MHA defends highway ban; protests continue in Kashmir

MHA defends highway ban; protests continue in Kashmir
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New Delhi/Srinagar, Facing criticism for closing down the national highway connecting Jammu with Srinagar, the Union Home Ministry took refuge in statistics to claim the ban was for only 15 per cent of total weekly hours.

Underlining that the ban became necessary in the backdrop of the Pulwama attack, it issued a statement on Wednesday and said the step has been taken for ensuring safe movement of forces till May 31.

The statement comes at a time when the ministry has to file its reply to the Jammu and Kashmir High Court which has directed it to respond by April 19 to a bunch of petitions challenging the decision.

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In its statement, the ministry gave statistics in its defence stating the total duration of prohibition is for 24 hours out of 168 hours in a week, which amounts to only 15 per cent of the time.

Terming it “deliberate and mischievous disinformation” campaign about traffic restrictions on the national highway connecting Jammu with Kashmir Valley, the ministry said, “The state government…has already clarified in unambiguous terms, that out of seven days in a week, only reasonable restrictions have been imposed, that too for 12 hours, two days in a week. This has been done to ensure safe movement of forces and at the same time minimising the inconvenience to public.”

“While regulations for movement of civilian traffic were already in place during convoy movement, the state government has now come out with a planned movement of security forces on the national highway for a short duration — up to May 31, 2019,” the ministry statement read.

The regulations have been imposed “just” for a total 15 days keeping in view the convoy efficiency and security of the personnel, “particularly in the backdrop of Pulwama attack on February 14, 2019 and a similar unsuccessful attempt on March 31, 2019”, it stated.

The High Court had on Monday issued a notice to the union ministries of home and defence and the state government to furnish a reply by April 19 to petitions challenging the traffic order as it was violation of fundamental rights of the people.

Political parties held protests against the ban on April 7 as well as Wednesday.

Former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah has termed this order as a reflection of a BJP-led mindset of turning Kashmir into a colony like British-era.

The Army has already stated that it is not going to follow the order of the state government as it will continue to run its convoys as per the need, officials said.

Reacting to the assertions made by the ministry that alternative routes like old national highway were available and that such restrictions were imposed from time to time in other parts of the country for movement of the convoys of security forces, former chief minister Omar Abdullah said the statement of the home ministry was full of lies.

“This press release sets a new record for the number of untruths told in the same statement. I don’t know where to start with the sheer lies being told by this unnamed ‘senior MHA official’ except to say there is hardly a word of truth in it,” Omar tweeted.

Later, he said, “I would really like to know when such an order was issued in the past and which part of the country faces such restrictions on highway and how to connect with the old highway between Jammu and Srinagar?”

“Certain vested interests are raking up this issue with utter disregard to the precious lives of security personnel that could be lost in Pulwama-like attacks and are sensationalising the issue without any consideration for the national security,” the government statement read.

“These planned restrictions, which came into force from April 3, have by and large stabilised and are being properly implemented by the state government without any inconvenience to the public at large,” it added.

Omar Abdullah again led a protest march on Wednesday demanding revocation of the order. “We have been continuously asking the government to rethink on this order since the day this ‘Tughlaqi farmaan’ was issued. There is no need for such a ban,” he told reporters.

According to the order issued on April 3 by state Home Secretary Shaleen Kabra, no civilian traffic will be allowed to move from Baramulla in north Kashmir to Udhampur in Jammu region on Sundays and Wednesdays till May 31.

The restrictions on civilian traffic on the 271-km highway will remain in force from 4 am to 5 pm, said the order, which follows the suicide attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama. The highway passes through important towns such as Anantnag, Awantipora, Pampore, Srinagar, Pattan and Baramulla.

According to Omar Abdullah, the Army has said they did not demand this ban.

“Former Army chief Gen V P Malik has termed this order a dumb idea. So, this small protest is to tell the government that please revoke this order and allow free movement of people on the highway,” he said.  PTI