When It Rains: Floods of Kashmir

by: Imraan Mir

The man sitting on the dusty plastic lawn chair among shards of brick and concrete was a stranger; he could have been a cousin, an uncle, a friend. I asked him what had happened. “I don’t know where the water came from,” he said. “Almost three stories. We lost everything but escaped with our lives. We are very thankful to the Almighty. Still, we have to start again, from zero. … I don’t know why we’ve been so ignored.” That’s when the tears started, first his then mine.

Flooded City Courtesy CHINAR International

You may not have heard, but floods decimated a substantial part of the Kashmir[i] in early September. Words like “decimated” seem to get thrown around a lot. Here’s what I mean (these Jammu and Kashmir-wide estimates — total population is approximately 12.5 million — are from an official survey):

  • 8 million people affected, 3.5 million severely so
  • 250,000 houses damaged, 61,000 of which are a total loss
  • 6,100 educational institutions collapsed or damaged
  • Property losses exceeding 1 trillion INR (US$160 billion)

Large swathes of Kashmir, both urban and rural areas, were affected. To see what I mean, please visit http://www.worldsciencefestival.com/2014/09/kashmir/.

Why should you care? Because, despite what you may have heard, Kashmir is not just a beautiful Himalayan valley or the site of a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. It is the home of a people who haven’t caught a break in something like 400 years, who deserve your attention, who need your support.

In Srinagar (the largest city in Indian-administered Kashmir), the River Jhelum overflowed its banks in the early hours of Sunday, September 7. There was no warning from the government, no order to evacuate. Water spilled into the streets and rose rapidly. Realizing what was happening, men took to mosque loudspeakers to wake their neighbors. Where the river breached its banks, the torrent obliterated everything in its wake. People scrambled to save what they could. Those who were too ill, too infirm or too late saved nothing. The putrid water rose over two stories. People kept climbing until there was nowhere else to go; they ended up on their roofs or the top floor of their houses. The city was a foul lake, water standing where it had first rushed in. People awaited rescue, some for two weeks. When rescuers finally came, they were young men from relatively high land in the interior or outskirts of the city, untrained volunteers who risked (and sometimes lost) their own lives, often on makeshift flotation devices of their own fabrication. They kept people alive by distributing provisions house to house. They ferried people to safety as best they could. There was no government presence. The million-strong standing Indian military and the cadres of state police, which not infrequently imposes lockdown, shoot-to-kill curfews over the entire population in under an hour, were of little assistance.

Collapsed House Umar Bhat Srinagar 9.2014

Kashmir was cut off from the world. The usual suspects in disaster relief and rehabilitation were not present. The United Nations offered assistance but the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not interested. International humanitarian agencies were not permitted to enter. The few recognized names in humanitarian services that had a pre-existing authorized Indian branch and a presence on the ground quietly went about the limited work they were permitted. In the U.S., I, like so many others, did not know whether my relatives were alive. The international media was largely disinterested in the story, the occasional blurb telling me little more than I already knew. The Indian media seemed preoccupied with sideshows (the official pronouncements of the Modi government, the exploits of the Indian military, the uselessness of the state government). The local media and phone service were non-functional. I called day and night, my mother, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts. I could not get through. Then, on Wednesday, September 10, four days after the floods, a Kashmiri mobile number appeared on my cell phone while I was on a late-morning conference call. I put my call on mute to pick up. My mom’s voice, distant, breathless, garbled, said, “Imraan, it’s devastation. We’re fine. We know that our relatives are safe except…” And the line dropped. Several days passed before we could connect again.

RajBagh Imraan Mir 10.2014

I arrived in Srinagar three weeks later. Everywhere I went, I encountered shocking scenes and shocked people. Several neighborhoods remained underwater. The city was littered with the erstwhile assets of institutions and fortunes big and small. The hundreds of thousands displaced remained displaced, some on the streets and under bridges, the more fortunate with relatives and friends. Essential products remained highly priced and in short supply. Major healthcare facilities remained nonfunctional. A few days before Eid al-Adha, normally the biggest shopping holiday of the year, economic activity was limited to trade in essential goods. Schools remained closed and had no schedule for reopening. Where the water had receded, residents set about the business of inspecting their properties and, if anything was still standing, digging through half a foot of sludge to see what was left and if their homes would stand. In other places, as though cluster bombs had fallen, only rubble remained. No assistance was forthcoming from any official quarter.

I left Kashmir with two dominant impressions. First, I was struck by the contrast between the unhelpfulness of those who are charged with doing the people’s business in Kashmir (at all levels of the governance structure) and the selflessness of ordinary Kashmiris. While there was no government presence, people gave and shared foodstuffs, clothing, blankets and the like, operated communal shelters and kitchens to house and feed those who had been displaced and opened their homes to each other. Second, I was disconcerted by the sheer difficulty of starting over. I met so many people who had lost every material thing they owned, invested in and built. Attendant to that material loss was dislocation and, for some, that seems to have meant a loss of identity, a dislocation from self (I met several people in this circumstance and attended the funeral of one such man whose precipitous decline started when he was evacuated from his home). Still, most everyone I met quietly, ungrudgingly and, in my estimation, quite nobly had made do, survived and started, one foot in front of the next, down the path of rebuilding.

Booksellers Stock Imraan Mir 10.2014

Kashmir is not on the road to recovery. Social institutions, hospitals, schools, orphanages and the like have been washed out. Scores have lost both their homes and their livelihoods — they have nothing and nothing to rebuild with. Farmers lost their crops and livestock in their fields. Shopkeepers lost their stock in their stores. In an economy dependent in significant part on tourism, substantial tourism activity is unlikely to flow anytime soon. There is no clear path forward. And now it is winter in the Himalayas — inhospitable conditions will exacerbate existing problems and introduce new complications.

Collapsed House JawharNagar Srinagar Imraan Mir  10.2014

If recovery seems near impossible, the baseline for that recovery was itself tragic. For approximately 25 years, from 1989 until the mid-2000s, Kashmir experienced devastation of another kind — that wrought by an armed uprising seeking political freedom and representative self-governance, the Indian military’s brutal retaliatory counterinsurgency campaign, and a proxy war fought between militants connected to Pakistani intelligence agencies and regular and irregular (and often criminal) forces connected to Indian intelligence agencies. In all that, human rights abuses were rampant (tens of thousands of civilians were killed, thousands of civilians disappeared, and torture and abuse were common), social institutions deteriorated, legitimate economic activity suffered and Kashmiri society itself seemed to unravel in the extreme paranoia and insecurity of a police/informant state with no rule of law. That period followed some 40 years of post-Partition[ii] uncertainty, repression and stunted development. And the difficulties imposed on Kashmiris by Partition followed over 300 years of rule by non-local despots who generally governed through cruelty and contempt.

As I walked through post-flood Srinagar, I was struck by the slogans that I saw scrawled on walls and storefronts. Protest slogans aren’t unfamiliar on the streetscape. What stood out was that most of the posters and graffiti I saw had nothing to do with Kashmir — they read: “Save Gaza,” “Pray for Gaza” or “Free Palestine.” Although rarely attracting attention outside of Kashmir, Srinagarites regularly (for many years) publicly protest the treatment of Palestinians. I find it remarkable that a people with problems aplenty its own is concerned. When I consider that the military and law enforcement act with impunity, that it is illegal to gather in groups (let alone to protest anything) and that people are and have been killed for much less, I am astonished. Could you imagine “Save Kashmir” slogans adorning the public spaces of Gaza? Despite all the commitments that have been made and broken (including the commitments of India, Pakistan and the “international community” regarding the free exercise of basic political rights), despite the fact that the world has paid them scant attention, despite all the other reasons that Kashmiris have to be nihilistic, inward-looking and standoffish, Kashmiris remain a large-hearted people who believe in the possibility of a better future, go to extraordinary lengths to show their support for the human rights of others and are hopeful of support from those who cherish freedom.

Save Gaza Umar Bhat Srinagar 10.2014

Today, politicians in Kashmir are busy scheming in the run-up to elections. Many Kashmiris have no confidence in electoral politics. Given their lived experience over the last 60-plus years, they see elections as a rigged process in which only pro-India parties are allowed to participate and participation in which serves only to legitimize an unjust state. This year, people’s frustration is compounded by the fact that practically nothing has been done to help people after the floods. There is little hope that anyone who would come to power would truly govern in the public interest. Modi’s BJP party apparently sees a particular opportunity in the current disarray in Jammu and Kashmir and is actively stirring up differences between communities to win votes. One of their key initiatives after the floods has been to propose Israeli-style settlements in Kashmir for members of the Hindu minority who fled the political violence in Kashmir in the early 1990s.

In India, the dominant post-flood narrative revolves around the ingratitude of Kashmiris in the face of the munificence of the Indian state. The most significant thing that India has actually done is to ensure that those who would like to provide aid, including the United Nations and countries that have accepted disaster aid from India in the past, are turned away, and to impede international non-governmental organizations from doing meaningful work in Kashmir. At a national level, the government seems to primarily be expending resources on self-congratulatory public relations. At a local/state level, the government seems to be primarily expending resources on identifying scapegoats to divert attention from its staggering incompetence and indifference, especially now that elections are at the forefront of every politician’s mind. There are a few Indian NGOs that are doing a little work. Local private social welfare organizations continue to do what they can, but their regular resource base (local donors) is now itself in need of support; they enjoy very limited access to resources from abroad. In sum, the available resources do not compare to the problems they are attempting to address; the net result is that Kashmiris are almost entirely reliant on themselves for relief and rehabilitation.

Volunteer Rescue Courtesy CHINAR International

At the end, the story of these floods is just the latest chapter in a sad, drawn-out saga. There is no point in wallowing. There is an opportunity to contribute positively and contributions matter more the more they are needed. I urge you to pay attention to Kashmir. I also urge you to aid Kashmiris in a time of great need. In the United States, Revive Kashmir (http://www.revivekashmir.org/) serves as a broad-based platform for coordinating relief and reconstruction work in Kashmir and, with local partners, is actively developing well-defined projects in need of financial support. Only a few NGOs with boots on the ground in Kashmir can accept financial support from abroad. These include: CHINAR International (http://www.chinarinternational.org/), Chinar Kashmir (http://www.chinarkashmir.org/), HELP Foundation (http://www.jkhf.in/) and Sakhawat Centre J&K/Iqbal Memorial Trust (http://iqbalmemorialtrust.org/).

[i] Kashmir is the most populous of the three divisions comprising the State of Jammu and Kashmir. That State consists of those areas of the historic princely state of Jammu and Kashmir that are on the Indian-controlled side of a cease-fire line between India and Pakistan (known as the “Line of Control”). The entire princely state is contested, but Kashmir is the main flashpoint. It also bore the brunt of the recent flooding (although parts of the Jammu division were also affected).

[ii] Partition refers to the partitioning of imperial India by the British government in 1947 and the creation of the modern nation states of India and Pakistan (which was later split into contemporary Pakistan and Bangladesh).

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