A natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions has hit Kashmir. It is unprecedented in recent memory across three generations and has left tens of thousands marooned besides destroying vital infrastructure. The extent of the human toll is unclear. Reports of floating bodies and those trapped inside collapsed houses makes it a frightening scenario. Almost all major hospitals have been affected and practically dysfunctional. The ones which worked were fast running out of life-saving drugs, painkillers, food and water. Near total power and communications breakdown has complicated relief work. Even after the water recedes, Kashmir would suffer physical, economic and psychological consequences of the disaster for years to come.
Yet it seems to business as usual – dehumanizing Kashmiris — for certain people even in the midst of the catastrophe that has directly affected an estimated 60% people. It is the same old ‘good us’ versus ‘evil them’ subtext — based on chronic disinformation — that is playing out even in the sections of the mainstream media. It is been much worse on the social media. Nauseating trolling has become even more vicious in the name of exclusivist nationalism, which has no place for the monolithic other like Kashmiris. Abuse and sadistic pleasure being drawn from the colossal damage to human life and property has been very distressing particularly for non-resident Kashmiris, who have relied on social media to find out the fate of their loved ones caught in killer flood waters.
The appalling show of jingoism has added insult to the injury. Further, the rescue operations are being portrayed as if a favour was being done to Kashmiris. It is as if it is being reminded that Kashmiris are not citizens but subjects, which has long been alleged. As citizens, it is the duty of the state to evacuate, rescue and rehabilitate the people. It is not a favour. The Army is just doing its moral and constitutional duties as the civilian administration has collapsed. It is perhaps the only organised, resourceful and trained organisation to deal with such scale of the disaster. The Army has done such commendable work in similar situations elsewhere in the country as well. But nowhere has it been portrayed as a favour. Professional soldiers are even obliged to uphold the rights of enemy combatants under the Geneva Convention not to mention their obligations towards fellow citizens.
Similarly, many chose to jeer separatists instead of focusing on the relief work and the survivors even while an entire city of over a million people was practically sinking. ‘Where are they’ was the common refrain. One of them particularly targeted is an 82-year-old cancer survivor with one functional kidney. He has spent most of last four years under house arrest. It is well-known the man in question has not even often been allowed to offer the all-important Friday congregational prayers. Those who were jeering the separatists are otherwise the same people who insist they do not represent Kashmiris and are at best outlaws. If that is so, why waste time and energy on ridiculing them when the focus should be to provide succour to the residents of a city that has practically become one giant killer lake. The separatists are not the state with four powerful pillars. Do their opponents would want them to replace it?
Usual conspiracy theorists too have been having a field day in their dehumanisation business. Their typical unintelligent and implausible propaganda as usual is being mistaken for gospel truth thanks to the level of Kashmiri dehumanisation. For instance, ridiculous claims of disruption of relief work in an area, where common people have no access even during normal times, have been peddled as authentic ‘news’.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah has clearly said flood waters practically washed away his government too. He was unable to get in touch with his 90% of his ministers and other officials, many of whom had to be rescued. His phone lines remained snapped. Yet alleged attacks on rescuers are being painted as an organised conspiracy. If the highest elected official was completely cut off from the outside world, how does one explain the planned conspiracy behind the attacks? This defies logic. Do not aggrieved people trapped in their houses and running short of food, water, life-saving drugs, baby food have the right to be angry even when there are serious questions about selective rescue? This too has given haters another stick to beat Kashmiris with.
This has further widened the gulf between Delhi and Srinagar, created particularly by serious rights abuses and lack of closure in the last 25 years. The relief work is not going to overnight whitewash the abuses even while the security establishment zealously defends sweeping laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which violate fundamental rights including the one to life. Any attempts to reach closure have been blocked like in the case of Pathribal extrajudicial killings recently. Five men were killed, mutilated and passed off as terrorists a decade back. A watertight case against uniformed men fell through as even the Supreme Court, under AFSPA, allowed the Army to close it without an explanation. Crass hyper nationalism has in this backdrop aggrieved Kashmiris further and the state risks squandering another opportunity to make up for its series of blunders.