Many Kashmiris, Hindu and Muslim, know the story of Jalodbhava (he who is borne on water), a demon who once terrorised the people of Satisar, a great lake of unified legend, which supposedly once sprawled across what is today the Valley of Kashmir. “The flood in Kashmir has turned to reality not just Satisar but Jalodbhava,” said writer Basharat Peer to the Hindi newspaper Amar Ujala earlier this week.
In modern India, legend is often invoked to provide perspective, to help understand people and present-day truths better. The problem is that in India, and particularly in the troubled land of Jammu and Kashmir, whatever is true, the opposite is also true. Conflicting truths create new, more divisive beliefs and will eventually evolve divided legends.
So it is with Kashmir’s great flood of 2014, the worst the Valley has witnessed in more than a century. More than 200 are dead, half a million homeless and the fate of those in villages unknown. It is true that the armed forces and the National Disaster Relief Force are doing the best they can, rescuing more than 200,000 people. It is equally true that the same number are surviving — or not — by their wits and the determination of tenacious volunteers, many of whom have flown in to Srinagar and become part of an informal rescue militia. “What I have witnessed...is apocalyptic,” Mumbai-based actor Aamir Bashir tweeted.
It is true that the state government, shaky at the best of times, has collapsed, so enfeebled that it initially could not even pick up the tonnes of relief equipment piling up at air bases. It is equally true that the floods were so extensive that the best of governments would have struggled to cope — and subcontinental administrations are ill-prepared at the best of times.
It is true that there have been many ill-timed, condescending and depressingly gleeful demands that Kashmiris should be grateful, demands that were never made of Uttarakhandis last year and will not be made of others who suffer the vagaries of India’s great rivers. It is equally true that in some cases, frustrated or hostile locals flung stones at rescue helicopters and airdropped relief material was ripped apart in a separatist stronghold. It is true that India has seen many floods before this one, that millions have lived through such trauma. It is equally true that none of that matters — or should — to the traumatised people of Jammu and Kashmir.
Natural calamities are times of great truth, of togetherness, of closing ranks, of forgetting hatred and bitterness. Unfortunately, the Jammu and Kashmir floods initially appeared to be enhancing the bitterness between Kashmiris and other Indians. As the Indian government first scrambled to react to the rising rivers, some said that the floods were an opportunity, a great chance at redemption. Many locals who benefitted from the rescue efforts of the armed forces certainly might feel that way, but the broad indications were that these hopes of reconciliation were waning, as some made sure the truth was twisted.
On September 15, according to an ANI report, separatist Yasin Malik yanked sick women off an army boat and urged his supporters to chase rescuers away. On the same day, according to the Press Trust of India, Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad workers in the town of Ujjain in central India, menaced Jawaharlal Kaul (a Kashmiri Hindu), vice-chancellor of Vikram University, and ransacked his office — all because he had appealed to townsfolk to waive rents for mostly Muslim Kashmiri students.
There was loud suspicion at a time that required swift, silent action. Fortunately, some have demonstrated just this kind of action. There are modest teams of citizens quietly at work, at times rescuing even potential rescuers. Journalist Shujaat Bukhari reported how his team of volunteers delivered medicine to the Central Reserve Police Force’s marooned 177th Battalion in Srinagar.
A prominent example of disparate people quietly coming together is jkfloodrelief.org, an initiative conceived by Kashmiris, local and expat, and supported across India by diverse individuals and organisations. One of those driving this citizen-led effort is Raheel Khursheed, Twitter India’s head of news and politics. Among the organisations that have come together under the website and hashtag #jkfloodrelief are Twitter, Facebook, Google, the Indian Army, Indigo, Air India and Spicejet, all airlines, Biocon, a Bangalore-based biotechnology company, Oxfam India, Goonj and Save the Children, all charities, and the Indian Medical Association (IMA).
Social media and Internet companies collate appeals for help coming over mobile phones and word of mouth. Immediate rescue pleas are passed on to official rescue agencies, which are not yet reaching everywhere they are needed. #jkfloodrelief collection centres are now operational across India, from Jaipur to Chennai, companies, such as Biocon, are sourcing specific medicines required to cope with a feared outbreak of disease. Some organisations, such as Goonj, function as clearing houses for donations, sourcing material — from blankets to sanitary pads — and money from individuals and institutions, such as the tony Breach Candy Club in south Mumbai. The airlines fly material and medicine to Srinagar, where local volunteers and official rescuers distribute it by boat. The IMA is flying in doctors, desperately needed now as the threat of infection grows, waters recede and debilitated Kashmiris emerge from flooded areas. Go to #jkfloodrelief and take a look at how resolute action by citizens has washed out some of the pointless bitterness and the continuing Kashmiris-must-be-grateful comments. One NDTV television reporter aboard an air force helicopter, as the Hoot, a media website, reported, thrust her microphone at shaken women who had just been winched in and asked: “Are you grateful to the army personnel who rescued you?”
It is time to discard pointless questions and comments. There is much work ahead. What happens now will decide Kashmir’s new truths and legends.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist.
The views expressed by the author are personal.