“It has been observed that some of the Government servants are publically criticizing the efforts of the administration to combat the Pandemic of COVID-19,” read a circular issued by the Jammu and Kashmir directorate of health services, on 1 April. It continued, “Hence forth strict action will be initiated against such elements, who resort to such uncalled for reporting to the media.”
The circular threatened prosecution under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which could carry sentences of imprisonment for over six months. The gag order was aimed at the frontline health workers in Jammu and Kashmir who were increasingly vocal about the lack of essential equipment. The gagging of health professionals not only endangers their lives, but also weakens the state’s ability to understand the crisis and control it efficiently. While intolerance to criticism has been visible in several states across the country during the pandemic, Kashmir’s history endows it with a more severe meaning. The Kashmiri public, which has been in a complicated, often hostile relationship with state machinery, might also begin to lose faith in the state’s attempts to combat COVID-19 if these continue to be marked by hostility towards health workers.
Despite its small size and relative isolation from mainland India, Kashmir had one of the most severe outbreaks of COVID-19 in the country. As of 12 April, Jammu and Kashmir had the highest number of COVID-19 infected people per 1000. According to the website of the union ministry of health, on 24 April, the number of positive cases stood at 427, including 5 deaths. The number of people enlisted for observation has surpassed sixty four thousand.