SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Tough curbs on civilian traffic along a highway linking disputed Kashmir to the rest of India have provoked outrage in the insurgency-hit region, as authorities free up access for troops guarding general elections set to begin this month.
India has tightened security in the Himalayan region since a suicide bombing on the highway killed 40 paramilitary police in February in an attack claimed by a militant group based in neighboring Pakistan.
The incident nearly pitched the nuclear-armed rivals into a fourth war, and prompted India to launch a massive crackdown on militants and separatists in Kashmir, which is also claimed by Pakistan.
Politicians, rights activists and school operators in the region labeled Wednesday’s move “collective punishment” for Kashmiris because a militant from the area carried out the attack.
“We can’t run schools under these circumstances,” said G.N. Var, chairman of an association of privately run schools in Kashmir. “They are pushing Kashmir into darkness.”
Late on Wednesday, the government of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir said civilian traffic on the highway was banned from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Sunday and Wednesday until May 31, to allow for exclusive movement of security convoys.
Shaleen Kabra, an official of the state’s home department, said the curbs aim to protect lives during the movement of troops around India’s staggered general election that starts on April 11, with votes to be counted on May 23.
“The local administration and police will regulate civilian emergencies on the highway during these days,” he told Reuters.
But the limits will hurt the tourism-dependent economy in India’s “paradise on earth”, said Khurram Parvez, a human rights activist and coordinator of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Societies.
“This is an attempt to choke the economy and daily life,” Parvez said. “These militaristic policies are aimed at collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Instead of closing the only highway connecting the main cities of Jammu and Srinagar, security forces should use special trains wherever possible, said Omar Abdullah, the state’s former chief minister.
“There has to be a better, less people unfriendly way of protecting forces using the highway,” Abdullah said on social network Twitter.
“Patients will not be able to reach hospitals, students will be deprived of access to schools, employees won’t be able to reach work and the list goes on and on.”
Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Clarence Fernandez