SRINAGAR (Agencies) — Authorities in Kashmir began enforcing a government ban on Sunday on the movement of civilian vehicles for two days a week on a key highway to keep it open exclusively for military and paramilitary convoys.
Soldiers patrolled the highway and erected barricades by steel and razor wire at intersections with neighbourhood roads. India’s government issued the order this past week, reserving the 270km stretch of the highway for the movement of government forces vehicles on Sundays and Wednesdays until the end of May.
The order follows the February 14 suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy that killed 40 soldiers and brought rivals India and Pakistan to the brink of war. Civilian traffic was already being disallowed along the highway during the movement of troops’ convoys after the attack.
The order said the ban was called to prevent any attacks by militants “keeping in view the large movement of security forces on the national highway” during India’s multi-phase general election, which begins on Thursday.
The highway is the only one connecting the restive Kashmir Valley in the Himalayas to the Indian plains, and a large part of it passes through mountains and forests. The road is currently being widened into a four-lane highway and is prone to frequent closure during winters and bad weather.
The ban on Highways has evoked sharp criticism from politicians, businessmen and common residents in Jammu and Kashmir.
Political parties in Jammu and Kashmir despite their differences have come together in their opposition to the ban on civilian traffic for two days a week on an important highway that came into effect on Sunday.
Politicians, rights activists and school operators in the region labelled government’s move “collective punishment” for Kashmiris because a militant from the area carried out the attack.
“We can’t run schools under these circumstances,” said G.N. Var, chairman of an association of privately run schools in Kashmir. “They are pushing Kashmir into darkness.”
Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti called on people in the state to defy the ban. “My appeal to people is not to accept this ban. Defy it and travel wherever you want to go. We will challenge this ban in the court as well,” she said.
Protested against Guv admins callous & absurd ban today. How can you restrict civilian movement on our main highway? You want to smother Kashmiris, change the demographics of the state & imprison them in their own land? Over my dead body. pic.twitter.com/y72LUVGhTY
— Mehbooba Mufti (@MehboobaMufti) April 7, 2019
The People’s Democratic Party’s chief also tweeted videos of her as well as her party leaders protesting against state Governor Satya Pal Malik and his administration over the ban. “This is Kashmir, not Palestine. We won’t allow you to turn our beloved land into an open air prison,” she said.
Omar Abdullah also took to Twitter, calling the ban “mindless”. The National Conference leader raised concerns over the inconvenience it would cause. “Driving to Uri I’m getting to see first hand the extent of disruption & inconvenience that is being caused to people because of the mindless highway closure order that is in place today,” Mr Abdullah said.
Here’s another full strength convoy. I’m simply trying to highlight the point that the architects of the highway closure have made no application of mind. Somehow this convoy on the highway is safe today but it wouldn’t have been yesterday & won’t be on Wednesday. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/u5sMMUagQt
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) April 8, 2019
Other leaders including Sajjad Lone, a former ally of the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir, called the ban a “Humanitarian disaster”. He called on the governor to “urgently” lift the ban. “Flooded will calls from across the state. People in dire need to travel in order to tend to their day to day needs of survival stuck in a state of helplessness. @jandkgovernor urgently needs to scrap the inhuman order,” he said in a tweet.