Army lifesaver for J-K victims, says Shiv Visvanathan

The floods of Kashmir was a disaster embedded in a history of conflict. Disasters are usually summons to solidarity, where a society responds to suffering. In Kashmir, the army responded dutifully and heroically and met a battery of suspicion.

Leo Tolstoy in his novel Anna Karenina has this memorable line where he states “Happy families are all alike. Unhappy families are uniquely different, each in their own way”. Disasters like tragedies are singularly different and each needs their own narrative. As a sociologist, who has worked on disasters like Bhopal (1984), the Orissa cyclone (1999), the Gujarat earthquake(2002), one must admit that the current flooding of Jammu and Kashmir carries its own poignancy.

Heroes

The floods of Kashmir was a disaster embedded in a history of conflict. Disasters are usually summons to solidarity, where a society responds to suffering. In Kashmir, the army responded dutifully and heroically and met a battery of suspicion. For separatists, the army could do no right. They treated it as an army of occupation, pelting it with stories and cursing them. But fortunately social media was on hand to etch them out and reveal the truth.

One understands disasters are disorderly systems which ambush a society but hate and suspicion, even denial of competence at this level destroys the energy required to battle a disaster. This is not to deny the army is doing great work or that political forces like Hurriyat have been energetic in their care and concern. But the scale of the disaster , the sheer speed of the floods where the water rose a full floor in a few minutes dwarfs these concerns.

As an Indian one feels the disaster should have been a moment of repair. Ethical repair does not deny the existence of violence. What it emphasises is the possibility of repair, of groups which have wronged each other making up, admitting flaws but seeking to build again. Sadly disaster management operates on the very logic of these flaws. It is as if one tragedy emphasises the greater tragedy we are perpetually embedded in.

Consider the debates around the army. The army as a rescue and relief operation has been legendary in its commitment, I remember once during the Orissa Cyclone of 1999, the army was having difficulties crossing a particular breach to help villagers on the other side. The whole effort took time and eventually the army crossed over to the waiting villagers. One of the Japans then relates a story of an old man, a villager who got tired of waiting for rescue. When the army offered food, the old man refused to accept the food, acting as if he was insulted.

The old man was angry the army was late. He expected the army to be instant in rescue. A young jawan sat quietly next to him and apologised gently placating the old man, begging him to eat. In fact he waited patiently and fed the villager his food.

A small act but it reveals the relation between army and the people in terms of rescue and relief. Sadly Kashmir has few such stories. In fact, even the heroic efforts of the army were dwarfed by the enormity of the disaster. One thing was clear. The flood, despite warnings, ambushed the people, isolated them. They were tired of waiting, anxious about their loved ones. They were desperate and army’s list of priorities made them angry. The preference to rescue VIPs and tourists must have frayed nerves. Societies do not automatically recover from disasters. It requires resilience and courage.

Democracy

One wishes the media has played a more sensitive role. The chaos of the first few days has to be understood. Throwing tantrums about it reveals little literacy about disasters. In fact, one reason the army enters is because civilian administration cannot cope.

But the beauty of democracy in India is that the army enters disaster area only with the permission of the civilian administration and have s when ordered to. Our media was heroic in its response.

One must however curb the hysteria of the first few days. In fact, media shows little interest after the first week when rehabilitation and repair takes place. This too needs a more detailed narrative strangely it was the politicians who were most solaced. Congress leaders like Digvijaya Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad were mature in their reactions, acknowledging that the Modi Government was quick and competent in in its response. In fact when Saifuddin Soz visited the flood areas people greeted him with stones and slogans. Soz was quiet. All he said was that “I am glad they are protesting. It shows that they are alive”.

Government

The only system that was condemned was the civilian administration. Commentators like Karan Singh and Wajat Habibullah wanted Governor’s rule. It is true that Omar Abdullah looked defensive in his responses. Yet the role of the civilian administration is more difficult. The army will return to the barracks and it is the civilian administration that needs to rebuild the lives of its people.

Disasters always throw up surprises. One must confront the fact the large scale prevalence of disasters has revealed a new wave of disaster managers has emerged. Fundamentalists, religious groups, resistance groups are among the finest managers of disasters. They have value frame, the stamina and the organisation to manage disasters. One need not agree with them but one has to acknowledge that groups like RSS, Ananda Marg, Swami Narayan, Sai Ashram and Ramakrishna Mission are among the great managers of disasters. They may not advertise their activities but their competence and concern is not in doubt.

Disasters demand a long range commitment. Affected societies do not switch automatically back to normalcy. The enormity of the Kashmir floods will demand a major commitment both from the administration there and the Modi Government. The everyday-ness of the relief and rehabilitation will take years to solve. One hopes the process of healing, the rituals of normalcy will begin soon.

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