Northern Army Commander Lt Gen DS Hooda led the massive rescue effort was undertaken in Jammu and Kashmir, which is still reeling from the devastating floods. In this interview conducted over the email, Lt Gen Hooda speaks on the needless politicisation of a human tragedy.
To what extent the rescue and relief operations of the Army were delayed because the soldiers too reeled under the floods, particularly in Srinagar?
The first response from soldiers on the ground is automatic. Nobody issues orders, and you see it almost on a daily basis in rescue operations during accidents, medical emergencies, etc. Even before the extent of the tragedy became evident on the third day of incessant rains, soldiers were out and rescuing those who were marooned, in South Kashmir and Jammu region.
The major impact of floods in Srinagar was on 7 September when there were major breaches on the banks of Jhelum. Prior to that rescue equipment like boats were already being flown in. The Badami Bagh Cantonment, which was the Headquarters and coordinating all rescue operations, was under 15 feet of water. Electricity, water supply and civil communications had collapsed. Did this delay rescue operations? Obviously they did, but only for a few hours and only in Srinagar.
Was the Army’s response far more robust, say, in Anantnag and Pulwama districts than in Srinagar because of the pattern of troop deployment in the Valley?
As I stated above, rescue operations started in South Kashmir as this was the area most affected in the initial three days. It also has something to do with the deployment. The army has small pockets of troops in a number of places in Pulwama and Anantnag and each of these pockets helped those they could.
The Army does not operate in Srinagar and their presence is limited to the Badami Bagh Cantonment and the area of the airfield. Srinagar is a huge city, and so when you ask about the robustness of the response: the soldier who worked round the clock, even after his own house was flooded and he had lost everything, would say – ‘What more could I have done?’ The task in Srinagar was too enormous and whatever the relief agencies (army, air force, NDRF) could do would still not be enough. This is where we have to acknowledge the efforts of the local volunteers who have contributed immensely.
Over the past one week I have spoken to several Kashmiris, from journalists to students to ordinary folks. They suggest that it isn’t as if the Army didn’t do much, as some claim, but they feel insulted by the national media which wants Kashmiris to forget the past because of the rescue and relief work undertaken by the soldiers. Don’t you think the hyper-coverage by the national media has unwittingly led to the politicization of the floods? Do you think it has undercut the efforts of the Army?
The media is not biased. They report as they see it. Could they have been a little more sensitive in their reporting? Having seen the discourse that is appearing in the social media, I would go with the view point that a little more sensitivity was required.
The relationship between the Army and the people of Kashmir, and the past history cannot be swept away by the floods and media reporting of this disaster. It is something that we have to mutually work on to earn each other’s respect. The flood relief by the Army was spontaneous and not done with any selfish thought.
I quote from a post of CPI (ML) leader Kavita Krishnan on her Facebook, “I am just seething after a phone call from Times Now that asked if I would participate in a debate on how AFSPA and Army were needed in Kashmir, as proved by the relief work the Army is doing there.” Do you think it is tenable and justified to connect relief work to security issues?
It is not tenable and, frankly, we did not even think of connecting these two dots.
There is also a feeling that the national media deliberately didn’t focus on the huge number of people saved through local community efforts. Did such efforts help provide succour to a significant degree and was their grouse, therefore, reasonable or justified?
As I said before, the media is not biased. I think the problem was of the media not being able to reach all places. I am seeing more media stories today of individual heroism than army efforts. The community efforts were enormous and helped save many lives.
At places, people pelted stones at soldiers engaged in relief and rescue operations. Does this reflect the dominant perception of the Army among the people there, because of their troubled relations in the past? Or was it only a reflection of their frustration and helplessness now? Or was it a mix of both?
It was a mix of many factors- perceptions, fears of the present, anxiety and angst. But the incidents were very few and, in my view, blown out of proportion. Most people rescued were extremely appreciative of the Army's effort.
Was there a hierarchy of importance and influence followed in rescuing people from Jawaharnagar and Rajbagh? Many claim the rescue operations weren’t on the first-seen-first-saved basis?
How can there be a hierarchy? We may be in uniform but we are all human beings first? Can you see thousands of soldiers picking and choosing whom to rescue? A large part of soldiers involved in the rescue were Kashmiris from the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry Centre located in Srinagar. Could we have issued orders to them to save non-Kashmiris first?
As you can see from my questions, there are several contradictory narratives out there? What could the government/Army have done, or still do, to scotch speculations and rumours, which are often the basis for multiple narratives?
Obviously, in a humanitarian crisis of this proportion, journalists often take a ride with the Army teams for their stories. But doesn’t this form of “embedded journalism” raise doubts about the veracity of what is written and shown?
Journalists report. It is not a bad thing because they reported the extent of devastation. Because there was no support elsewhere, they associated themselves with the rescue agencies. There was no concept of embedded journalists.
Have you overseen, or participated in, relief efforts in other humanitarian crises? In what way was Kashmir different?
The last major natural disaster in Kashmir was the earthquake of 2005. I happened to be the brigade commander in Uri and saw the worst affected areas. The similarity is in how the Army reacted in trying to alleviate the difficulties in a crisis. The difference is in how the discourse now is on what the national media reported. Even if one life is saved by anyone, let us respect that.
It is claimed the Army’s efforts have changed perceptions among the people. Do you think the reverse is true as well: that the soldiers’ views of Kashmir might have been altered because of the responses they elicited from the people? If yes, how?
The army has lived and interacted with the people of Jammu and Kashmir in ways that armies do not normally interact with the population. It has had its minuses and pluses. The soldiers I have interacted with are all praise for the people they rescued and feel a sense of satisfaction that they could help in this time of crisis.
Did you during the floods learn something about Kashmir which you hadn’t known before?
In a time of crisis, the best in a person comes out.
A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn, HarperCollins India, releasing December 2014. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated Date: Sep 26, 2014 21:05 PM