Pro-azaadi alliance, clergy support COVID-19 curfew in Kashmir

J&K administration has on Sunday evening officially announced a complete lockdown until March 31

Jammu
Police officials check ID cards of commuters after lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Jammu | PTI

For most Kashmiris, the lockdown in Kashmir Valley due to the COVID-19 pandemic is a déjà vu moment for they are used to prolonged shutdowns and curfews since last three decades. But this time, the additional aspects of the lockdown are social distancing and lack of speedy 4G internet services.

The intensity of the official lockdown can be gauged from the fact that on the occasion of Shab-i-Me’raj, people stayed indoors and did not visit Srinagar’s Hazratbal mosque situated on the banks of the famed Dal Lake. Shab-i-Me’raj is a night celebrated by Muslims across the world with the belief that it was during this journey that the Prophet of Islam ascended to the Heavens while being accompanied by Archangel Gabriel.

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This became possible after the Jammu and Kashmir Waqf Board (J&KWB) on Saturday (March 21) announced suspension of both regular and special prayers at the mosques and shrines affiliated to the board. The decision of suspending mandatory prayers and Friday sermons was taken with the aim to avoid mass gatherings in the wake of the health crisis of colossal proportions.

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“…it is hereby ordered to suspend regular prayers in shrine/mosques affiliated with the Waqf Board and displaying of the Holy Relic (a hair strand of the Prophet) on the occasion of Mehraj-ul-Alam celebrations,” the J&KWB said in its official statement.

Normally, on the occasion of Shab-i-Me’raj or Mehraj-ul-Alam, people gather in thousands at the Hazratbal mosque by the evening, and offer special prayers until dawn.

What was also significant was that the Srinagar-based head priest, popularly known as Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, broke his seven-month-long silence to lend his support to the precautionary measures during the coronavirus crisis.

Mirwaiz Umar heads a faction of the pro-independence All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) besides being in-charge of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Ulema (MMU), an alliance comprising religious bodies and scholars. He impressed upon Islamic priests and sermonisers to deliver brief Arabic sermons on Fridays. “We pray for an atmosphere of peace and health across the world,” he was quoted by the MMU as having said.

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Normally, the ideological divide between the J&K government and Kashmir’s pro-independence amalgams, clergy and trade bodies comes to the fore on most occasions, but this time it appears that most of them believe that being on the same page during a virulent disease could save all.

Meanwhile, Jammu and Kashmir administration on Sunday evening officially announced a complete lockdown until March 31. Only essential services are exempted. The official shutdown came into force from 8 pm on Sunday.

The Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs issued a separate notification that explained which services are “essential”. The list of exempted services included groceries, fresh fruits and vegetables, milk and dairy products, dispensing fuel at the filling stations, cattle feed and fodder, health services, medicines, manufacturing of medical equipment, banks and ATMs, newspapers, post offices, telecom operators, wheat and rice, and transportation of essential commodities.

The decision to include newspapers and exclude electronic and digital media received flak from media professionals as some argued newspapers could be potential carriers of the virus like currency notes.

Earlier, J&K’s Chief Secretary BVR Subrahmaniyam had issued a formal order to deputy commissioners of all the districts to impose Section 144 of CrPc, which bars assembly of over four persons, to ensure social distancing and minimum social contact. However, Principal Secretary Planning Rohit Kansal said “all assemblies at public places to be restricted to three persons or less.”

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Jammu and Kashmir’s newly-appointed Divisional Commissioner Pandurang Kondbarao Pole confirmed to The Federal that “Kashmir would be under official lockdown until March 31.” “The administration is taking all the necessary precautionary measures to deal with the health situation. It has been decided to go for an official lockdown till March 31,” said Pole.

Meanwhile, Jammu and Kashmir Police are using drones to create awareness about why it is important to stay indoors. It is for the first time that the police are using drones for public messaging, and not for the usual counter-militancy operations and routine spying.

Netizens are, meanwhile, worried that the J&K police are treating a health crisis as a law-and-order problem.

“This is absolutely frightening! Why is coronavirus outbreak being treated as law and order situation in Kashmir? What on earth is happening? Is being a Police State 24*7, 365 days a year, a new normal for us?,” said Shazia, an entrepreneur. “Restore 4G internet services in Jammu and Kashmir so that people can educate themselves and self-quarantine,” she said.

Irfan Tramboo, another citizen, was of the view that the police are creating fear instead of awareness. “They (J&K Police) are not reaching out to people. They are creating fear; this lockdown has to be self-motivated, not enforced,” he said.

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The Kashmir bureaucracy and the police are also under fire for not allowing health professionals and field experts to take the centre-stage by giving medical bulletins, media briefings and updates on the COVID-19 and precautionary measures at regular intervals. “Experts like pulmonologists, microbiologists and anaesthetists handling critical care should be allowed to answer, not politicians. They are making political statements even about the coronavirus,” said a doctor.

Some conscientious doctors do use social media platforms and take independent initiative to spread awareness about the pandemic.

Dr. Yasir Wani, a consultant paediatrician, said, “Kashmir has taken initiatives quite early. Such steps must be continued so that it’s effective!”

Globally, the death toll due to the pandemic is touching 15,000, while in India the positive cases have touched 415 with seven confirmed deaths. In Jammu and Kashmir, about 4,000 persons are currently under observation and four have tested positive, including three in Jammu and one in the Kashmir Valley. In neighbouring Ladakh, officials have confirmed 13 positive cases so far.

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