Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, has been in the thick of things since the Centre scrapped special status for Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370. He spoke to The Indian Express on the situation in the Valley, political detentions, and the road ahead. Excerpts:
What is the current situation of restrictions and public unrest in Srinagar and rest of the Valley?
Though I represent Srinagar district only as part of the administration, if we talk overall about Kashmir, the idea behind any kind of restriction is to safeguard life and maintain public peace. It’s not good to count in numbers the kind of damages we have suffered, but you have seen over so many years when there were issues of violence. This time, there has not been a single death or serious case of injury, and I think that was the prime motive of any kind of restrictions.
We are nearly three weeks into it and things are improving because we started giving relaxations in many areas where restrictions were in place at least three to four days before Eid.
So things have improved. Wherever you open restrictions, there will be different kinds of responses. There could be some sporadic protests; there could be some serious situation; or no reaction at all. The basic idea is that there should be no violence, no loss of life and injury, no damage to public property and maintenance of essential supplies.
Some restrictions have been relaxed in the past few days and primary schools have been opened. But as we saw through our reporters in Srinagar, either some schools have not opened at all or attendance is very low. How do you plan to instill confidence?
As far as opening of schools is concerned, there has been a debate in a section of the media that the government is trying to show signs of normalcy by opening schools. We have seen that in 2016 and 2010, it has been said, but that’s not the case now.
Let’s talk about Srinagar. We have 930-odd schools in Srinagar district, and we started (by reopening) with 196 schools. We got feedback from the security establishment; we had a meeting with heads of the institutions and teachers…. After that, we decided to open some schools. Out of 196, teachers could reach only 160-170 schools. On the first day, we had attendance of 4-6, or maximum 10 students (per school). There were hardly 65 students across the district.
There has been a slight improvement but I must say it’s our responsibility to ensure safety and security of students to keep our schools open. It is up to parents whether they are willing to send their kids to school, but I must say we are providing that reassurance.
When do you think you will be able to completely lift restrictions and fully reestablish all communication lines?
It’s very difficult to give a particular time-line — it could be tomorrow, it could be a week’s time. Everything depends on the ground situation. I could give an example: in most parts of Kashmir, particularly in Srinagar, significant restrictions were removed and the situation remained peaceful for two days before Eid. But there were sporadic incidents, after which one had to rethink about these restrictions.
The executive magistrate, SHOs and police officers concerned decide at their level whenever restrictions are to be eased or reimposed. The decision is not being taken at the Central level right now. So that is another state we have reached — whatever the situation is normal, restrictions have to be removed. If you talk about north Kashmir in Kupwara, (for instance), markets are opening, schools are opening and whenever the situation is peaceful, restrictions will be removed.
You said it could take a few days or weeks. Could it be months also?
We don’t foresee this going on for too long because there could be a debate on political issues or other points, but then there is no loss of life or loss on the ground.
Now that you have a certain assessment of the situation, what do you think would be the public reaction after restrictions are lifted and how are you preparing for that?
I think in this case the first and foremost thing is communication and outreach. There has been a frameshift in the status of Jammu and Kashmir state and we have been talking about it for last so many decades. We have to reach out to the people and discuss the latest developments. So I think that is being taken up. There should be a debate. If there are negatives, the public will come out with that. But the government needs to project at all levels what it all means. So I think communication and outreach would be important. Wherever there is public anger, we have to see that and ensure there is an outreach.
Almost all key political leaders, especially in Srinagar, are under detention. There are reports of some 500 to 800 political workers being under detention. How long do you think detention of political leaders and workers will continue?
Again, there is no centralised figure of detentions. We have seen a section of the media quoting different figures, but the number of detention cannot be permanent. There are some temporary detentions; people are being released also.
As far as political leaders are concerned, I will not comment on that. But overall, the detention process is being handled at the local level, at police station level and executive magistrate level.
But you must be aware of detentions in Srinagar, at least.
Certainly, I’m saying that the political leaders are there, wherever it was required to maintain public piece and tranquility. We have seen a number of inflammatory statements in media also, but there is a limit to which I can react. Overall, it is being decided at the local level and many political leaders also have been released.
Can you put a rough number to the number of detentions in Srinagar?
No, because I said it’s at local level and it keeps changing. You detail five persons today and you release four of them tomorrow. It’s a dynamic process.
MoS PMO Jitendra Singh, when asked recently about political detentions in Kashmir, said it was not the first time and gave the example of Sheikh Abdullah who was behind bars for years. So are we going to see a prolonged detention for the leaders who are under detention at the moment?
I think things will improve soon and all this will end.
Do you think there is a danger of political workers hitting the streets after restrictions are lifted? Do you foresee a breakout of violent protests?
Those (restrictions) are temporary measures, and I must say there is no restriction on freedom of speech or movement as far as any political protest is concerned. We are strictly against violence. There is no scope for any use of force or violence, no matter what the quantum of political resentment there is.
There are also reports of local journalist either not getting access, or their movement being severely restricted. It is being said that journalists from Delhi are getting better access than Kashmiri journalists.
We have been watching the debate about insider and outsider journalists. This is happening for the first time and it is within journalism that they are discussing it. We have nothing to do with that narrative. As far as providing access to local journalists is concerned, we have database statistics available. We have put it in public also.
A few prominent journalists raised the issue that they did not receive movement passes, or that they did not get any access to the government information system.
Up to August 9, 214 movement passes were issued, of which just 53 were given to journalists from outside J&K. It’s not for us to decide who is coming from outside. Up to August 14, nearly 455 movement passes were issued, of which only 65 (mediapersons) were from Delhi; the others were local. We have a media cell open where access is free for all journalists…. There is no problem from our side.
If there is any discrimination from government side, it should be cited in a pin-pointed manner. You can’t make sweeping statements that you are being discriminated against. There have been reports that certain people are getting WiFi access, but then you have tell me who is giving WiFi access to whom.
In the first 10 days, figures available with us show 166 stone-pelting incidents occurred, leading to injuries to 45 security forces. There must have been retaliatory action by the forces. What is the figure for civilian casualties and injuries?
We have seen a tremendous decline in incidents of stone-pelting in the last at least one year. We have seen many law and order incidents on Fridays even when there was no issue. Compared to that, there has been no visible violence during the current year, or after the latest Constitutional changes.
There has been not a single casualty in our records due to any kind of violence in retaliatory use of force by law enforcement agencies. A few people who were injured, around a dozen…these were mentioned by the government’s spokesperson.
When tension was building up before announcement of the restrictions, you were tweeting and asking people to not panic and not hoard essentials. You kept saying nothing major was going to happen. People will now say they were right in panicking, and that you were wrong. So when the Centre does not take the local administration into confidence before taking such a massive decision, it creates a trust deficit between the local administration and the people. Do you think the Centre should have taken the local administration into confidence?
You wrongly say that before August 5 we kept the public in dark. We cannot decide what’s coming up in Parliament or the Assembly, or for that matter any Constitutional authority. When I say there is nothing to panic about, it’s not that I have to launch a debate on Article 370, or what’s going to happen in Parliament. My domain is that we have sufficient fuel supply, sufficient foodgrain available, sufficient essential services and sufficient medicines available. So there is no need to panic.
You have seen that in last three weeks, there has not been a breakdown in power supply. We never discuss that because it doesn’t make news. There was no breakdown of sanitation system, water supply, home delivery of LPG and other things. We were prepared from that point of view. How can you expect an administrator that he should make an assumption and create panic?
Even today, I stand by my words – it’s not our mandate to launch a debate in public that XYZ thing is going to happen in Parliament. If there is a preparedness, that has to be at our level in Kashmir.
I think it is unheard of that Parliament would reach out to the local administration because a certain legislation is coming up…. It’s beyond my imagination that I would discuss what’s going to happen in Parliament. That’s not my job.
There is also a mismatch between various reactions from the government. The government first tried to deny the protests in Soura (in Srinagar), and then said there were 1,000-1,500 people. Then a Home Ministry communiqué said no protest had more than 20 people.
You mention a particular incident. I must say there is a specific reporting system in the government. We don’t go by hearsay. We have to communicate things in writing and get it signed and stamped. There could have been some communication gap in understanding and getting the points from the ground. But what we have seen in the last three weeks is that there is a different level of ecstasy within the media to report these incidents without getting corroborative information from the government side…. We are holding press conferences twice a day – at 11 am and 6 pm. That’s the most authentic information.