Srinagar: Every morning before beginning his 6-km journey from home to the Lal Ded hospital, Nasir Rashid, MBBS, made sure he carried identification.
It was a 15-minute drive in normal times, but such normality has not been in evidence during the current lockdown, which ended on 31 May after 53 days, or during the previous two since 2019, lasting 180 days and 80 days and ending on 3 February 2020 and 5 June 2020, respectively.
Consequently, it took Rashid, 29, up to 50 minutes to get to work. He had to run three checkpoints, where police checked his identity, questioned him and decided whether to let him continue.
On the morning of Arfa, a day before Eid, while on his way to hospital, Rashid was stopped at a checkpoint. When he took another route, he was stopped again and refused passage, even though he showed officers his hospital ID, he said.
“When I asked them the reason, in response, the cops started to utter obscenities in the name of my mother and sister,” Rashid told Article 14. When he objected, he alleged, one of the officers slapped him.
“Another cop came near the windshield and grabbed my neck,” said Rashid. “They also took the keys of my car and made me wait for hours.”
After multiple pleas, the police let him off. Rashid, who studied medicine in Jammu, quoted them as saying: “You are in Kashmir. Haven't you heard about the Kashmir Police?”
On May 12, paediatrician, Ehsan ul Haq from South Kashmir’s Shopian district reported being attacked by police at a checkpoint and taken to a police station, after he and a friend were stopped en route to hospital.
“I told them, I am a doctor and had to reach the hospital, but they manhandled us and placed both of us under custody,” Haq told Article 14.
Haq was later released after spending four hours in police custody. The incident happened hours after Inspector General of Police (IGP), Kashmir Zone, Vijay Kumar, made public helpline numbers and advised medics to call if police stopped them on their way to work.
A Third Lockdown, Same Treatment
Kashmir's Covid-19 lockdown was in place since early April. It was more stifling than anywhere else in India, forbidding, as it did, movement of vehicles during the day. Only medical shops were allowed to open and only essential-service workers allowed to move showing identification proof, as Rashid tried to do.
The Covid-19 lockdown, as we said, is the third Kashmir has experienced since August 2019, when its semi-autonomous status was revoked by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The other two lockdowns of 180 and 80 days were imposed to quell any protests in response to the abrogation of Article 370 and to slow the spread of coronavirus.
The Doctor’s Association Kashmir (DAK) reported “dozens” of distress calls from colleagues complaining of abuse and maltreatment by police on the roads at a time when medics were, and still are, most needed.
*With 3,884 dead since the pandemic began in 2020, Jammu & Kashmir, compared to some much-publicised Indian hotspots, has reported a rising, recent trend of deaths, according to the latest available data. Between 30 April to 31 May, the peak period of the second wave, the daily death toll in Jammu and Kashmir increased from 26 to 37. Over the same period, the count in Delhi fell from 375 to 86; Maharashtra, from 828 to 500; and Goa went from 22 to 24.
While police brutality has been sporadically reported from other states since lockdowns began in 2020, the police reaction in Kashmir has been criticised (here, here and here) for being particularly disproportionate and specifically dealing with a pandemic as a law-and-order problem.
On 1 April 2020, the directorate of health services issued a circular threatening doctors with “strict actions” if they criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Unable To Distinguish A Pandemic From Protest
Of 10 doctors Article 14 spoke to, the majority reported experiencing abuse and violence from police. Some attributed the behaviour of the police to their inability to distinguish pandemic from protest to prolonged exposure to the conflict.
Kumar, the IGP, told Article 14 of the helpline for medics facing trouble with police and said they had received “two to three complaints” of excesses at checkpoints. “All of them were resolved,” said Kumar. “In one, a cop was suspended.”
Zainab Nabi, a female doctor who was abused by police, said “the police do not understand that we are in a pandemic”.
Like Rashid, Nabi, 30, was abused at a checkpoint on 14 May when she was on her way home after finishing a night shift at the Shri Maharaja Singh Hospital (SMHS) in Srinagar.
Nabi was stopped at a checkpoint in the Patan area of Baramulla district. “I showed the cop my ID card and without any reason he started abusing me,” said Nabi. “When I confronted him, he asked why I blew my horn at the checkpoint and started shouting at me.”
That evening, Nabi tweeted about her ordeal.
“After being at Hospital on Eid, when I was finally going home today, I was stopped & verbally abused by the cops when I showed them my I-card. Is this how you treat those who put their lives at risk for you? Do we deserve this?” she tweeted.
Later, she shared the details of the incident with senior superintendent of police (SSP), Srinagar, who assured her of redressal. She never heard back from him. Article 14 sought comment from SSP Sandeep Chaudhary, but he did not respond to repeated calls and text messages.
Abuse Affects Patient Care
Struggling with a surge in Covid-19 cases and death that shows no immediate signs of flattening, doctors said the police treatment of frontline workers increased their stress and eventually affected patient care.
“Incidents like these hit our patient care,” said Mohammad Yousuf Tak, MBBS, president of the DAK. “Doctors need an undisturbed working atmosphere to perform their job effectively. We already have a limited human resource of doctors, and if they are abused on the roads, it affects their efficiency.”
Although the Association raised the issue with the police department, doctors are sceptical of redressal, despite one suspension.
“They (police) assured us that they will take note of these incidents,” said Tak. “Recently. a cop was suspended. That was a good gesture on part of the Police administration,” Tak added.
Rashid, the doctor quoted at the start of this story, said tens of cases go unreported because medics fear reprisals. He was among those.
"I didn’t inform anyone about the incident,” said Rashid. “Police in Kashmir have impunity. They treat us like criminals.”
Both Rashid and Nabi said they did not complain to their respective hospital administrations, contending that in a place like Kashmir, getting justice for such incidents was next to impossible.
“There have been a lot of attacks on us in the past as well, like in 2016 and 2019,” said Nabi. “During the civil uprisings in Kashmir, our ambulance was attacked with tear gas. Many of our colleagues were thrashed by police. Did we see any action against those incidents?”
‘They Think The Virus Needs To Be Taught A Lesson’
“Unfortunately police here treat pandemic as a law and order problem and think that the virus is some living entity which needs to be taught a lesson,” said author and political analyst Gowhar Geelani.
Geelani said police behaviour during the pandemic has been much the same as it has been over three decades of conflict because officers on the ground are not “sensitised” about dealing with those who provide essential services or even require vaccination.
“Not only doctors, people who need to get vaccinated have to reach the vaccination centres,” said Geelani. “But the police approach towards them has been the same, kicks and abuses.”
After the latest encounter with the police, Rashid said he was distressed enough to think of finding work outside Kashmir, which he described as being filled with “toxicity”.
He mused about working in Jammu, where he studied medicine. “There I felt free,” he said. “The way I was abused will haunt me forever.”
(Kaisar Andrabi and Zubair Amin are independent journalists based in Srinagar.)
*Update and correction: This copy has been updated to reflect the exact increase in J&K's death toll. We have dropped a misleading reference to confirmed cases since 2020. We regret the oversight.