Srinagar: The Jammu & Kashmir administration has decided to continue its bar on large gatherings or congregations, even for funerals, in the Valley amid rumours about the deteriorating health of separatist Syed Ali Shah Geelani.
Geelani, 90, who heads the hardline wing of the Hurriyat Conference, has been under house arrest for over a decade. Security outside his Hyderpora residence was further bolstered in August, when hundreds of Jammu & Kashmir politicians were detained after the state was stripped of its special status and bifurcated into two union territories.
The decision to keep large gatherings barred comes after the administration held review meetings with security agencies and police last week.
Sources privy to the government’s efforts to maintain law and order did not negate the possibility of curfew-like restrictions and another communication blackout.
Over the past two weeks, there has been speculation in Kashmir over Geelani’s health, which has rung alarm bells within the security establishment. There are fears that the rumours may lead to law-and-order conflagrations in Kashmir amid resentment over the Article 370 decision.
The emergence of similar rumours on social media prompted the security agencies to start building a stronger firewall to prevent local residents from using blacklisted websites through VPNs or virtual private networks.
Last year’s Article 370 move was carried out amid a complete communication shutdown in Jammu & Kashmir. Internet services were partially restored in January, but social media remains barred, forcing people to find their way around the prohibition with VPNs.
The concern of the establishment was further amplified by a purported statement from the Hurriyat Conference about Geelani’s “wish” to be buried in Kashmir and not the holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia, as he had earlier desired. Two staffers employed at Geelani’s residence have been arrested in this regard.
The government-constituted medical team supervising Geelani’s health has so far maintained that he is stable and responding to treatment.
However, multiple senior government and police officials told ThePrint that the administration, as part of their effort to prevent untoward incidents in Kashmir, has decided to prepare for all kinds of eventualities.
“We don’t want to raise alarm among the masses but there are mischievous elements in society that are always looking for opportunities to stoke trouble,” a senior police officer said.
“In order to prevent any situation that could cause damage to life and property, the administration has decided not to take any chances and continue its policy of disallowing mass gatherings or congregations in the future as well.”
Another police officer said “mass gatherings can easily get out of control if not checked in time”.
“The situation has remained largely peaceful in the Valley since the 2019 Pulwama attack. Even after August, there wasn’t any major law-and-order situation. Security agencies would like to continue keeping the situation in Kashmir calm,” the officer added.
“Mass gatherings can easily get out of control if not checked in time. There are individuals whose interests rely on stoking violence in Kashmir. Such a situation will not be allowed to arise.”
A third officer pointed out that “mass gatherings are anyway disallowed in Srinagar”.
“In rural areas, we have noticed that there have been gatherings following encounters with militants. People from rural areas will be disallowed to enter Srinagar in case of such eventualities.”
In light of the rumours, several residents, including two helps employed with Geelani, have been questioned and even arrested. This is part of a larger crackdown against people allegedly misusing the internet, with the state government lodging an FIR against “various social media users” for posting adverse material on social media.
Police sources said over 10 people had been questioned in relation to the FIR and more than 1,000 social media handles suspended for alleged misuse of internet.
Police have so far arrested two youths, one from Srinagar and another from Handwara, for the alleged misuse of social media. Another FIR was lodged against a youth from Pulwama, currently staying abroad, for posting adverse comments against a senior police officer.
This report has been updated to clarify that Geelani has been under house arrest for over a decade.