In Photos: Ramrods of Kashmir’s Red Zones

As distant shadows of their masked tribe of yore, the new vigilantes in Kashmir are out on streets to regulate the ‘viral’ movement.

Abid Bhat | Wasim Nabi

When the “invisible enemy” threatened to show up at their doorsteps, four elders from a sleepy downtown neighbourhood had a quick meeting to chalk out an emergency response for defending their community.

It was a late evening and the motive was to regulate the movement on the streets passing in front of their main doors and front windows.

Next morning, some locals from Old City’s Kani Kadal came out donning uninform of the street regulators.

Any violator, wanderer, or any random soul on the street had to convince these ramrods of the red zone first, before making a move in the area.

On a sunny day, Akhtar Ahmad, a street volunteer stood alert, wearing a cop’s curt body language at a junction of Chota Bazar-Kani Kadal.

The man was making it sure to tell his young guards, every now and then, to check IDs of people.

“Do we have any other choice,” Akhtar asked, while hawking the street movement.

“Ours is a close-knit society, where any infectious case can create a community crisis. While we don’t know who’s frequenting our lanes during this mandatory lockdown period, it’s our duty to stay alert and vigilant.”

When a particular locality in Srinagar was caught in Covid-19 crisis lately, these volunteers along with their elders felt the need to guard their own neighbourhoods with the official sanction.

“We didn’t want our locality to become an infection zone,” Akhtar said.

“And given how those cases [Covid-19 positives] were maltreated in hospitals alerted us further. None of us wanted to end there, and face that torment.”

Much of this community response, many say, stems from the proactive nature of Kashmiris, who over the years found themselves in a dogged discord and always tried to rise above it.

Currently, many street volunteers are only following an old pattern of blocking the passageways and thoroughfares with logs, carts, bricks, stones, corrugated sheets and concertina wires.

When a similar civilian blockade emerged from the busy Hazratbal locality of Srinagar, the locals said they’re doing it for the community welfare.

“Any lapse or loophole at this moment can prove very costly for all of us,” said Abdul Rashid, a middle-aged man patrolling the deserted marketplace these days.

But such street regulations have also shut the familiar lockdown markets in Kashmir.

Rashid and his neighbours are today guarding the place, previously frequented by many Srinagarites during political lockdowns.

These buffer zones would ensure the regular supply of essentials amid curbs and curfews.

“But today, we’ve a different reality in front of us, which demands a different response,” said another street enforcer.

“We want to tell people that there’re no vegetables here [in Hazratbal market], no chickens [laughs] and no halwe-parethi [snacks] to relish indoors. So, stay home and save yourself from this deadly virus.”

These ramrods work in different shifts. Some of them are being compensated for their services as well.

However, manning streets with cloth masks and canes has also backfired lately, with many dismissing these volunteers as a ‘militia’ raised to create ‘mini-Gazas’ in every neighbourhood.

But these street vigilantes appear unfazed with the criticism.

“Today when we don’t even entertain our beloved relatives back home, how can we let a careless individual roam our neighbourhood and endanger the whole community?” said Adnan Hajam, a commerce graduate in his early twenties.

Adnan patrols a road stretch in Batamaloo along with his band. Apart from pushing civilians back, his vigilante group recently forced a police jeep to retreat from the area.

“Those police guys had come to announce a lockdown in the locality,” Adnan said. “We told them: ‘Go and let us be our own help for a while’.”

The cops, he said, obliged and left the scene.

For these young Kashmiris, the role of street enforcers comes from their grown-up experience in Kashmir.

At the peak of 2016 street protests, when youth had become ‘death-defying’ street enforcers, many of them spent endless nights, encircling big bonfires, outside their homes to thwart nocturnal raids.

“The method may be same, but the struggle has become more pressing now,” said Fayaz Bhat, a local in Habba Kadal.

“It’s about fighting an invisible enemy for the sake of our conflict-torn community.”

The scenes from countryside are no different.

In many Budgam villages, the locals have put out posters discouraging the entry of outsiders.

At certain places, the road links have been snapped with stone stacks.

The corrugated sheet-barricades, bearing the stark resemblance with the rusted, tin-sheet alley blockades of 90s, have also come up to quarantine the entire zone.

In some villages, big logs have been placed in the middle of the road to discourage the public movement.

As more and more images of the street enforcement are faring on social media, the trend is increasingly becoming a pan-Kashmir phenomenon in the pandemic period.

“This street enforcement is the need of the hour,” said Wasim Ahad, a street patroller in Budgam.

“Some of us love to go to picnic and on leisurely trips in lockdowns. That old habit has to be resisted in times like these. Otherwise, our community will find itself in a very big trouble.”

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