It’s a move that would almost certainly impact daily lives in Kashmir. The recent order to bar, till May 31, civilian traffic on a 270-km stretch of the Srinagar-Jammu highway between Udhampur and Baramulla every week on Wednesdays and Sundays for smooth, and exclusive, passage of security forces’ convoys is also without precedent. The Jammu and Kashmir government cited security concerns—emanating from the Pulwama suicide bomb attack that killed 40 CRPF personnel on February 14 on the highway—as the reason to restrict civilian traffic. The highway is Kashmir’s lifeline, connecting different districts of the Valley; its closure shuts out all business-related travel on these two days. The highway has over 70 cross-roads leading to the interiors; with the highway’s closure Kashmiris would be confined to their homes.
While the public is seething with helpless anger, National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah is indignant. “The road was not closed even during the Kargil war,” he says. People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti termed it “like a diktat of martial law”. “After bringing Kashmir to the brink, the administration is adamant on ensuring collective punishment for Kashmiris,” she says. The PDP plans to challenge the decision in court. NC vice-president Omar Abdullah directly attacked Governor Satya Pal Malik, saying he hasn’t seen an administration so determined to alienate the local population with its anti-people decisions. “The governor and his team are setting new records in the state,” Omar fumes. A senior police officer confirms that the ban on civilian traffic is not the police’s decision, but that of the Centre.
However, Malik’s advisor Vijay Kumar defends the ban on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. The decision is for a limited time due to legitimate security concerns, he says, and, contrary to popular apprehension, all civilian traffic will not remain suspended during those two days. “I concede the point that we could have elaborated the order further. There is to be no 100 per cent restriction. It is more of a regulation, which is little tighter than the previous ones. This is not permanent measure,” he says. Magistrates, it has been informed, would issue passes to civilians for using the road on Wednesdays and Sundays, including one-day passes in case of emergencies. Exceptions are to be made for government employees, tourists, emergency services and schoolchildren.
While the decision to ban civilian traffic has incensed all, the state government on April 5 took another unpopular decision—to withdraw the security cover to 919 persons, including 22 separatist leaders, before Lok Sabha polls. While the government says the decision was taken after a Jammu and Kashmir State Security Review Coordination Committee (SRCC) meeting, like other decisions of the governor and the State Administrative Council (SAC) it is seen as part of the NDA government’s hardline policy towards Kashmir. The NC and the PDP will appeal against it before the Election Commission, saying that it is an attempt to keep parties away from the polls. Much of the anger is directed at the SAC, comprising governor Malik and Vijay Kumar, Khurshid Ganai, Kewal Kumar Sharma and K. Skandan.
According to a senior official, since the six-month governor’s rule (and president’s rule since December 2018) in J&K, the state administration has taken over 256 decisions, some with political-administrative implications. The SAC last year approved Jammu and Kashmir Metropolitan Regional Development Authorities Bill 2018; it also approved a proposal to amend the Jammu and Kashmir Panchyati Raj Act. However, the governor had to roll back its decision of November 22, 2018 to make Jammu and Kashmir Bank Limited a public sector unit. The decision was taken without even consulting the J&K Bank’s board of directors. Political parties had called the move an attack on the bank’s autonomy.
J&K governor S.P. Malik’s decisions—to amend Article 370 and the Panchayati Raj Act and now the ban—are deplored by all parties.
“The governor is taking hasty decisions,” complains Jammu Kashmir Pradesh Congress chief Ghulam Ahmad Mir. Mir alleges that Malik is bypassing all political processes, and seems to have forgotten that his is a stop-gap administration. “He came after N.N. Vohra and we were expecting he would behave like Vohra. But governor Malik makes political statements and has encroached upon the domain of political parties,” Mir tells Outlook.
Mir says that for decisions having constitutional and policy implication for J&K, the governor should take parties into confidence. “In case of crucial security decisions, he should call all-party meetings. He takes decisions and when they are criticised, he complains that he is being criticised,” Mir adds.
Then, Malik is accused of being partisan and sectarian. This February, the SAC made Ladakh, earlier part of the Kashmir Valley, a separate division of the state, with Leh as its headquarters. The decision was decried as discriminatory in largescale protests in Kargil. Malik was forced to amend his decision, and made the divisional headquarters rotational between Leh and Kargil. The decision also fuelled demands of regional autonomy for the Pir Panjal and Chenab regions of Jammu, with Omar Abdullah making it a poll promise.
If this wasn’t enough, in March the Centre promulgated an ordinance for giving reservation benefits to SCs and STs in J&K by amending a clause of Article 370 of the Constitution that gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The Constitution (Application to Jammu and Kashmir) Amendment Order, 2019 by the President under clause (1) of Article 370 was issued by the Union government after “the concurrence of the government of Jammu and Kashmir”. Omar has pointed out that ‘government’ in this case means an elected government and that the President cannot seek approval of the governor, a representative of the President himself. The NC plans to challenge it in court.
IAS officer-turned politician Shah Faesal says Malik has been making frequent public statements to denigrate mainstream political parties. “His tone has been confrontational from the very start. He was expected to jump into the shoes of Governor Vohra, whose political acumen and calm temperament had won him many friends across the political divide,” Faesal, who heads Jammu Kashmir Peoples Movement, tells Outlook. “Malik’s tenure is a complete departure from his predecessor’s policies. At one point, a governor used to be seen as a blessing in Kashmir…. Possibly for the first time in J&K’s history, people are waiting for governor’s rule to end, because Malik is seen as a threat to the special status of the state. With the recent amendment of Article 370 to provide reservation, the looming threat to Article 35A and now the ban on civilian traffic…governor Malik has denied himself the privilege of being a people’s governor,” Faesal adds.
Vijay Kumar says that the decision to withdraw the security of leaders of some mainstream parties would be reviewed in the light of the impending elections. Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary B.V.R. Subrahmanyam couldn’t be reached for his comments and Governor Malik didn’t respond to queries.
“We have already conveyed that in case our party comes to power, we would review decisions taken by the governor’s administration,” says Omar Abdullah’s political advisor Tanvir Sadiq, pointing out the rash of controversial decisions taken under Malik. “Our party vice-president has already stated that there is not a road in Kashmir without potholes. The governor’s administration didn’t execute developmental work; instead it got involved in political and policy decisions, which should have been left to the elected government,” Sadiq says.
As the rest of the country prepares for the heat of the Lok Sabha polls, the main thrust of J&K politics remains fixated on Centre-state relations.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar