“Drove across South Kashmir, battered and bruised. Just reached Srinagar, the city in shambles, can smell death in the air. #KashmirFloods,” writes a Facebooker who is on his way to meet his family in Kashmir almost two weeks after the flood killed 74 in the Valley.

“#SOS we needs rafts. Send us rafts from Bombay,” reads a tweet posted by a desperate youth from Downtown Srinagar to a friend outside the Valley.

“Even traffic constables are not on the streets and it is causing havoc on the few roads that are open for ferrying relief supplies,” complains another social media user.

Willfully neglected by New Delhi and used by the Indian army as a PR exercise, flood-affected Kashmiris look to their own

The absence of the state is at the heart of the calamity that Kashmiris have been facing. The “rescue effort” in a region considered to be one of the most highly militarised zones in the world is shocking indeed.

“They (security forces) had lists when they came to rescue people in our neighbourhood. They had been instructed to rescue government officials and Pandits, not local Muslims. They were sticking to the list,” claims an agitated young man while speaking over the phone from Rajbaugh, an affluent area where bureaucrats reside.

“They flew so low that our boat overturned! Then the soldiers dumped biscuits and expired medicines in the filthy floodwater. How can we use these?” asks an angry flood survivor from south Kashmir.

While New Delhi claims that Kashmir is an inseparable part of India, the government has left flood victims to fend for themselves

Structural violence has been woven into the state’s rescue plan in Kashmir. The apparent tactic of ignoring the masses in India’s only Muslim majority state and selectively rescuing Indian tourists and bureaucrats has elicited condemnation from Kashmiri civil society all over the world.

Instead of streamlining aid distribution to make it easier for aid agencies, sources revealed that the state has made it mandatory for aid agencies to procure permission from the local SP in order to release relief packages at the cargo distribution point at Srinagar airport.

“This will not only delay our effort, but also involve paperwork. At a time like this, should we run around asking for permission from police?” asked an agitated camp coordinator.

They (security forces) had lists when they came to rescue people in our neighbourhood. They had been instructed to rescue government officials and Pandits, not local Muslims. They were sticking to the list.

“The administration, without taking our views into account, has also asked us to keep our trucks outside the gate of the airport as it is a high security zone. Are we supposed to walk for a kilometre out of the airport with relief material on our heads?” he added. No official communication has been released to this but relief workers in different parts of Srinagar claim this measure is very much in place.

Manipulation of channels of aid to state-sponsored NGOs and selective meting out of relief material like blankets, disinfectants, medicines and inflatable rafts to certain sections by the government has magnified the alienation felt by the Kashmiris, who have endured over two decades of unbridled state terror.

In an article titled, ‘In J&K floods, army only thought Indian citizens needed help’, on September 19, 2014, Lt. General D.S. Hooda told The Times of India (Mumbai edition) that 30,000 troops were directly participating in the rescue efforts.

In the first few days of the calamity, locals had realised that largely tourists would be rescued. The troops normally deployed on the streets of Srinagar were nowhere to be found. “They were very angry with the Indian media and were cursing the chief minister. What they said about the chief minister can’t be printed,’’ Manecksha adds.

Aware of the damage the flood had caused, he stated, “Water supply was hit, electricity was cut, hospitals went under water and communication systems were totally down.” Dismissing the notion that stone-pelters had targeted troops, choppers and boats, Hooda stated that out of the “thousands of boats deployed by the army, there were only one or two incidents of stone-pelting”.

Commenting on the skewed coverage by the Indian news channels on how the army has saved lives, a Kashmiri doctor settled in Europe says, “This has got to be the largest psychological operation by the establishment through the Indian media; if they show the lies often enough, people will believe them. Meanwhile, reports on Indian tourists being saved by the security forces highlight the fact that tourists and bureaucrats were the only ones on the government’s mandate.”

In the name of embedded journalism, Indian television channels chose to focus on the army’s rescue operations in selected locations in Jammu and Kashmir. But photographs from international new agencies told a completely different story — a story that the Indian news channels deliberately ignored. Scores of Kashmiri youth took to the streets in a bid to rescue citizens from different areas of Kashmir, with the army nowhere in sight.

Sikhs, Pandits and Muslims saved each other after days of being stranded in their semi-submerged homes. “Even the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was ignored by the army. Some of them were stranded without a raft and we fed them,” said a relief worker in downtown Srinagar. “Relief supplies were not sent to areas where there were 30 people stuck in one house in places like Bemina, which are still submerged,” said another aid worker.

With hardly any help from the state, local journalists and youth from mohalla committees have come to the aid of people caught in harrowing circumstances. Even as aid pours in from different parts of the sub-continent, a young volunteer from Srinagar expresses concern about winter. “It is fast approaching. Look how cold the water is. It’s difficult to stand in it even for five minutes,” he says.

Freny Manecksha, a Mumbai-based journalist who was caught in the flood, recounts, “I didn’t see rescue efforts by the army near the Kashmir University in Nigeen, at Rainawari or Khanyar in Downtown. At the relief camp, I heard they rescued people in the Rajbaugh area and at G. B. Pant Hospital. Mainly, it was the mohalla committees that helped the locals. Also, there was a lot of anxiety as people weren’t in touch with one another due to a breakdown in communication. There was no police control room information either.”

In the first few days of the calamity, locals had realised that mainly tourists would be rescued. The troops normally deployed on the streets of Srinagar were nowhere to be found. “They were very angry with the Indian media and were cursing the chief minister. What they said about the chief minister can’t be printed,” Manecksha adds.

Around 1,800km away, Kashmiri students in Mumbai joined hands to help their loved ones back at home. An engineering student says, “Our institution has not backed us, but we can’t sit around doing nothing. I haven’t heard from my family but I know there will be a need for medicines and blankets as Kashmiris have lost everything, so we are doing whatever is in our capacity.”

Kashmiris across the country and even abroad have answered the call for help from the Valley. To prevent an epidemic, a Kashmiri doctor settled abroad has uploaded a document on risk and disease prevention during floods in English and Urdu to be distributed at relief camps.

@NaqKash is one of the many Twitter handles that liaised between those at the grassroots level and those who want to be part of the rescue efforts. In fact, flood rescue groups on Facebook and Twitter managed to connect some of the rescuers to those stranded in their attics for over seven days.

Messages of scarcity of fresh drinking water have prompted Kashmiris from Delhi and Mumbai to look up fresh water springs in the nearby areas and post their locations. Lists of required medicines are uploaded from the flood-hit areas, numbers of those needing rescue exchanged and maps of functional routes updated and disseminated to streamline the relief operations.

In an effort to raise funds and collect essentials, some students outside the Valley have gone out of their way to co-ordinate with those in need despite the communication lines being down for over a week. “In some areas, the network is slowly coming back to life, but even that is intermittent,” says a relief worker from a camp closest to the airport.

But trolls and anti-Kashmir elements on Facebook have infiltrated some of the rescue groups and recommended that people use certain chemicals, which are in fact poisonous, to disinfect their homes and localities. Politicising the calamity, trolls on social forums have praised the efficiency of the army and resorted to abusing the Kashmiri separatists while ridiculing Kashmir’s call for self-determination.

Journalist for the local paper Greater Kashmir, Majid Maqbool, wrote “Our tragedy, nature’s fury in this case, was turned into a spectacle by the news channels, a shameless PR exercise to boost the image of army in Kashmir. The subsequent ‘relief and rescue operations’ in Kashmir thus became an image makeover opportunity for the army that was ably supported by all the news channels that were willing to come onboard. 
However, it must be pointed out here that almost all the Kashmir-based correspondents and video journalists despite themselves being at the receiving end of floods and some of them not knowing the whereabouts of their own families, deserve all the appreciation for covering the plight of flood hit people across Kashmir.”

Kashmiris have always known that to Delhi, the disputed territory is an “integral part of India” and that its abysmal human rights record shows that the Kashmiri people have never mattered through six decades of protracted struggle.

Aala Fazili, a relief co-ordinator at Humhama camp, a kilometre away from the airport, concludes that the Centre has actually behaved the way a coloniser or occupier behaves when humanitarian disasters afflict their subjects. “They have shown a cold response, and undermined and underestimated the picture they have projected through its media to the world. After 20 days, there’s no presence of Indian institutions here.”

Interpreting the government’s response to the calamity, Fazili further explains, “The Centre has issued an unofficial order on airlifting of only government aid from Delhi airport. So, every thing donated by NGOs is stuck. Thus they want to control the incoming relief and are for cibly making people accept only what they want to give them. The state propaganda through Indian media had been deflated, so now they want to exhaust us all so that people have no choice but to use government aid, something they had been refusing all this time. Delhi has used this calamity as a mechanism of controlling the people.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 28th, 2014