On Saturday, Mudasir Ahmad, a businessman in central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district, knew what he had to obtain on an emergency footing. “My parents are suffering from multiple ailments and they need to take medicines every day on time,” said Ahmad. “So my priority was to stock as much medicine as I could. Everybody is saying that something is going to happen but nobody knows what.”
While Ahmad got lucky with the medicines, he could not fill up his car with petrol. “I went to three petrol pump stations, all of them had run dry,” he said.
Mohammad Altaf, who owns a petrol pump on the outskirts of Srinagar, described the rush on Saturday. “On an average, I sell around 5,000 litres of petrol everyday, but on Saturday, we sold 20,000 litres,” he said. “There was such a rush of customers that at around 12 in the night, we ran out of supplies. Now, we have to wait for the oil tankers from Jammu to replenish our supplies.”
Many held the government responsible for the chaos. “We did not know what was happening and there was no clarity from any side,” said Mohammad Ayub, a government employee from Srinagar. “I think it was the government that made people panic by mass arrests and by issuing orders to stock supplies. It was a war-like situation.”
Ayub added: “We still feel something bad is brewing.”
Crackdowns and advisories
The Kashmir Valley had woken up to fear on Saturday morning. The previous evening the Ministry of Home Affairs had sent an additional 100 companies – approximately 10,000 soldiers – of the Central Armed Police Forces into the Valley, including troops of the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Sashastra Seema Bal. This was followed, later on Friday night, by an overnight crackdown on separatist leaders, including Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik, and members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an organisation that is often perceived as the political wing of the Hizbul Mujahideen.
The crackdown took place a little over a week after a suicide bomb attack on a Central Reserve Police Force convoy left at least 40 personnel dead in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district on February 14. The attack was claimed by the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Indian government has alleged Pakistani involvement in it. In the days after the blast, the government withdrew the security cover provided to separatist leaders of the Hurriyat and 155 “political persons” in the Valley. On Friday, it also told Greater Kashmir and The Kashmir Reader, two English dailies based in the Valley, that they would no longer receive government advertisements.
An order issued by the zonal police headquarters in Kashmir on Friday also said that the “static guard duties” performed by the Central Reserve Police Force would now be transferred to the Border Security Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.
From Saturday morning, the government issued a series of unusual administrative orders: hospitals should stock up on medicines, the Jammu and Kashmir police should be “in a state of readiness”, ration shops must sell all food grains by Saturday evening, vacations for government medical staff were cancelled, sale of petrol and diesel to civilians was to be restricted.
Rumours subsequently began to fly thick and fast. Some police officials spoke of a “war-like situation”. Some suspected it was a prelude to repealing Article 35A, one of the constitutional provisions that ensure special rights and privileges to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Across the Valley, residents lined up outside petrol pumps, ATMs, grocery and medical stores. The panic purchases have intensified shortages that the Valley has been facing because bad weather since the first week of February has led to the closure of the Srinagar-Jammu highway – through which supplies are brought in – for several days at a stretch.
The governor speaks
Even prominent politicians such as former Chief Ministers Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah appeared to be in the dark about the government’s intentions. “Nobody has a clue about what is to come but an ominous feeling of impending doom hangs in the air,” Mufti tweeted on Saturday.
Abdullah warned on Twitter the same day: “Some government orders are adding to the sense of panic.”
On Sunday morning, as the Valley saw a shutdown in protest against the mass arrests, the office of Governor Satya Pal Malik finally issued a statement that asked people not to panic or believe rumours. It said additional forces had been deployed in the Valley to ensure security for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
The statement, however, did acknowledge that “some security related action” was being taken by the armed forces in response to the “unprecedented” Pulwama attack. It said: “The response of security forces is guided solely by the need to counter both the impact and any further action that may be taken by terrorist groups who are still out to disrupt our country and its democratic processes.”
The statement said the “the supply situation of petroleum and other products in the Kashmir Valley is critically low” and that the Valley had petrol stocks for just one day and diesel stocks for four days. The statement added: “There is no stock of LPG in the Kashmir Valley. This is a result of the earlier blockage of the National Highway for seven days and the ongoing blockage for the past four days, leading to disruption of supplies from Jammu to Srinagar,” the statement said. Supplies were being rationed only as “an administrative measure in a shortage situation”.
But the statement has not allayed the fears of the Valley’s residents. “This is not the first time the Srinagar-Jammu national highway has been closed,” said a resident of Srinagar who did not want to be identified. “Why didn’t we see such orders then? Why is the government creating so much fear among people?”
‘Something is going to happen’
Kashmir is not new to periods of heightened tension between India and Pakistan, not to mention the threat of war. This time, according to observers in the Valley, social media and other forms of instant communication have amplified the panic.
On social media, unverified pictures of artillery vehicles and tanks moving on a highway surfaced over the weekend. Many spoke of jets in the night sky on Friday night. Unofficial “war advisories” were also circulated.
“Earlier, troop movements or any other war-related activity remained confined to a particular area only because there was no social media,” said historian PG Rasool, who has written extensively on Kashmir. “Now, when information like this is shared, the fear gets compounded.”
Besides, deliberations on war had now become public, he added. “In previous times, war used to be a state secret,” said Rasool. “It was not publicised for people. These days, from TV channels to politicians, everyone makes war cries. This is bound to multiply the fear psychosis.”
He also said the current panic was unprecedented, even when war seemed to loom large over the Valley, as in the aftermath of the 2001 attack on Parliament, when the Indian government massed troops along the India-Pakistan border. “During the 2001 troop movement, people in Kashmir panicked but not like this,” he said. “What has actually aggravated the situation is these government advisories. There is also a feeling among people in Kashmir that there is a different kind of government in India right now. A government that feels something should be done.”
Hameeda Nayeem, who heads the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies and is the wife of separatist leader Nayeem Khan, had misgivings about the government’s next move in Kashmir. According to her, the mobilisation of troops could either mean that the government was determined to crush any public protest against the dilution or abrogation of Article 35A, scheduled for hearing on February 25, or there was going to be a “a massive crackdown in the whole Valley”.