While Indian generosity was at its peaks during J&K flood relief, jingoism also raised its ugly head
With the receding flood waters, the figure of economic loss to the state of Jammu and Kashmir continues to rise. At a rough estimate computed by economists, the loss stands close to Rs 100,000 crore. In the coming days this figure will fluctuate. But what will not fluctuate are the intangible losses, to which no figure can be attributed and no compensation paid.
FORCE photographer in Srinagar, Amin War, is a man of cheerful disposition. He has seen the worse of militancy, been tortured thrice in his career by security forces ranging from the army to the Border Security Force (BSF) and the state police and has frequently been harassed by start-up militant outfits. He has been caught in the crossfire a couple of times and carries his scars lightly.
Nearly a week after most of the Valley was submerged in the flood, FORCE managed to get through to him over the phone. He, his family and loved ones were safe. The water rose only a few feet into his house and then started receding. He was not short of dry ration as he had only a few days back got his monthly supplies. In fact, he was supporting a few other people in need.
Yet, there was no relief in his voice, only sadness. His office of nearly 20 years in the city’s press colony had been submerged. The water had risen till the roof of the first floor. Once the majority of rescue work was over and he could get a shikara (Kashmiri row boat), he went to check on his office. “Everything is gone,” he said on the phone. “My entire life’s work is gone. All my photographs, negatives, hard disks, everything is ruined. I used to guard against fire, but I never thought that water would be more dangerous.” Of course, compared to those who have lost family and life’s earnings, his loss is petty, but loss is a sentiment which is both relative and immeasurable, even though governments frequently measure it to assign compensation.
If the magnitude of a tragedy is to be judged by the numbers of dead then Kashmir has seen worse. In October 2005, in the trans-Line of Control (LC) earthquake, over 1,300 people had died on the Indian side and more than 6,000 were injured. Earlier in the same year, in a series of avalanches and unprecedented snowfall (referred to as snow tsunami) which crippled the entire valley and blocked the only road link, NH1A, for several weeks in February, over 200 people were killed.
But what distinguishes these floods from the earlier natural disasters is the fact that probably for the first time the cities and towns were affected badly and the privileged lot was rendered as helpless as the under-privileged. In fact, in Srinagar itself, the worse affected areas were its toniest ones with residences housing carpets alone worth several lakhs getting submerged in muddy water. Hence, purely in terms of bean-counting, the loss is greater because the value of the things lost is higher.
This was also the first time perhaps, when the government was at sea, literally, with most functionaries being marooned on concrete islands that their residences had become. The response was delayed because the raging water actually gave no reaction time to people who were convinced that their cities could never flood.
However, these floods were different from earlier tragedies in one more respect: the emotional investment of the people of India in the tragedy. While generous help poured in from all over the country, so much so that at one point there was surplus of relief material at Srinagar airport waiting to be distributed, gratuitous advice also flowed in from various quarters. These ranged from urging Kashmiris to be grateful for the help, to now acknowledge the moral superiority of the Indian Army who they maligned by throwing stones at them, so on and so forth. While mainland media carried some articles by renowned columnists loudly hoping that the flooded streets of the Valley will bridge the gap between them and us, the social media was abuzz with downright offensive posts, name-calling and abuses in a completely ill-timed display of jingoism.
Broadly speaking, there were two culprits here. The TRP/ readership seeking media, many of whom were jostling with one another to accompany the Indian Army/ Indian Air Force during rescue operations and the other were the rescuers themselves who sought daily credit for the yeoman service rendered. The result was, while one newspaper headline screamed on page one that the occupation force is now a saviour, a television reporter accompanying the IAF personnel inside a helicopter during one rescue operation asked the person winched up by the IAF, whether she was grateful to the Indian military.
The military was also releasing regular photographs of their relief work to the media, which is what they did last year as well during the Uttarakhand rescue and relief operations. However, the volatility of the Kashmir issue is such that many of these pictures found their way on the social media with mischievous elements deliberately distorting the context of the images leading to more hate messages. Such messages were fervently matched by online Kashmiri community, which has its own share of venom-spewing people hiding behind anonymous handles and fake profiles.
One very important point was missed here. Not just in India, but in most countries, the military is usually the first responder to a natural disaster, even if not so mandated. Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations are part of its unwritten role, primarily because it has both the capacity and capability to mount rescue and relief operations more effectively than even the organisations mandated to do so. For instance, in India, the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) comprising two battalions each from the five paramilitary forces is supposed to be the nodal agency for disaster rescue and relief. But its numbers and resources are woefully inadequate and hence, excessive dependence on the military continues. Such is the extent of this role that several Indian army officers have frequently suggested that its role in disaster relief be formalised.
The Indian Army, air force and the navy have carried out extensive rescue and relief operations all across the country and even outside from time to time. In Kashmir too, in this decade alone they have carried out two major HADR operations in 2005. In fact, during the October 2005 earthquake, the Indian Army suffered a lot, both in terms of human lives and infrastructure. Yet, just as it was rescuing its own personnel, it rescued civilians. For the army, it was an extension of its ongoing Operation Sadbhavna to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the local people; a key element of counter-insurgency operations.
Coming back to the earthquake, as relief kicked in, both the army and IAF adopted remote villages, helping civilians rebuild their lives. FORCE visited one such village twice with the IAF, first when the relief work had just started and a year later when the village was completely rebuild with a spanking new school to boot. Of course, the villagers were grateful. Of course, they cheerfully looked on as the IAF personnel unfurled the tricolour in front of the school. But nobody mentioned anything about gratitude. Or bridging the gap between us and them.
Given the limitations of the human memory, these stories are now part of the long forgotten history. It is not that these tragedies, especially the earthquake, were not covered extensively by the mainline media. Heart-rending images from the quake-hit villages continued to appear in the press for several days. Sympathy and relief poured in from all over the country, but there were neither demand for gratitude nor opprobrium for lack of patriotism.
So why was the reaction so different this time? It is not that mainstream Indians have suddenly discovered that the Kashmiris do not share their nationalistic sentiments. The reaction was different because it was orchestrated by the right-wing community online, which perhaps got its cue from the new government’s hard-line position on Kashmir. The government has conveyed a clear message that Kashmir resolution is no longer on the table. And in the coming assembly elections in J&K, the BJP is looking at the validation of this position by trying to win the elections by largely side-lining the Muslim population of the state. The message being sent out is: Kashmir is an inalienable part of India. Those who do not agree are free to go wherever they want.
What this short-sighted intolerance ignores is that Kashmiris are not pathological people with irrational dislike for the Indian Army or for India in general. There is a political problem (and not an internal problem) screaming for resolution. This lingering political problem has led to brutalisation and alienation of the people. Given the frequency with which human rights violations occur in the Valley, is it any wonder that the alienation has also led to distrust and dislike. Now, if even humanitarian relief becomes conditional on nationalism, you add another dimension to alienation; that is intolerance.
Despite insurgency and violence, Kashmiris have been coming to different Indian universities for education. Clearly, they didn’t face much community profiling, which is why they have been coming. But last year, several Kashmiri boys went back because of a series of incidents at different institutions on petty issues which boiled down to jingoistic sloganeering. This is only going to increase. Even if the government wants to experiment with non-resolution, can we as a nation really afford this kind of intolerance for Pakistan to feed on?