Srinagar, Feb 25 (IANS) Even by Kashmir’s standards, where rumours always travel ahead of news, what happened in the Valley over the weekend was quite unexpected as a run on petrol pumps, grocery stores and chemists was sparked by the panic, fear and uncertainty that gripped the Valley as nobody had an inkling about what was really going on.
It all started with the airlifting of 100 additional companies of central armed police forces (CAPF) those were airlifted to the Valley on Saturday morning.
Interestingly, the state government took two days to re-assure people that the deployment was nothing unusual as it pertained to the conduct of forthcoming Lok Sabha elections in the state.
The official clarification came too late. Kashmiris had already panicked by then.
“India and Pakistan are going to war and J&K would be the worst sufferer as it always has been in the past”. This was the standard rumour doing the rounds in the Valley on Saturday morning.
As if the first rumour wasn’t bad enough, it was immediately supplemented by another one: “They are going to abrogate article 35A and additional forces have been rushed to enforce curfew across the Valley.”
There were elements of credibility to both these rumours. In nocturnal raids across the Valley all senior leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in the Valley had been arrested late on Friday and early Saturday.
Instead of a statement that would scotch the rumours, what followed only gave credibility to the rumour mill.
Instructions were officially issued to Chief Medical Officers to lift all necessary stocks of medicines and surgical items from Srinagar stores on Sunday.
This was followed by a directive from the Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution Department to keep stores open on Sunday so that the people could stock up on foodgrain and other essentials.
Personnel of the state armed police were told to be in readiness for any law and order exigency.
Did the rumour mongers need more grist for the mill? The Valley started running helter skelter as locals pounced on petrol pumps, medicine shops and provision stores.
Nobody believed anything except that there was going to curfew or war and people needed to store enough.
Petrol pumps across the Valley had exhausted 80 per cent of their supplies by the time the state administration stepped in to order the rationing of petrol and diesel.
Provision stores were emptied in hours before anybody knew what was happening.
“I had not done such sales during the last one month as I did in just a few hours on Saturday evening,” said a provision store owner in Srinagar.
A medicine shop owner said: “It looked as if everybody had suddenly taken ill in the city. People were buying anti-pyretics, antacids, blood pressure, diabetes drugs and what not”, said the owner of a medical shop in Srinagar’s Khayam area.
Any rational voice was quickly brushed aside.
“I told my friend why he was topping the petrol tank of his car when nobody would be going anywhere if there was curfew or war. He was too worked up to listen,” said Suhail Mir who waited patiently in his friend’s car near a petrol pump in Ganderbal town for hours.
Governor Satya Pal Malik spoke to some media persons on Saturday evening to dispel the people’s fears.
By then, the Valley’s petrol pumps, medicine shops and provision stores were all sold out as those still indoors remained glued to TV sets waiting with consternation for the worst news – which, fortunately, did not come from anywhere.
The bushfire was extinguished – but only just.
(Sheikh Qayoom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)