Security Expertise to Deal with Health Emergency

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Workers erecting concrete barriers to seal off a red zone in uptown Srinagar- KO Photo

Riyaz Wani

On April 14, authorities in Kashmir erected a concrete barricade across the entry–exit points to Natipora, a Srinagar locality, 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 the traffic through the locality and to  ensure locals stayed inside and no one from outside went in.

The move was slammed on social media as a “militaristic practice”. The people compared it to the “proliferating vegetation” of the concertina wires at road intersections. Questions were raised as to how the expecting mothers and the health emergency cases were expected to reach hospitals. Kashmir Observer editorially criticised the barricades as “an apocalyptic sight,” that should have been avoided.

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 taken to voluntarily 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.

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 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 suspect, again a take-off from the well-known term “suspected militant”. People are encouraged to spy on neighbours and inform the authorities should anyone of them have returned from outside the region or abroad. The exercise too can be traced to anti-militancy practice of hiring informers to track down militants.

In these weeks also, the police has often resorted to thrashing the alleged violators of the lockdown on flimsy grounds. Some of these videos have gone viral on social media. In the first week of the lockdown itself, police filed 337 first information reports and arrested 627 people. Such arrests continue since. One recent case was filed against a local journalist Mushtaq Ganai who was out performing his professional duty.

Drawing on security expertise

J&K administration has been fighting separatist militancy and the street protests  for the past thirty 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 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 the problems at hand.       

Hence, while healthcare infrastructure is struggling to deal with rising number of  Covid 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 the Covid suspects by remotely mining their smarphones 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 Nizamuddin.  He said that actually he was staying at a safe distance from the area,  but his phone had picked up the signal from 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 number of Covid 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 existing task of targeting anti-national  and pro-militancy posts. And the security agencies are excelling at it.

Turn your attention to the state of healthcare infrastructure and the lack of preparedness shows. 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 patients.Crumbling medical facilities

Turn your attention to the state of healthcare infrastructure and the lack of preparedness shows. 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 patients. The quarantine facilities are largely a mess as the social media videos of their occupants would have you believe. They lack the hygienic conditions, quality food and the space or discipline to ensure social distancing.  What is 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  5000 test kits to Jammu province.

And, of course, one of the fundamental requirements in the fight against pandemic, a free-flowing communication is not there. Government has refused to restore high-speed 4G internet for the general masses, making it difficult for a large section of population that gets its news through social media updates and videos to stay informed about the disease.

Meanwhile, Covid cases in the Kashmir 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 world. 

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Riyaz Wani

Riyaz Wani is the Political Editor at Kashmir Observer

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