On April 14, authorities in Kashmir erected a concrete barricade to seal Natipora, a locality in Srinagar that was declared a “red zone” after two residents were found COVID-19 positive. A set of iron beams were driven into the asphalt and held fast with cement and another set drawn horizontally across melded to them. This was done to bar traffic movement through the locality and to ensure locals stayed inside and no one went in from outside.
The move was slammed on social media as a “militaristic practice.” People compared it to the “proliferating vegetation” of concertina wires at road intersections. Questions were raised as to how pregnant women and medical emergency cases were expected to reach hospitals.
An editorial in a local daily criticised the barricades as “an apocalyptic sight,” that should have been avoided. The underlying message of the measure, the editorial stated, assumed that “people are like cattle and so only the government can think for them and guide their behaviour.”
The authorities, on the other hand, defended the barricades as part of the standard operating procedure to break the chain of transmission. But there are few takers for this defence. More so, when people can still go in or leave on foot. Or when the red zones have other entry and exit points which are not covered. And also, when youth in many colonies have voluntarily taken to barring the entry of outsiders.
As is apparent, the barriers telegraph a familiar characteristic of the administration in Kashmir: its tendency to treat every challenge as a law and order issue and combat it through militaristic means. So, the spread of the new coronavirus can only be fought by barricading the red zones, an idea that can be traced to the established security practice of cordoning off of the areas where militants are found to have taken shelter.
Similarly, the phrase in vogue to describe quarantined persons is “COVID-19 suspect,” again a take-off from the well-known term “suspected militant.” People are encouraged to spy on neighbours and inform the authorities should any one of them has returned from outside the region or abroad. This exercise, too, can be traced to the anti-militancy practice of hiring informers to track down militants.
In recent weeks too, the police has often resorted to thrashing alleged violators of the lockdown on flimsy grounds. Some videos showing Police action have gone viral on social media. In the very first week of the lockdown, police filed 337 formal complaints and arrested 627 people. Such arrests have continued since. One recent case was filed against a local journalist, Mushtaq Ganai, who was out performing his professional duties.
Drawing on Security Expertise
The administration of Jammu and Kashmir has been fighting separatist militancy and street protests for the past 30 years. In the process, it has put together a vaunted counter-insurgency military machine, arguably the best in the country. It has an elaborate security apparatus at its command comprising the police, military and paramilitaries, each armed with the latest intelligence gathering tech tools. This decades-long expertise in dealing with militancy has not only shaped the administration’s worldview but also how it solves any problem at hand.
Hence, while the healthcare infrastructure is struggling to deal with the rising number of COVID-19 cases, the security management of the situation is becoming efficient by the day. And this management is not only about the concrete barricades in red zones, but also about the way government goes about tracing COVID-19 suspects by remotely mining their smartphones for data about their travel history. In one case, a quarantined person told me he had been picked up after his phone had betrayed a recent travel to the Nizamuddin area in the national capital of Delhi where a large Muslim gathering was hosted by the Tablighi Jamaat sect last month. He said that actually he was staying at a safe distance from the area, but his phone had picked up the signal from a Nizamuddin cell-tower, leading authorities to conclude he could be a potential carrier.
This use of technological surveillance in contact tracing sets the police in pursuit of an ever larger number of people as the incidence of COVID-19 cases rises. The operation takes on a much bigger scale than the circumscribed and targeted surveillance to track down militants and their sympathisers. The shadowing extends to social media where tackling “coronavirus misinformation” has been added to the existing task of targeting anti-national and pro-militancy posts. And the security agencies are excelling at it.
Crumbling Medical Facilities
Turn your attention to the state of the healthcare infrastructure and the lack of preparedness. At the last tally, Kashmir had just 97 ventilators, 85 ICUs and sparse testing facilities. This can hardly meet the needs of the growing number of COVID-19 patients. The quarantine facilities are largely in a mess just as several social media videos posted by occupants would have you believe. They lack hygienic conditions, quality food and the space or discipline to ensure social distancing. What’s more, according to media reports, the sample collection in the Valley had to be halted for some days over the last week after a senior health official diverted 5,000 test kits to the Jammu province.
And, of course, one of the fundamental requirements in the fight against the pandemic, a free-flowing communication, is not there. The government has refused to restore high-speed 4G Internet for the general masses, making it difficult for a large section of the population that gets its news through social media updates and videos to stay informed about the disease.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases in the Valley have grown to 350, setting the agencies on the trail of fresh “suspects.” Their phones are monitored as also their ATM histories and ticketing information. For now, this mass surveillance passes off as a benign exercise geared to save people from the disease. But considering the all-encompassing security pretext that Kashmir offers even in the best of times, it could be a routine in the post- COVID-19 world.
Riyaz Wani is an independent journalist with StoriesAsia, a collective of freelance journalists in South and Southeast Asia.