When a flood is not a flood: Why Kashmir is not Uttarakhand

The flooding in Kashmir may or may not have been the worst in India’s history, but it is arguably the most political of them all. Never before have the floods inspired people to read into them multiple, often contradictory, meanings.

From the ideas of nation and loyalty to the role of the army in relief operations, to the insistence in some quarters that Kashmiris must express gratitude for soldiers who saved their lives, there is hardly an idea which hasn’t acquired a political charge because of the floods.

To fathom why the floods in Kashmir have become intensely political, it is pertinent to ask the question: What are the similarities between the natural calamity In Kashmir and the destructive flooding in Uttarakhand last year?

Both these had a degree of unprecedented benumbing ferocity to them, killed people, battered the survivors, and triggered a shriek against the respective governments’ failure to mount an effective relief and rescue (RR) operations. In both these cases the flouting of building and environment laws was said to have compounded the tragedy manifold.

More importantly, in Kashmir, as in Uttarakhand, the Army soldiers have been lavishly praised for rescuing people trapped in death-holes and getting food and medicine to relatively inaccessible human habitats at a risk to their own lives. Remember the helicopter which, because of poor visibility, crashed against the mountain during relief operations in Uttarakhand last year, the visual of wreckage played over and over again on TV channels, in an expression of homage to the dead crew. Yet, what distinguishes the two tragedies is that -- unlike in Uttarakhand -- the Army’s role in Kashmir has become extremely controversial.

Is it because the Kashmiris expected a more robust performance from the Army since the Valley happens to be among the most heavily militarised zone in the world? If so, it testifies to the sheer impossibility of insulating any issue from the state’s troubled history, its bloody past. So when academician Amitabh Mattoo asked NDTV channel to refrain from viewing the Army’s role through the political lens, he was tacitly accepting the inevitability of the coming politicisation. To ask that we stick strictly to the facts – of the floods and rescue operations in Kashmir – is in itself political.

This is precisely why paeans to the Army on TV channels had many, both inside and outside Kashmir, feel a certain discomfort and sniff a hidden agenda: Was all this wah-wah for soldiers aimed at neutralising the criticisms and allegations of human rights abuses levelled against them in the past? The Army may not be indulging in PR exercise, but their efforts were being expediently interpreted by analysts and viewers intent on imposing their political ideas upon the tragedy in Kashmir.

Kashmir flood victims call out for help in Srinagar. AP

Kashmir flood victims call out for help in Srinagar. AP

Votaries of the different schools of thought were quick to get into the act. There were, to begin with, the right-wingers, particularly of the Hindutva variety, who took over social media to pour out their hate: the floods were a comeuppance for the Kashmiri’s disloyalty to India, a divine chastisement for their quest for freedom or allegiance to Pakistan. A few even suggested Kashmiris should be abandoned to their watery graves.

Into this raging stepped the Times Now channel. Alluding to an incident of stone-throwing at soldiers, the TV channel, more or less, asked the Kashmiris to express gratitude to the Army for its RR operations. True, pelting of stones in the Valley has a huge political significance, yet in the battle to survive the floods, the expression of rage was more a signifier of frustration and helplessness -- or perhaps even staged by separatists, as one Firstpost report suggests. The channel simply took away the ambiguity from the act of chucking stones to impose a definite political meaning on it.

Times Now's agenda was open and unapologetic. CPI (ML) leader Kavita Krishnan posted on her Facebook wall:

“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. I said ‘shame on you’ and refused. I also asked them if this means AFSPA and permanent Army presence would be ok, say, in Uttarakhand, since the Army did relief work there as well?”

TV anchors who consider themselves as the nation’s conscience-keepers, its lode-stars, in turn provoked angry reactions from Kashmiris, belying whatever nationalistic motives the channels may have had other than TRP ratings.

The strident counter from Kashmiris to scrub out the troubled past from public memory too has a political context. The Times Now-like attempt to sanctify the Army would have seemed to Kashmiri activists a conspiracy to whitewash its perceived past misdeeds and to separatists, a serious threat to the popular support to the secessionist movement. Many consequently thought it was vital to deny the Army any credit, rightly or wrongly, for RR operations in Kashmir.

Gowhar Fazili on Kafila justifiably says, “The panelists in the newsrooms are busy rubbing salt into the wounds of Kashmiris by upping the nationalist rhetoric and magnifying the 'generous' help that the state is providing to the ungrateful and seditious populations in Kashmir. No one tells them that under the Geneva Convention the state is duty bound to protect the lives of people that happen to be under its thumb.”

But in his piece you can also discern an attempt to erase the salutary role of the Army in rescue operations. For instance, he says, “All the rescuing of my relatives and friends whom I managed to speak to were carried out through the efforts of extended family… One sees some Disaster Management people and Army efforts operating in certain pockets but it is not an organised effort and at a scale that aims to pull out all the people who are at the present precariously holding on to their lives.”

Undoubtedly, we can’t contest the veracity of what Fazili saw. Yet it is a tad astonishing that there isn’t even a lingering doubt in his account that what he saw might not be the complete picture, universally true for all of Srinagar and other affected parts of the state. In other words, his piece unwittingly conveys that all newspaper and TV accounts of the Army’s role are suspect, aimed at endearing the Indian state to the Kashmiris.

This position is staked more bluntly by the likes of Hurriyat leader Syed Geelani who told a Pakistan news channel, "Indian Army men were moving around in boats with TV crews only to stage an act of rescuing a few locals for the purpose of publicity and propaganda."

By contrast, other accounts have portrayed a remarkably different account. Arshad Rasool Zargar, a journalist with NDTV, who went to Batmaloo to rescue his parents saw “… the Army teams at the spot had rescued thousands from the area I was camping in…. The shortage of boats fed the anger of people the most. But the calamity was of such magnitude that even thousands of boats would fall short.”

Zargar goes on to observe, “The Army had to face the brunt of the anger. I spent three days with Major S S Negi and his team of the J&K Light Infantry regiment… He spent long hours without food and displayed unmatched restraint in dealing with the people's anger.”

While some would dismiss Zargar’s account as typical of those Kashmiris who wish to curry favours with the media houses, the very existence of multiple positions on the floods in Kashmir tells us about the fatuousness of imposing a unifocal narrative on it. Asking Kashmiris to express gratitude to the Army is as puerile as insisting its soldiers were callously indifferent to providing succour in Kashmir unlike, say, to what they did in Uttarakhand last year. To believe the Army’s RR operations will persuade Kashmiris to forgive and forget its repression is as delusional as believing that even those who were rescued from certain death can be convinced their own experience was imagined.

The tendency to see the reality of Kashmir in neat binaries arises from the fact nothing in the state can quite escape the political. This is why it is to politics we must turn to resolve the protracted Kashmir problem, not to spinning the tragedy there in our self-serving ways. Perhaps it is because all of us have an eye on the future, aware that in the months to come the current narratives on the Kashmir floods will get further rewritten and reinterpreted to fight ideological battles. For the moment, all of us are simply marking our political positions.

A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn, HarperCollins India, releasing December 2014. Email: ashrafajaz3@gmail.com

Updated Date: Sep 14, 2014 20:45 PM

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