Since the terrorist attack in Pulwama in February, many decisions taken by the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir have hit headlines for wrong reasons and the ban on civilian traffic on the 271-km National Highway 44 between Udhampur and Kashmir for two days every week is one of them. Insiders say that the decision was taken by the Chief Secretary of the state in consultation with New Delhi and army was not kept in the loop.
Various stakeholders in the valley have interpreted the "ban" differently. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh justified it. But the army claims they were not consulted before decision was taken. And to drive the point home, they have been moving on the highway on all days except Fridays. They term their movement as "operational duty". Even Jammu and Kashmir police has been using the road regularly.
So the question arises, who does the decision benefit? Only forces that are being deployed in the valley for the elections - about 500 companies or 50000 soldiers, say some.
Sources say regular inputs are pouring in since Pulwama that Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed may strike again. "Post Banihal no one wanted to take chance as stakes are very high especially because of the elections," a senior functionary in the government said, referring to the blast late last month that had striking similarities to February's Pulwama attack but fortunately no one was hurt.
According to him, after another attack will push the subcontinent to war.
The ruling BJP is worried that in election season, another attack on security forces would have far-reaching effects nationwide. And that is why the ban was imposed. But did the party not think how they are alienating Kashmiris further? Opposition parties claim that the BJP is not bothered with difficulties being faced by local Kashmiris as they are not their vote bank.
The pitch of resentment spikes on Sundays and Wednesdays - the days of ban. Last Wednesday, a man was granted permission to travel by a duty magistrate with a stamp and scribble on the palm of his hand. A picture of the humiliating hall pass later went viral on the social media.
The government, however, claims that they have tried to tackle problems on the ground by deploying magistrates at strategic spots on the road to issue on-the-spot permissions to the people in an emergency but locals say it is not making any difference.
The reason is that the highway is used by thousands every day and all of them do it for diverse social, medical and economic reasons. And it is not possible to issue permissions to all of them when the issue at play is the security of the convoys. So the crisis seems unlikely to subside any time soon.
There is no doubt that security convoys present a perfect target for the terrorists as they are long and slow-moving vehicles carrying troops both ways. But to counter such attacks, certain measures were put in place in the past and a multi-tier security system has long been enforced. This comprised of jamming of Radio Controlled Improvised Explosive Devices (RCIEDs) frequencies, corridor-protection teams, deep deployments all along the National Highway and stopping of civilian traffic during convoy movements.
"In fact, no night movement of civilians was permitted till 2002 and was permitted only when Mufti (Mohammad Sayeed) came to power in his first term. The dilution of security grid both on the National Highway and in the hinterland started during his time under the garb of healing touch and giving political space to Separatist elements," a former Jammu and Kashmir police chief said.
According to him, the movement of traffic on National Highway is regulated by the police after due consultations with all the stakeholders including the army. "There was a robust mechanism of coordination and consultation. Before issuing any such order, all should be consulted as it affects all forces," he added.
As a reporter covering the issue, a sense I got from various quarters is that the decision has been taken in haste and panic by the government after the Banihal incident. More so, as interrogation of suicide bomber Owes Ameen has revealed that he was indoctrinated by Hizul Mujahideen. "He got scared at the last moment otherwise there would have been serious damages," said an investigator.
So after Banihal is everyone playing safe? Yes, claim officers on the ground. But as the army is not under state control, it is not bound to follow its orders. But does that mean that the Ministry of Defence and Home Affairs are not on same page as far as the ban is concerned?
Questions like these normally come to every reporters mind but there is no one in the government who gives clear answers especially as far as Kashmir is concerned.
The National Highway starting from Kathua (Lakhanpur) to Leh (Ladakh) is the lifeline not only for Kashmir and Ladakh but also strategically important for the army and security forces.
All the supplies to the Valley and Ladakh have to pass through the National Highway in the absence of rail connectivity.
Since the road to Valley and Ladakh gets cut off due to snowfall, rains and landslides during winters, all the essential supplies have to be stocked well in advance to tide over six months of harsh winter.
Similarly, the same National Highway is extensively used for providing supplies to the army deployed in Kashmir Valley (15 Corps) and Ladakh (14 Corps) including Siachen. The entire troop movement takes place through this NH which at places is very narrow and is subjected to the vagaries of nature despite best efforts.
The Jawahar Tunnel and Zojila Pass throw up a challenge in maintaining and keeping them open even during the normal times leave alone during winters when they are covered under thick snowfall.
In addition to this, large number of Central Armed Police Forces or CAPF is also deployed in the Valley and all essential supplies and movement of men and material takes place regularly through the highway.
Disruption of communication is one of the most important aspect of insurgency and terrorism where the forces are cut off from supplies and reinforcements and also creating discontent and chaos among the public through shortage of essential items.
Old timers claim dilution of the security grid in Srinagar city is responsible for the unfettered movement of terrorists in the city which at one point of time was completely cleared of them.
But local officers, however, counter this by highlighting the figures. This year, in the first three months, close to 70 terrorists have been gunned down by security forces while the figure was just 37 last year for the same time period.
They, however, concede that a new difficult chapter in history of Kashmir is being written. "After Balakote strikes, a pseudo sense of normalcy is there. In fact, after a long time, after Friday prayers, there was no stone pelting even in downtown area too," said an officer.
Some claim policies of the Modi government via Kashmir is going to haunt the next government. Muscular policy being adopted is now being questioned as it is not bringing any results.
Radicalisation in the Valley has increased even at school and college level. Hijabs are more visible even in schools.
This time, at Shab-e-Mehraj, crowds were also thin at Hazratbal indicating that Sufism is dying a slow death in Kashmir while radicalism is gaining ground.
Former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has termed this order as a reflection of a BJP-led mindset of turning Kashmir into a colony like British-era.
According to the order issued on April 3 by state Home Secretary Shaleen Kabra, no civilian traffic will be allowed to move from Baramulla in north Kashmir to Udhampur in Jammu region on Sundays and Wednesdays till May 31.
Facing criticism for closing down the National Highway connecting Jammu with Srinagar, the Union Home Ministry also took refuge in statistics to claim the ban was for only 15 per cent of total weekly hours.
The statement comes at a time when the ministry has to file its reply to the Jammu and Kashmir High Court which has directed it to respond by April 19 to a bunch of petitions challenging the decision.
(Neeta Sharma is Editor, Strategic and Security Affairs at NDTV India)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.
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