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And then the waters rose

Author: Jaya Jaitly
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: September 16, 2014
URL: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/and-then-the-waters-rose/99/

As August slipped into September, Kashmir was its usual idyllic, picturesque self. The evening sun was gentle and golden, readying to welcome the next phase of the tourist season. Jewellery shops at Lal Chowk were open on Sundays, heralding the wedding season. Citizens in areas like Rajbagh, Gogji Bagh, Sonawar and Jawahar Nagar were tending their gardens for the next burst of chrysanthemums. Roads were lined with shops signifying new development activity. They had modern glass facades and offered the latest in tiles, taps, wall paint, cement and upholstery. The banks of the Jhelum were finally landscaped after lying unkempt for over 40 years. Impending elections added to the sense of activity, with local predictions from Muslims and Hindus alike that the BJP could well form the next government in the state, albeit perhaps in coalition with the PDP. It was expected to do well in Jammu and Ladakh and pick up a few seats in the Kashmir valley to stake a claim. Most had given up on the National Conference.

A visitor familiar with the turbulence in Kashmir over the last 25 years would have noticed the sense of security, stability and well being manifested by the frenetic construction activity going on in most areas, from large new houses along the airport road to renovations in private dwellings and craft workshops and showrooms in the inner lanes of the old city. Within the city, one could see hostile wall slogans like “India go back” in only two or three places. Most local residents toss off questions about the Hurriyat Conference’s Syed Ali Shah Geelani or Yasin Malik with dismissive comments about their irrelevance. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had recently taken to defending the cosy tea party between the Hurriyat and the Pakistan high commissioner. The people described this as a sure sign that he felt politically weak and insecure. They recalled how even Sheikh Abdullah at one time, and during the last decade the PDP, had done the same.

This backdrop is necessary as a contrast to the grave natural disaster that hit the state of Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir overnight. The prime minister of India lost no time in personally assessing the damage and lending support to the disaster management effort. The defence services, which have been the target of politically organised dissent for so long, have pulled out every stop to rescue stranded citizens.

Today, several individuals are caught in a strange contradiction of their own making as they praise the army for itsrescue but curse the media for publicising this.

Disaster brought forth offers of mutual assistance from the political leadership of India and Pakistan, although Pakistan’s elected leader is currently under a different kind of siege himself. The significance of a mutually humanitarian approach must underline all future engagements between India and Pakistan. India’s rescue efforts in the state and offer of help to Pakistan demonstrate a new sense of strength and confidence as a powerful but compassionate neighbour. Our very own separatists are silent and missing in action, instead of being seen wading through the river-like streets helping the distressed by running relief camps or taking food up onto rooftops.

It is understandable for the state government to claim that the police and civilian administration have been cut-off from communication, just like everyone else. The state apparatus

could not have remained untouched by the ferocious floods. However, there are senior officials on dry ground, and others from Delhi have stationed themselves in the state. Statements coming from the chief minister do not indicate that there are reassuring, competent professionals in government with a handle on ongoing relief measures. The state goverment should be putting out information about the kind of operations being undertaken in different areas, the phone numbers of control rooms that can accept or provide details regarding missing or stranded persons and even regular weather updates and health warnings.

Today, people are dependent on rumours and word of mouth to trace missing relatives or access their bodies from the morgue. Officials should have learned from earlier disasters like the cyclone in Odisha and the earthquake in Kutch, and not be missing in action a week after the disaster struck. Unfortunately, civil and political administrators in Kashmir have been spoiled by the luxury and indolence of present times. Some citizens, too, who have for many years expressed aggressive political dissent at every inconvenience that is commonly prevalent elsewhere in the country, believe that by pelting stones at rescue helicopters, they are doing a service to their hapless compatriots. Special status for Kashmir seems to have morphed into a self-serving demand that does no good when the tragedy that nature’s fury has unleashed requires everyone to work and act with one heart and one mind.

- The writer is a former president of the Samata Party
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