Security forces scour the site of the car bomb attack south of Srinagar that killed over 40 police and sparked the crisis. Photo: AFP / Debajyoti Chakraborty / NurPhoto

The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, currently under federal rule, has declared that civilian traffic will not be allowed on the crucial Jammu-Baramulla section of the National Highway on Sundays and Wednesdays. Instead, the highway will be reserved for movement of security forces until May 31. The notification states, “Keeping in view the large movement of security forces on the national highway during the parliamentary elections and associated possibility of any fidayeen terror attack on security forces’ convoys, the state government has notified specified days in a week for the movement of security forces from Srinagar to Jammu. During these days, no civilian traffic [will] be allowed on National Highway.”

The statement also said the prohibition would be from Baramulla through Srinagar, Qazigund, Jawahar Tunnel, Banihal and Ramban as far as Udhampur.

The notification comes in the wake of the suicide terror attack on an Indian police convoy that killed 40 policemen on February 14.

The move to ban civilian traffic indicates the continued muddled thinking of the federal government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with respect to Kashmir. Knee-jerk actions like this are made without due thought and are devoid of logic. The state of J&K is under governor’s rule, and governors, who are constitutionally appointed, have been reduced to being political appointees of the federal government. In some states, governors are openly canvassing for a particular political party.

The notification reflects poorly on the understanding of security by current J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik and his advisers. But such an order would hardly have been passed without the approval of federal Home Minister Rajnath Singh and National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, and possibly also a nod from Modi, given the environment of centralized authoritarian governance, and Kashmir being on the top of its security agenda.

The decision is supposed to have been made after the National Investigation Agency (NIA) probe into the car-bomb attack at Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, on February 14 in which 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were killed. But that was two months ago. On one hand it is declared that Jammu and Kashmir elections will not be held along with general elections that started on April 11. And now the government has imposed an absurd restriction on movement of civilians, causing immense hardship.

The federal government also removed the security of several state politicians amid massive propaganda of having achieved a major feat. Ironically, it was restored in less than two weeks, so this fools no one. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto claims that it has made all the necessary efforts to ensure peace. However, four years of government by an alliance of the People’s Democratic Party and BJP in the state has seen escalating levels of violence. The irony is that given the unsavory nature of India’s politics, the BJP will hardly refrain from going into a second alliance with the PDP, should such an opportunity occur.

Strangely enough, the notification for restricting movement along the National Highway was issued without even taking the Indian Army leadership into confidence. This anyway is in line with the Modi-led government’s thought process that the army’s view on anything related to security is redundant. The fact is that the loss of 40 CRPF troopers’ lives in the car-bombing at Pulwama is a setback that has been conveniently brushed under the carpet. The demands for air movement because of a mounting backlog of troopers in the Jammu camps were completely ignored. There was a tremendous intelligence failure. The 2,500 unarmed troopers who were part of the convoy were being moved without an adequate armed escort and no officer was reportedly accompanying them. The mandatory road-opening party, which was supposed to sanitize the route, was obviously inadequate, as it didn’t even return fire when terrorists opened fire after the car-bomb was detonated.

However, NSA Ajit Doval said “the nation is indebted to CRPF for Pulwama.” Instead of showing respect to the lives lost and taking action against those responsible in order to avoid a repeat, this seemed to indicate a misplaced sense of gratitude for enabling air strikes against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) bases in Balakot, Pakistan. This, in turn, gave huge political mileage for the general elections to the ruling BJP. The Pulwama incident of February 14 was not the first car-bombing, although the results achieved were by far the most horrendous. It is not the first time that elections are to be held in Jammu and Kashmir while it battles a rising insurgency. And it is not the first time convoys have been attacked by terrorists.

On April 7, the first day of the ban on movement along the J&K National Highway, chaos was visible all over. Though the state government, two days earlier on April 5, had announced relaxations on the ban such as allowing patients, students and tourists to ply their vehicles along with the security forces convoy, many locals could not reach medical colleges and hospitals on the highway. Tourist buses and cabs also preferred to stay away, fearing problems of movement. Local state politicians and separatists naturally found another reason to lambaste the government, although this time the reason was justified. The Indian Army has already stated that the notification cannot be implemented – their convoy movements cannot be restricted to two days a week. Obviously the powers that be have no idea of the volume of traffic of security forces and whether it can be restricted to a few days only.

On April 8, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court issued a notice to the state government in response to a petition filed against the ban on civilian traffic along the lifeline highway, calling the traffic ban a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution. A division bench of the High Court directed the government to come up with alternative solutions and other suggestions on an immediate basis. The notification issued applied to some 249 kilometers of the National Highway. The responsibilities of road opening along the highway are well laid out, designating responsibility for each segment. Effective road opening has always been the need. It cannot be applied to just a few days in a week, especially since the forces available for the task remain the same.

The ban on movement of convoys indicates the absurdity of trying to cope with a security situation while the government prefers to cocoon itself and continue to ignore the army’s perspective. Would another bomb blast lead to restricting convoys even more? Finally, despite the retaliatory air strikes on Pakistan, India shows no will to explore sub-conventional means to deter Pakistan’s deep state and its sponsoring of terrorism as a part of its foreign policy.

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