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Kashmiris rise up in the fight against the floods

Floods in Kashmir

Srinagar has been devastated by the recent floods. © Ieshan Wani

The picture-perfect Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir was left stripped and in tatters within hours after devastating floods hit the Himalayan region last month. The Indian government, which has long proclaimed the beauty of Kashmir in the hope of strengthening the façade of normality and development in the region, was, ironically, the first to be hit, as its regional offices and state buildings were flooded. Now, the city stands naked. Heaps of rubble and stinking garbage dot the streets. As well as the damage to government offices and the state museum, shops lie broken and abandoned. People walk with drooping shoulders and slack jaws, anxiety looming large on their faces. Even the military camps and garrisons look rickety. Displaced people have taken refuge in tents pitched on footpaths and roadsides. Schools and hospitals are deserted. Phone networks, the internet and electricity are yet to be restored in many parts. It looks like a scene of war.

Jhelum, the river flowing through the city, was brimming with brownish waters after days of incessant rain. Despite a flood warning by experts years ago, the state did nothing to prepare. It ignored the prediction of ‘heavy to very heavy rainfall’ and did not alert the people. Most parts of the city were flooded within hours and the government was crippled. Officials fled to safety and hid in a fortified building – an erstwhile torture centre. The 700,000 Indian troops based in Kashmir were conspicuous by their absence. Military and officials hovered aimlessly in helicopters.

With the state sinking in its own non-action, the people’s strength, solidarity and resistance floated to the surface. The people of Srinagar's old city, a city of burgeoning military pickets, a city dotted with anti-India graffiti whose liberation-seeking youth have fallen prey to draconian laws and are labelled ‘unruly’, ‘druggies’ and ‘trouble-makers’ by India, became the major recourse in the fight against the floods. They reclaimed the roads; using foam sheets, baby bath tubs, tin, tyres and other makeshift tools, they sailed to submerged areas – including maternity hospitals and other medical facilities – and rescued the stranded. Many volunteers lost their lives. Impromptu medical camps, numerous community kitchens and other relief efforts by various people’s groups sprang up, transcending religious divides. Shrines and mosques became asylums. Considerable relief and rescue efforts were also made by people from villages on the outskirts of the city, and the Kashmir diaspora chipped in, setting up relief collection centres.

When the Indian army finally started its rescue operations, priority was given to airlifting military personnel, bureaucrats, tourists and other non-local workers out of the area. There were lots of complaints that the army was air-dropping in stale and expired food packets.

Youngsters hoisted black flags and protested against the Indian army’s aid operations. One banner, held by a volunteer-rescuer, read: ‘No government; people for people!’ On humanitarian grounds, the young people sometimes even provided aid to members of the military.

The rise of a grassroots movement for humanitarian aid, and the failure of the government to take control of the rescue efforts, made the government in New Delhi uncomfortable. It resorted to strategic information control. Communication networks were frozen, even in areas unaffected by the flood. The media manufactured lies and hyperbolized the role of army, portraying it as sole saviour of the people and ignoring the stories of grassroots action. The army’s selective rescue measures were played up in an attempt to whitewash its gross human rights violations in Kashmir. One TV news channel proclaimed: ‘Indian army stands vindicated…

On 27 September, at the UN General Assembly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the priority ‘should be talking about relief to flood-ravaged Kashmir’. Yet perversely, he had rejected the UN’s offer of aid soon after witnessing the destruction for himself during a helicopter flight above Kashmir. International aid has in the past been accepted following similar calamities in Indian states, ‘but Kashmir is not India and never will be,’ a relief co-ordinator remarked.

Non-local aid groups have been asked to route donations via the Indian Prime Minister’s relief account, which will involve red tape and therefore delay the relief process. New Delhi is blocking aid from non-state actors, thus making Kashmir’s people dependent on aid from the state and the army, institutions that locals have been protesting against for over 60 years.

The floods took over 300 lives, left thousands homeless, and took an enormous psychological toll. But, well versed in the ploys of Indian state, the people of Kashmir remain out on the streets, cleaning the rot and slowly readying their community for the approaching harsh Himalayan winter.

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