The ban on civilian traffic for two days a week on the 271-km stretch of National Highway 44 between Udhampur in Jammu and Baramulla in Kashmir, which came into force on April 7, is an ill-advised move. The ban, which is to last till May 31, is supposedly to enable the orderly conduct of the Lok Sabha elections in Jammu and Kashmir, in the light of the tragic February 14 suicide attack on a CRPF convoy on NH 44 at Pulwama, that killed 40 personnel. On Sundays and Wednesdays, between 4 a.m. and 5 p.m., only pre-determined categories of civilian traffic will be allowed on the highway with clearance from the authorities. For the rest of the time, the highway will be given over to the movement of troops. As a measure to prevent another Pulwama-type attack, this is draconian. NH 44 is the lifeline of the State — it is vital to move goods (including perishable agricultural produce), and along it lie many educational and medical institutions. In many cases, avoiding the stretch would greatly multiply the time and distance between two points. The government is at pains to emphasise that exceptions are in place for those in medical emergencies, lawyers, doctors, tourists, government employees, students, and so on. But such a system of permits and bans militates against the freedom of movement at the heart of a democratic society. To be sure, even before the ban, civilian traffic has not moved on the highway unfettered by checks. Such is the security challenge in J&K. But to officially segregate civilian traffic is to put people’s lives at the mercy of a calendar, and to invite confusion about the organising principles of Indian troop deployment.
The Pulwama attack was a wake-up call about the security drills in place to prevent terrorist strikes. It demanded an appraisal, so that the lives of soldiers and civilians alike can be secured. To throw civilians out of gear — as they were on the first day of the highway ban, on April 7 — defies logic. It also positions the administration against the people, as has become clear from the political and legal challenges to the traffic restrictions. In a State that is already under President’s Rule, it has pushed the political class and the administration farther apart. The State’s parties such as the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party have led the voices of protest. Petitions have been filed in the J&K High Court arguing that the restrictions violate Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. The effect of any response to the Pulwama attack ought not to be an increased alienation that places troops and local people in an us-versus-them timetable. It must, instead, be a doubling up of the security protocol to make life more secure and hassle-free for civilians and soldiers alike.