban comes in the wake of the Lok Sabha polls in which the main thrust of J&K politics remains fixated on Centre-State relations, it’s bound to influence elections results in Kashmir valley and the BJP may well be the biggest loser.
There can be only two explanations for the unprecedented bi-weekly civil traffic restriction on J&K - either those who formulated this order had no idea of what they were doing, or, as many people in the Valley may fear, it has been imposed as a collective punishment on them. The movement of troops has been a regular feature in J&K over the last 30 years but never before has such a measure been imposed. Even in the 1990s when militancy was far more entrenched and widespread, no routine restrictions on movement of civil traffic on J&K highway was ever imposed.
The forces are there to protect Kashmir. If their purpose has changed to protecting themselves from Kashmiris, who too are citizens, on two days of the week, it is as good as admitting that India has lost the plot. Therefore, it’s high time that the government considers withdrawing this order as soon as possible to save the Kashmir from further alienation.