Kashmiris face police brutality in COVID-19 lockdown

By Abid Hussain, TwoCircles.net

Irfan Ali, a research scholar studying at JNU, left his home in central Kashmir’s Budgam district to self-report at the local health facility. Having a travel history of visiting New Delhi in the last week of March, Ali had received a phone call the previous day asking him to meet Chief Medical Officer in his office. This was almost a week after he had arrived home amid the coronavirus pandemic that has killed around 171,242 people and affected over 2.3 million globally as of April 21.

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To his astonishment, the 26-year-old was beaten up by Jammu and Kashmir police personnel who were “enforcing a lockdown ordered by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.” The incident was recorded just outside the health office where he was supposed to report.

“Without even listening to me even for a second, the policeman started thrashing me,” recalled Ali. He narrated that the policeman first questioned him of not wearing a mask and then a group of cops started beating him with a stick. His neighbor who was accompanying him, meters away from the scene to maintain social distancing, fled the queue after watching the incident. Both Ali and his neighbor had come from New Delhi and had stepped out to mark our attendance at the health office as communicated by the officials. They were outside the health centre when police stopped them.

“Sadly, they are adopting the militaristic approach even during the coronavirus lockdown in Kashmir,” said a dejected Ali. He asserted that the police and paramilitary personnel should know the difference between lockdown and curfew but that was not the case. He said that they were not even allowed to enter the health office. Several other residents present at the scene or with similar experiences alleged that police has resorted to beating even during the COVID19 lockdown in Budgam.

However, Nagpure Amod Ashok, the area’s Superintendent of Police, refuted these allegations. “The allegations are not verified. Police officials on [the] ground are doing duty in difficult times,” he said. He has voiced an appeal to citizens to stay indoors and stop venturing out on roads, stating that violation of lockdown is an offence and legal action will be taken against those violators.

Earlier, after several positive viral infection cases were reported from Kashmir, health authorities had asked all the people who had entered the region having a travel history of mainland India and abroad, to visit the nearest health centres. Following this, many incidents of thrashing by police came to the light over the past few weeks, inviting massive criticism from Kashmiris. After March 22, the day when 1.3 billion people observed the one-day “Janata curfew” (civil curfew) on the orders of the prime minister, several young Kashmiris were roughed up by security forces across the valley, the videos of these incidents viral on social networking sites.

Ill-equipped healthcare sector

At a time when more than two million people across the world have tested positive for COVID19, hospitals in Kashmir are ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic. Jammu and Kashmir, which was split into two federally administered Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh last year in August – has witnessed five coronavirus deaths and 350 positive cases till April 19. The Kashmir valley, which has a population of over 6.5 million, has less than 100 ventilators, according to local reports. Doctors fear, in case of an emergency, there would be a steep crisis.

Speaking to TwoCircles.net, a senior doctor associated with the Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) came down heavily on the government, saying they have never given priority to the ailing health infrastructure in the erstwhile state. He spoke to the reporter on the condition of anonymity given that the authorities had warned the doctors and paramedics to stop criticizing the government.

On April 1, the Directorate of Health Services, Kashmir, came up with a circular threatening medics with stern action “under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code” if they disobey “any regulation or order made under the Epidemic Diseases, Act, 1897”.  The warning, which the DAK termed as “choking order”, was issued a day after doctors and health workers protested against a lack of facilities at SKIMS Medical College and Hospital in Srinagar, currently designated as a COVID19 facility.

“Kashmir hospitals lack sufficient oxygen plants, ventilators beds and trained ICU care specialists,” informed the doctor. He fears the pandemic is going to “crumble the entire structure.” He claimed that the valley hospitals cannot manage more than 150 coronavirus patients as health workers are not provided with even proper protective gear to deal with the infected patients. About the World Health Organization’s “call for aggressive actions” to contain the contagion, the senior doctor insisted that it is the right time “to expand testing to community pockets having symptoms consistent with COVID19 but no travel history so that actual disease burden can be ascertained.”

“Leave aside food, no doctor visited us for a check-up,” students in quarantine centres complained. The situation of quarantine centers in the valley is no different from hospitals. It could be gauged from the fact that students who have been placed under quarantine after coming from abroad, have complained about a lack of facilities at quarantine centres. At one such facility in Budgam, several foreign returnees were kept for over one week without even basic facilities. These students decried that no food or even drinking water was provided to them. Some even mocked the authorities saying that they could have brought heating blowers from their own houses as they don’t have any heating arrangements available.

However, the government has said that they are upgrading health facilities in the Union Territory to deal with the pandemic. “It (government) has set up 11 exclusive COVID-19 hospitals, an administrative quarantine facility of over 35000 beds and 2400 treatment beds. Masks and ventilators are being procured,” the UT’s Department of Information and Public Relations said in a tweet on April 1.

Students worst-hit

In a situation like the present one, the students, who in February attended classes after more than six months, are the worst-hit. They had been idle at home since last August, when India’s Hindu nationalist government stripped Kashmir of its autonomous status, imposed siege and rendered the whole region incommunicado. Though the communication services were restored, high-speed data services continue to be suspended.  During the current lockdown, students in other parts of the world have taken to the online mode of taking classes which, however, is nearly impossible in the valley, owing to its low-speed 2G internet.

Mohsin Ali, a student told TwoCircles.net that they have been denied the right to use high-speed data even when their world counterparts are using the facility to stay in touch with studies and keep themselves aware and informed about the deadly COVID19.

Kashmir academicians also assert that the lack of high-speed internet has severely affected0 students. “Although, nothing can replace face to face teaching-learning, but internet assisted andragogy can compensate for it to a great extent,” said Wahid Waheed Dar, an assistant professor in Anthropology.

Almost all pro-India political parties in the Union Territory, even Modi’s BJP in the valley, have urged the Centre to restore high-speed internet. Despite appeals from all quarters including Amnesty International, Centre has ordered to continue with 2G services till April 27.