It had taken the family of Mohammad Maqbool Bhat two months to get an appointment with a doctor in Srinagar. On Sunday, as they travelled the 60 km from Bandipore to Srinagar, a 500-metre stretch of the national highway became the barrier.
At Shalteng crossing, a city suburb where the Bandipore highway connects to the national highway, the road was closed by spools of concertina wire. Mohammad Abass, a duty magistrate appointed by the government to facilitate civilian movement, was turning everyone away.
“This is cruel,” said the 55-year-old Bhat, who was accompanied by two women and a teenage boy. “We need to travel for only a few hundred metres on the (national) highway before we take an interior road. But they are not allowing us to do this.”
The 500 metres of road from Shalteng crossing to Parimpora crossing cut off Bandipore district from Srinagar city on the first day of the twice-a-week ban on civilian traffic movement on the Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla stretch of the national highway. This stretch has a service lane, but on Sunday that too was closed for civilian traffic.
From early morning, contingents of J&K Police, paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Army were deployed along the highway, and intersecting roads were closed by concertina wire. The Army’s Caspir vehicles and J&K Police’s mobile bunker vehicles were stationed at strategic locations.
While civilian traffic was completely halted on the highway, hospital ambulances were allowed to move by the duty magistrates posted along the highway and at key intersections. As civilian vehicles were turned away, mostly without magistrates and security forces listening to the people in them, anger rose.
“Today was the first day of the ban and nobody had an idea how to manage it and what to do,” Firdous Ahmad, sector magistrate for the Shalteng-Narbal area told The Indian Express. “There were some issues today but we will ensure that there are no complaints next time.”
In the morning, people at several city intersections complained they were not even allowed to cross the highway. “We have to just cross hundred feet of the highway to the other side and there is no convoy movement right now,” said a young man waiting at the intersection at Nowgam. “But they are not allowing us even that.”
What closure of highway means
The 370-km Jammu-Srinagar-Uri national highway — nearly three-fourths of which has been ordered shut to civilian traffic from dawn to dusk on Wednesdays and Sundays — is the lifeline of Kashmir Valley. It passes through five of the Valley’s 10 districts and impacts a population of over 69 lakh. According to official figures, over 10,000 vehicles move on the highway from both sides every hour. These include vehicles carrying students, patients, government officials and businessmen. At least seven important hospitals, including three big government hospitals, are located on the national highway.
Those who had hoped to use the train were frustrated, too. The three mains railway stations — Baramulla, Srinagar and Banihal — are all on the highway, and people had difficulty reaching them.
“I am 50 years old and I have never seen anything like this in my life,” said Abdul Rashid Shah, as he walked more than 4 km with his wife and granddaughter to reach the railway station at Nowgam. Shah, a resident of Bijbehara, was travelling to his home in South Kashmir. “This is a massive crackdown and it will only result in more anger.”
Shah’s wife was limping. “She has a problem in her leg,” he said. “She can barely walk but what can she do? She has no option.”
A senior railway official said that as against Saturday’s 22,000 passengers, only 17,000 passengers travelled — both to and fro — by train on Sunday.
Officials at several city hospitals told The Indian Express that they had fewer patients. “We don’t have OPDs on Sunday and we only receive emergency cases,” said Dr Farooq Jan, medical Superintendent at the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), Srinagar. “But today there was further dip of around 25 per cent in those cases as well.”
The highway ban impacted the city’s businesses, especially the Sunday flea market. “Every Sunday, I sell around 25-30 bags,” said Amir Hussain, who sells ladies bags. “But today, I have not sold one. Most of our customers come from the villages.”
Although Sunday passed without any untoward incident, officials expressed apprehensions about Wednesday, which would be a working day. “It will be a huge problem with schools and government offices open,” said a duty magistrate.