Disasters not only disrupt society, they also distort its basic categories, creating inversions, disrupting normalcy and suspending time in a prolonged way. Return to normalcy then becomes even more difficult and unpredictable. The floods of Kashmir devastated the state but also highlighted the violence of its consciousness. Goodness, concern and even efficiency were treated ironically, creating a strange battle between ethics and politics, efficiency and a certain sense of injustice. In Kashmir, the standard discourse of disasters, of rescue, relief and rehabilitation was soiled by a cantankerous politics.
In the first few days the civilian administration was hardly visible. Even the police were sited only on occasion and all one had was the enduring presence of the Army.
The Army played its role competently and predictably, rescuing over a lakh of people. One thought one would hear praise, but the efficiency of the Army was treated by many separatists as a propagandist act, a continuation of occupation by other means.
The spectator watching these acts on social media often feels violated. A good act of saving life at least needs the grace of acknowledgement rather than the shier of contempt and suspicion. Separatist groups pushed their hostility further by claiming that rescue and relief was more due to the effort of local communities.
The disaster relief work, rather than being seen as an act of humanitarianism, got implicated in old politics. Flood relief became a political token to be contested between the Army and the separatist groups.
The Army proceeds silently and professionally, but groups like the Hurriyat remove any possibility of grace. An acknowledgement of the Army does not diminish them. Yet they eradicate the availability of fairness.
Firstly, the Army is treated as suspect. As a reaction separatists, even if they do dedicated work, are treated with suspicion. Unfairness spreads like an epidemic, denying authenticity to anyone. In the mutuality of suspicion, a sense of communities is lost. Worse, the noise of politics creates a politics of silence. Kashmir is highlighted but Jammu is forgotten.
The debates become even more acute as, political sociologist Chandrika Parmar points out, the politics or factionalism around the nation state challenges basic philosophies. For example, groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Ramkrishna Mission follow the policy of seva. Seva, she points out, is service, where the giver is seen as lower in the hierarchy than the receiver. This is the opposite of humanitarianism which places giving above receiving. The civilisational impetus of these cultural groups is marred by political factionalism. The RSS feels that separatists are confounding problems and lack the grace to acknowledge the Army.
The politics of memory, of earlier conflicts mars the social construction of disasters. What is lost here is the need to understand the scale of the disaster. It is so awesome that the Army, community and separatists combined cannot cope with it.
To the scale of the disaster one must now add the demands of relief and rehabilitation. It demands a different imagination for governance, an empathy to understand people isolated by floods. There is an anger, a resentment which bubbles forth and is difficult to suppress. One must understand that the trauma of disasters is one of the least understood aspects of disaster. Between trauma, benign neglect and suspicion, there is a different poignancy to the floods as a disaster.
Beyond politics, there are governance issues which need to be discussed. The much touted National Disaster Management Authority is a collection of vacancies.
The state of Kashmir itself lacks a disaster management authority. The pressures on the civilian administration are severe. To it we can add the autism of Omar Abdullah who reads the flood as an unfair punishment of his regime. There is a desperate need for clarity in the ethical, political and governance domains.
Disasters demand social and physical repair. Reconstruction of Kashmir is going to demand enormous resources and with resources will come battles — the politics of uneven distribution between Jammu and Kashmir.
Disaster areas are already being converted into election sites, where the future of the regime will depend on how it handles disasters.
There is a possibility of ethical repair, a possibility of groups with competing interests learning to work with each other for the common good. The challenge now is, do we have the magnanimity and imagination for it. One cannot let disasters and the suffering they cause become grounds for political football, where some forms of suffering are treated as more equal than others.
There is also the background narrative of the fate of Kashmiri Pandits, their displacement which haunts Kashmir. There was unfairness to them which we cannot compound.
Ours is a civilian administration which requires that the Army return to the barracks when the rescue work is over. The democratic imagination then has to work on the survivor as citizen, responding to his entitlements as a victim. This is the challenge that we have to face to turn the disaster into a gigantic act of healing, repair.