Since the last week, 40-year-old Mohammed Shafi has been receiving early morning phone calls regarding vehicular movement on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway. Shafi, a patwari (land record officer) with Jammu and Kashmir’s Department of Revenue, is one of the 18 duty magistrates deployed in different highway intersections connecting Srinagar with North and South Kashmir, following the state government’s ban on civilian traffic every Sunday and Wednesday until May 31. The decision, according to a statement by Governor Satya Pal Malik, was taken keeping in view the large movement of security forces on the highway during the parliamentary elections “and associated possibility of any fidayeen attack”.
A resident of Lasjan area of Srinagar, Shafi wakes up with the first call at 4.30 am from a colleague, the additional duty magistrate at the Peaks Crossing intersection, the starting point of the highway at Srinagar. Duty magistrates, monitored by sector magistrates, have been deputed at the intersections to facilitate movement of civilian vehicles.
Around 6.45 am, Shafi himself reaches Peaks Crossing, which is being patrolled by CRPF and traffic police personnel. During this early hour, traffic is limited, with only a few schoolbuses plying. After exchanging courtesies with a CRPF officer, Shafi reminds him that security forces must ensure minimum inconvenience to the general public. The officer nods, reiterating that the forces would allow those with passes to travel.
At around 8 am, a security forces’ convoy, including buses of the Border Security Force, pass via Peaks Crossing. While all civilian vehicles are stopped, a CRPF personnel provides update of the convoy movement to other intersections on his wireless.
As Shafi waits at the crossing, a vehicle approaches from the wrong side of the highway. “Sir, I am taking tourists to Pahalgam. But I was stopped at the intersection by the security forces. Please issue a pass for my vehicle,” pleads Srinagar resident Tariq Ahmad, the driver.
Avinash, who hails from Mumbai and is travelling with his wife in Ahmad’s car, says this is not the first time they have been stopped. “It is a huge inconvenience. This is not a public-friendly decision,” he adds, as Shafi issues a pass to Ahmad.
Moments later, Shafi clicks a picture of the highway on his cellphone to share it in a WhatsApp group, where duty magistrates are required to regularly post updates of the traffic situation. “We have to keep the higher authorities updated. This WhatsApp group was formed recently. DC Sahib is also in the group,” he says.
Over the next few minutes, a number of cars stop near Shafi. The drivers stand in a queue to collect passes that would allow them to continue their journey on the highway. While Shafi carefully fills the details on the passes before issuing them, a CRPF personnel standing nearby clicks pictures on his phone camera to send them to own seniors. A majority of the people in the queue are tourist vehicle drivers, employees and students travelling in their own vehicles.
But Shafi issues passes only after close scrutiny. A BTech student of the Islamic University of Science and Technology requests him for a pass as he needs to travel to the university at the earliest for an examination. Shafi asks him, “Why are you not wearing the uniform?” The boy responds, “Sir, only students pursuing BBA and MBA courses have to wear their uniform. The rest are exempted.”
By 11 am, the highway is full of vehicles. A group of journalists arrive at Peaks Crossing and start clicking pictures and talking to security personnel. A man standing close to Shafi’s car records videos on his phone. A traffic policeman approaches and questions him, and ensures that all videos are deleted.
“This is a sensitive area… and we have to be extra careful,” the policeman says, while requesting journalists to wear their identity cards.
But the queue in front of Shafi’s car has only been growing. Now a group of government employees wait to collect passes after being stopped. “But your ID card is your pass. Government employees are exempted from the ban… I will talk to them (security forces). For now, please take a pass and you will be allowed,” he tells one of them.
As more and more government officials join the queue, Shafi decides to visit the nearby security checkpoint to find out why they are being stopped. “There are some exempted categories. So please don’t stop them after they produce their ID cards,” he tells one of the soldiers.
As he leaves the checkpoint for Peaks Crossing, Shafi is stopped by journalists requesting for a sound byte. “I want to tell you that we are here for the general public. We are issuing passes to those who come to us,” he tells them. Only last week, he was interviewed by an international media outlet, Shafi says. “I had never imagined that I would come on television. But let me tell you, I am very careful about what I say….”
Soon after, news spreads that former chief minister Omar Abdullah will be visiting the intersection to protest against the ban. National Conference workers start pouring in.
At around 11 am, Abdullah’s cavalcade reaches Peaks Crossing. Sitting in the middle of the road, consequently throwing the traffic into chaos, the former CM tells the media that the government should revoke the “Tughlaqi farmaan”. As the traffic builds up, and even escort vehicles of senior Army officers are now stuck, the relative of a patient travelling to Pulwama from a hospital in Srinagar loses his cool. “They are doing this politics now. Who will be responsible if anything happens to my uncle? He is extremely sick,” the man says, fuming.
After staging the brief protest, Abdullah leaves. By 12.30 pm, the highway is back to normal.
Soon after, a CRPF officer commanding the local battalion arrives. His guard requests Shafi and his additional magistrate for a meeting. The trio discuss the security and traffic situation as well as the effects of the ban. “The officer was telling me that people are saying that if the ban is for two days in a week, they must not be stopped on other days,” Shafi informs later.
Around 1 pm, a cavalcade suddenly stops near the intersection. Former CM and Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti, who is travelling to South Kashmir to address a rally, has now made a halt, speaking to the assembled journalists for a few minutes on Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and his comments on the ongoing parliamentary elections.
By 2 pm, traffic on the highway has slowed down. Shafi receives a phone call from someone intending to apply for certain documents related to land. “The job of a patwari is very tough because one has to deal with the public,” he says. “Since I am posted here, my regular work is suffering. People have been calling me as I am not available in the office.”
While he talks over the phone, Shafi receives a box of biryani sent by the administration. “We are thankful to DC sahib for sending us refreshments,” he smiles.
Soon, another security forces’ convoy passes through Peaks Crossing, and the same drill is repeated.
Around 4 pm, a cancer patient along with his family members who are travelling from a local hospital in Srinagar to Shopian arrive. The pass is immediately issued.
As his driver starts the car to finally take Shafi home, the latter says he issued about 150 passes all day, and hopes that he does not have to come back to Peaks Crossing for the duty again. “I hope the government would consider lifting the order as people are angry,” he says.