Kashmir’s ‘COVID Warriors’ Are Under Siege

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Kashmir’s ‘COVID Warriors’ Are Under Siege

Prime Minister Modi has praised India’s doctors as heroes amid the pandemic. In Kashmir, they are being harassed and beaten by security forces.

Kashmir’s ‘COVID Warriors’ Are Under Siege

A Kashmiri medical worker wearing protective gear walks past Indian migrant workers waiting in a queue for medical examination outside a hospital in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, May 4, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan

Muzaffer Ahmad, an epidemiologist in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Budgam district, has been at the forefront of efforts to identify, detect, and trace people who have been infected with COVID-19 or may have come in contact with the infected. He positioned himself on the frontline against the global pandemic ever since Kashmiris started to return from countries like Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran as the coronavirus claimed thousands of lives around the world.

On the morning of June 3, Ahmad left from his home in a Budgam village and hitchhiked to a nearby town, Chadoora, where he hoped to get a lift to the hospital where he works. Since a lockdown was in place, he had to get out of the car he had hitchhiked in and walk past a barricade the Jammu and Kashmir Police had erected in Chadoora. A few hundred meters ahead, there was another barricade set up by Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), a paramilitary force.

Ahmad was stopped and asked to prove his identity – a practice almost every Kashmiri is familiar with when it comes to such barricades and checkpoints. Ahmad showed his identity card and told the forces that he was a doctor and needed to reach the hospital in Budgam, the district headquarters. “Instead, they asked me to go straight and did not let me go towards the way I was headed to,” Ahmad says. When he insisted, one of the CRPF personnel, who Ahmad says was fuming, asked him to walk straight. Ahmed, who has been leaving home every day since the pandemic began to ravage the world to locate and detect potential COVID-19 positive cases, insisted on going on his way to hospital.

“Give him an injection,” one of the CRPF personnel told another in a sly, camouflaged command to thrash Ahmad. He was continuously beaten with sticks on his legs until he was unable to stand and defend himself. It was only after a colleague of Ahmad happened to pass by and came to his rescue that the beating stopped.

A week later, Ahmad, who had been relentlessly going out to fight the virus, sometimes indifferent to his own safety, was still unable to walk properly.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his televised address to the country in late March, when he announced a lockdown to “break the chain” of transmission of the coronavirus, was very particular about respecting health workers. He asked India’s 1.3 billion people to clang utensils and clap to offer gratitude to these frontline workers. In his next TV address, Modi asked his countrymen to light candles or lamps and switch off the electricity for 9 minutes.

On June 1, two days before Ahmad’s vicious beating, Modi said the doctors were invincible and like soldiers without uniforms fighting an invisible enemy.

But the picture has been entirely different in Kashmir.

The assault on Ahmad was not a one-off case. In a place that is heavily militarized, attacks on civilians are not usual, but such attacks on health workers during a pandemic are particularly appalling. Doctors have spoken out about the “harassment” and “abuse of power.”

On the morning of May 23, Dr. Syed Maqbool, an interventional cardiologist at a premier hospital in Srinagar, was on his way to the hospital when he was stopped by the police and prevented from going any farther. When he showed his identity card to prove he was a doctor and argued he needed to reach the hospital, a policeman told him, “Whoever you are, I am not going to let you go this way.”

As soon as he got out of his car, Maqbool says, the policeman hit his abdomen with a baton. “A senior police officer, who was on the other side of the road, rushed towards me and grabbed me and took me in my car to Zadibal police station,” Maqbool says.

At the police station, Maqbool’s phone was snatched, even though he was the only cardiologist on duty that looked after at least eight associated hospitals and had to be available in case of emergency.

The senior police officer, Maqbool says, told him: “Go to hell. To hell with your hospital, you and your patients. I am not bothered about that. This COVID is actually a problem of police and police are tackling it.”

Maqbool says he sensed that there was something wrong with the senior cop and he decided to tone himself down. He pleaded with folded hands and even apologized, but the senior policeman remained unfazed.

“Instead he kept on telling me that they ‘have orders from MHA [the Ministry of Home Affairs]. We can book you under charges that you will not come out of jail for 10 years. I am being very lenient with you,’” Maqbool quotes the policeman as saying.

In the late afternoon, Maqbool was handed back his phone but with a warning: “If you tell anybody that you are in a police station, I will just strip you naked and beat you.” Maqbool made a call to inform his office that he would arrive in two to three hours. As soon he got off the call, his phone was snatched again. Maqbool was let go a few hours later.

A few days later, on May 26, a chief medical officer in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district was stopped by police at a checkpoint when he was on his way to visit quarantine and sample collection centers. He was asked to take a detour.

A video showed the medical officer getting out of his vehicle and shouting at the policemen, accusing them of harassing the medical practitioners in the valley. A cop tried to pacify him, but the medical officer continued to vent his anger.

When the issue grabbed headlines and drew ire against the police and paramilitary forces, the policemen on May 27 went to different hospitals across Kashmir Valley and offered doctors flowers and sweets as a “goodwill gesture.” Though no policeman has been booked so far in connection with the assault on medical practitioners, Vijay Kumar, the police inspector general in Kashmir, was quoted by a Indian English daily as saying that “by offering flowers and sweets, the policemen deployed on the ground intended to send a message to the society, especially doctors and paramedics, that they were with them.” He even assured that the identity cards of the “COVID Warriors” – a title given to those fighting at the frontline against the coronavirus – would double as movement passes during the lockdown.

Despite the assurance from the Jammu and Kashmir’s top cop, Muzaffer Ahmad was assaulted a week later

Ahmad blames the senior police and paramilitary forces for the assaults on doctors and other health workers, saying it “is because these low-rung policemen have not been sensitized about the lockdown and the role of doctors during the pandemic.”

President of the Resident Doctors’ Association, Dr. Mohsin Shah, says that such incidents downgrade the morale of the medical practitioners.

“When a doctor, who works despite exposing himself to the virus, is met with violence, it downgrades his morale. This should stop come what may, especially in the times of pandemic,” Shah says.

Kashmir is ever torn in an endless war between India and Pakistan, with both the archrival countries laying claim to the region. The armed insurgency, partly backed by Pakistan, in Indian-administered Kashmir and the subsequent response by the Indian state has led to gross human rights violations in the region. The assault and harassment of civilians by Indian forces has become too common for frontpage news, but amid the pandemic questions are raised as to why doctors have become the target of state highhandedness.

Khurram Parvez, one of the prominent human rights defenders in Jammu and Kashmir, says that doctors are targeted because they are Kashmiris: “The Indian forces consider it their normal routine to harass them.”

Parvez argues that the lockdown imposed in Kashmir in view of the COVID-19 pandemic is militaristic in nature, contrary to the lockdown imposed in mainland India. While the purpose of the lockdown, Parvez says, is to ensure social distancing in other parts, in Kashmir it forwards India’s aggressive police to persecute Kashmiris.

On the “goodwill gesture” of the police distributing roses to doctors, Parvez says, “It is just a cosmetic policy, a propaganda to build a false narrative.”

Mohammad Haziq is a freelance journalist based in India.