When disaster hits, whether natural or manmade, Indians have always put aside their differences and come together to handle the emergency. We saw this during the Bhuj and Latur earthquake, during the super cyclone in Odisha, the Uttarakhand, Bihar and Assam floods and many other times. The Kashmir floods have seen a quick reaction from Narendra Modi and within 48 hours we had 300,000 military personnel and 300 jets, choppers and boats in action. More than 200,000 marooned people were rescued after a week of rain caused riverbanks to burst. Modi has promised the state 1000 crores and then an additional 1,000 crore for relief and rehabilitation. The families of the dead will receive Rs.2 lakh each, “the army will not move back to the barracks till the last man is brought to safety,” the army chief has said. This perhaps will go down as the biggest relief operation in the history.
Modi knew that any mis-step in this region of the world’s most militarised conflict that India and Pakistan have fought over for more than six decades would have serious repercussions. About 44,000 people have died in religious and border violence in Kashmir since 1988, where the army has been accused of extra-judicial killings and detentions. In the Kashmir valley, Muslims have historically protested India’s military presence, and accused soldiers guarding the border against Pakistani insurgency of murder, kidnapping and rape. Kashmiris and the security forces have, for ages, shared a common emotion: mutual distrust verging on animus. But the floods have given them a chance to find something else in common: compassion and empathy. In the past week, Kashmiris have seen a side of the military and Modi which they have rarely seen before. The feeling of alienation among Kashmiris, especially youth, has kept the separatist movement in J&K alive. In the hour of crisis though mainland India responded promptly to help J&K flood victims, this will surely in later days assuage the hurt feelings of many Kashmiris. There were a few lone voices among the fringe elements who tried to punch holes in the entire herculean rescue efforts. The former National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) vice-chairman and Congress leader M Sashidhar Reddy’s criticism of the Modi government over delay in re-constitution of the agency is unwarranted at this juncture. Fingers were pointed at the preparedness of the NDRF, the failing of the Meteorological department and the total collapse of the Omar Abdullah administration. Playing politics with people’s lives needs to stop. In the hour of crisis, petty politicking should not be indulged in. There were reports criticising the role of the Army, allegations that security forces are saving only tourists and VIPs, these were countered vehemently and immediately—not by the persons accused, but by grateful Kashmiris. Many ‘nationalist’ and ‘Right Wing’ commentators spoke of the ungratefulness of the Kashmiris towards the army which was helping them.
The media is singing paeans to the role of the Indian Army and Air Force, arguing that from being perceived as an “occupation force” it is being seen as a ‘humanitarian agency.’ TV channels are beaming live images of rescue operations by brave soldiers. The social media is inundated with praise for operation Meghrahat. The security forces have always played a stellar role in rescue operations and what they are doing in Kashmir isn’t too different. If it was duty in Uttarakhand, it can’t be a favour in Kashmir. They are doing what is expected from them. The state is reeling under the poorest form of governance, now time has come there should be a change of leadership in the state by any national party. BJP certainly seeking to oust a regional party that has held the state for most of its 67-year history to fulfill a pledge of ensuring safe return of Hindus displaced by militancy. Once the emergency is over and the centre money for rehabilitation starts flowing, the politics of partisanship and patronage will start. Especially, as this is election year.
It is unethical and uncouth to look for opportunity in tragedy. But such is the complex, almost abnormal, relation between the Army and the people in the Valley that calling the floods a god-sent opening—a watershed moment—may not be immoral or opportunistic. Also, there is every chance that once the water recedes and normalcy is restored; there would be coordinated efforts to ensure that the temporary warmth created between the Army and the Kashmiris doesn’t end. The relation between the Army and Kashmiris would be put under strain very soon, during the election. When that happens the response would tell us if the new beginning was just a blip or the start of a meaningful relation. You cannot shake hands with someone with a closed fist. The Indian subcontinent is among the world’s most disaster prone areas with a history of natural and manmade disasters. According to a report all the states and union territories in India are prone to disasters like earthquakes, cyclones, floods, and draughts. It is hit by, at least, one major natural or manmade disaster every year resulting in heavy loss to life and property. Notwithstanding our efforts to predict disasters, there is no doubt, that we cannot stop them from occurring but with advanced technology and skilled manpower, we could reduce and minimise their magnitude of destruction.
Disaster management as a system has been a failure here as people as well as the officials shows least concern for the subject. Our disaster management has often times been termed as “disastrous”. Boats had to be airlifted from Chennai to Srinagar, from the southernmost tip to the northernmost point. Strengthening the NDRF to a great extent, improving our forecasting system, and finally giving the subject of disaster management a due place in our curriculum will help is saving many lives. We have to learn from the mistakes.