Of Media Hyped Military Rescue Operations In Kashmir Floods

Though it is a bit too late to write the account of the early rescue operation in Kashmir floods, but it is always relevant and important to tell a story—and importantly a hard fact story. Four days after the incessant raining and flooding in Kashmir, Indian home minister who was to visit border areas of Jammu to boost the morale of Indian soldiers and then fly to Kashmir to chair the unified headquarters (UHQ) at Badami Bagh, had to cancel his tour due to heavy flooding in Kashmir and instead visited the parts of Jammu and Kashmir on 6th September to take stock of the situation. The day after the home minister’s visit, Indian Prime Minister Mr. Narinder Modi made an aerial survey of the region and had a meeting with the chief minister and the governor to understand the magnitude of the disaster. The PM allocated eleven hundred crores of assistance to the state to handle this disaster. Mr. Modi also asked the military forces to gear up to rescue the people. On 9th September, Indian air force rescue choppers started hovering over the houses in the inundated Srinagar city, to take stock of the situation. By the time many local youth had mobilized the local resources and rescued a sizable number of stranded populace in Srinagar city and the affected areas of Pulwama and Anantnag districts.

With the state administration crumbling under the water, what could be seen only two agencies working in rescue operation. On the one hand, it was the Kashmir’s young men, risking their lives, carrying the rescue operation by using local Shikaras (boats); on the other, Indian military, though lately, using choppers and boats for the rescue purpose. However, the military has been widely accused of giving preference to elites, Indian tourists and Indian laborers over the common Kashmiri in the rescue operation. What distinguished the rescue operations by the local youth from the rescue operation of military was that the one was lead by passion to save every stranded person, the other was purely a “Sadbhavna” operation accompanied by TV journalists, who gave minute by minute footage to Indian military rescue efforts—showcasing their “bravery and wholehearted” effort to save Kashmiri people—the otherwise anti-national and antimilitary populace. In this scheme, the ‘chopper rescuers’ were projected by the media as the only messiah of the Kashmiri people.

If this hyper nationalistic media courage was not enough; television studios started telecasting prime time shows and debates on Indian military’s “heroic efforts” in rescue operation. For example, India’s much celebrated “liberal” news anchor Barkha Dutt, in her show “The Buck Stops here” on 9th evening, castigated Hurriyat leadership for not acknowledging and praising the military rescue efforts. She went on to argue that the forces which are being seen alien and hated by the people of Kashmir are the ones who are saving Kashmiri people. Thus the argument was made and the message was conveyed that the Kashmiris should now pay back to India in the form of giving love, care to the Indian soldiers and embracing Indian system by forgetting the miseries, hardships, humiliation they have faced in the hands of Indian forces from last twenty five years.

On the next day, 10th September, Ms. Dutt flied to Kashmir, and was taken in a military helicopter to show the aerial rescue operation, which was telecasted 24×7 on the news channel. In the same day, the anchor again focused her evening show “The buck stops here” on the military rescue operation. The one hour long program was dedicated to showcase military bravery, and titled in pure Sadbhavna fashion “Salaam to the Soldiers”… the title of the program had much resemblance with graffiti on the gate’s of a military camps: “Jawaan aur awaam, aman hay mukaam”. One would have wished to see even a two-minute news bite of those ground level local rescuers, who rescued thousands of lives, despite having no training in rescue operation. But yes, chopper journalists like Ms. Dutt and her ilks would not see it fitting in her scheme of things, after all she has to prove her loyalty to a foe turned friendly party—Hawkish BJP. And, this was the best occasion to do so.

In another news channel, Times Now, where the “general” Arunab Goswama in his prime time show, in his unique style, was giving sermons; raising dozens of questions in one breath but answering them too…which only he can do, finally posed a question to three panelists in the show: hawkish, retired, military general Bakshi, the yes-man of “general” Goswami and pseudo strategic expert Maruf Raza, and Indian national congress spokesperson Salman Soz, that why the Kashmiri leadership (mainstream and separatists) does not thank the military for its rescue efforts. Before any of the panelists would answer Mr. Goswami started attacking the state government, Kashmiri people, and the separatists, in particular, for not thanking the military for their rescue efforts. It sounded as if Mr. Goswami has done a survey in the valley, in which hundred percent of people have said that they do not acknowledge the rescue efforts of the military…even though they are not bound to do so; as the military everywhere in the world are trained and meant to rescue people in disasters. As the program continued and Mr. Soz was finally granted permission by the “general” Goswami to speak in his “concentration TV studio”; the otherwise, very sober and calm Soz lost his cool and rebuked Mr. Goswami for not letting the panelists to speak. He went on to thank the military and other rescue forces, but reminded the Mr. Goswami that other people’s efforts in the rescue operation should be acknowledged as well.

Midst this huge extravaganza rescue operation of the military, what was missing in this whole exercise of was the state administration…it seemed the state did not exist. Importantly, state is and will remain the most powerful actor to handle any kind of natural disaster, because of its responsibility, legitimacy and capacity to intervene and make things right, if it has failed to do right things, in the first place. While it is not possible to prevent floods but it is certainly possible to reduce the magnitude of the damage caused by the floods by putting in place proper disaster preparedness systems—pre-disaster warning and post-disaster management.

While it seemed the state almost vanished after the 7th September, prior to that on 6th September, after the 6 days of incessant raining, the state government appealed the people of the Shivpora, Indra Nagar, Mehjoor Nagar, Rajbagh, Jawahar Nagar localities, through loud speakers to leave their houses and move to safer places, which resulted in tens of thousands of people moving to safer places; even though most of the people took the warning lightly and did not foresee the intensity of the floods. Till this date, 6th of September and 7th night, government was completely functioning and was at the forefront in rescuing people, especially in the Barzullah Baghat area, where the chief minister stayed up whole night to rescue people. However, on 7th September floods marooned most of the areas in the central city, including the business hub Lal Chowk, the high court of Jammu and Kashmir, police control room, central secretariat and so on. As the floods left no possibility of ground rescue, and the state being ill-equipped to tackle this catastrophe, the situation lead to the rescue operation in the hands of Army as is the precedent in any extraordinary disaster situation. While the state ministers, bureaucrats and police officials ran away to save their lives…where some ministers were seen taking flights to Jammu and Delhi; in the city, only three officers of the state government; director health services Kashmir, SDM Srinagar and SDPO Shaheedgunj were seen on the ground leading the relief and rescue operation.

While the chief minister tried to hide inefficiency of his government under the garb that all the main government offices crumbled under the water and it was not possible to predict and prepare for disaster of this scale. Let us accept the fact that all the government offices–civil and police—of the Srinagar district were indeed under the water, therefore it was impossible for them to work. What about the role of the four adjacent districts of Srinagar—Ganderbal, Bandipora, Baramullah and Budgam in rescue operation. Could not state have mobilized its resources, men and machinery from these districts to rescue the precious lives and property in the city. Was not it possible for the district commissioners of Baramullah and Bandipora to tackle the situation till Narbal; could not district commissioner Ganderbal provide services upto Khanyar, was not it possible for the district commissioner Budgam to come out of his comfort zone to lead rescue and relief operation up to Rambagh area. So is the case with SSP’s of these districts which preferred not to cross the boundaries of their catchment areas. The question then arises; does the inefficient disaster management system exonerate the local government from its responsibilities? The state’s failure in disaster preparedness is unforgivable. There is no disaster by nature; any natural calamity if not handled properly turns into a disaster. From Waltango naar Snow avalanche in early 2005, Earthquake in 2005 to Flash floods in 2010 in Leh, Kashmir has faced major natural calamities in the recent past, which have hugely affected the people. Besides there were media reports in 2010 warning about a major flood may strike. The state falling on the seismic zone IV and V, and being prone to the floods and other disasters, ironically does not have any proper disaster management or disaster preparedness system in place. The state did not here only failed to have proper disaster management plan, but even at the time of disaster it failed to mobilize the local boats (shikaras) which are available in every district. If the people could take boats from Kupwara, Baramullah and other districts to rescue the stranded, why could not state do so? 

Anyway, as Kashmir is tackling the issue of disaster, Indian media is continuing projecting the military as the only messiah. Be it 2005 floods in Mumbai, 2010 floods in Leh, 2013 floods in Utrakhand, or now in 2014 floods in Kashmir, Indian military has been at the forefront in rescuing people. But then, why in Kashmir this rescue operation is being projected in a manner as if a great mercy is done on the people of the valley. In Utrakhand the military lost its 20 soldiers in a helicopter crash during the rescue operation, but a small stone pelting incident by some stranded people, presumably angry for not be rescued immediately, was projected in a manner as if a full-flagged war was launched against the ‘military rescuers’. Nevertheless, if Indian military, it’s media and the Indian state feels that they have done a great mercy on Kashmiri people by rescuing them during this disaster; we thank them for that and request them to have one more mercy on us and leave this land for ever. We can handle our affairs ourselves and there are and would be many neighboring countries to support us in any such situation. If they cannot leave this place, then it’s their responsibility to take care of the people, in any such natural calamity, till they keep controlling this land.

Ghulam Nabi, Research Scholar based in Srinagar. 

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