FINE, OK, I get it. Iím obsessed with Kashmir. Viewers,
television critics, policy-makers, colleagues and competitors have all bemoaned
my insatiable appetite for tracking which way the chinar falls.
But this fortnight the chinar, quite literally, fell to the
resounding sound of silence. The emotional indifference to the earthquake across
much of India left me stunned. Almost as if when the earth moved in the Valley
the rest of us were unmoved, looking on with the same weariness, that same
glazed expression that we wear when thousands die in some unpronounceable part
of China or Africa. Far away. Somewhere else. Not our own.
As journalists you often look for the one face that captures the
hidden depths of a tragedy; that one narrative that breaks down the wall of
indifference between the story and its audience. Usually, itís children.
Tracking the tsunami, I met a six-month old baby, born blind to parents who had
saved all year to have him operated on Ė their money and hopes had now been
swept ashore. But equally overwhelming was the tidal wave of help, as people
wrote out blank cheques, doctors volunteered, hospitals waived fees and families
wanted to adopt Baby Sukumar. Many just wrote to say they had wept.
This time in Srinagar, I met Ishfaq. A miracle rescue of the
quake, bright-eyed and precocious, he asked the prime minister why he had come
visiting without chocolates. When the eight-year-old was airlifted into the army
hospital his abdomen had been ripped apart, his pulse was dead and worse, there
was no sign that his parents had survived.
Doctors battled to drain two litres of blood from his tiny frame
to save a boy who had caught their imagination. The day we met Ishfaq he had
serendipitously been reunited with his father, an ageing schoolteacher, who came
to the hospital after burying his other son in the village grave. Ishfaq told us
he had always dreamt of being a doctor. It was a compelling story, of heartbreak
and hope, of sadness and succour, one we hoped would register on a different
kind of Richter scale. It never quite happened. Our emotionally seismic ride was
essentially our own, a lonely one.
I kept thinking, why was it that the desolation of coastal
fisherfolk in Tamil Nadu had managed to sear through the thick wall of urban
indifference, but here in Kashmir, we were still struggling?
Kashmirís relentless violence and tragedy has, in a sense,
underlined its beauty, adding soul and pathos to mere good looks. To make our
way to the ravaged township of Uri we would drive down whatís arguably the most
breathtaking stretch of road in the country; the same one on which Shammi Kapoor
courted Sharmila Tagore and countless other screen romances were mapped.
But there were no film stars to be seen. No Vivek Oberoi to
adopt a village, no Rahul Bose to raise money, no Shah Rukh Khan at the PMís
residence. The contrast with the reaction after the tsunami could not have been
And itís a poorly kept secret that apart from notable worthies
like Infosys, the PM had to personally nudge and elbow corporate India into
action. Ajai Shriram astutely pointed out that business houses had responded
with more alacrity after the Bhuj earthquake because, after all, they had a
presence in Gujarat, unlike Kashmir, where industry is still negligible.
Iíve heard the other theory. Disaster fatigue, said most.
Indians were simply spent. But was the truth just a little more awkward? Is it
simply, because it was Kashmir?
Some of it makes sense. First, thereís terrorism. Life simply
isnít worth risking for people who may be ready to volunteer otherwise, as
hundreds did in Tamil Nadu.
But thereís another unspoken reason. Many people privately argue
that they just canít be bothered about a people whose loyalty to India they
question. The more bigoted among them may go so far as to whisper, "These
This is exactly the problem. We canít care about a people and
fight four wars (counting Kargil) over Kashmir. We canít go into a paroxysm of
middle class rage over why the state has its own constitution and flag but
passively flip the channel to Desperate Housewives when we learn that two
lakh people in Kashmir are without a home and are sleeping out in the open; we
canít want the land and disclaim responsibility for a scarred relationship with
its people, and we canít want dividends without being stakeholders in Kashmirís
Equally, the ordinary Kashmiri who points at the indifference of
the rest of the country needs to look inward. The domestic discourse in the
Valley is still dressed up in much hypocrisy. A people who have always seen the
army as the enemy now find themselves entirely dependent on the military for
earthquake relief. Sure, extreme circumstances donít erase past transgressions
and violations by men in uniform. But rehearsed conspiracy theories and
irresponsible local editorials against the militaryís role in earthquake relief
have a false, distasteful ring to them. Uri exists alongside Chittisinghpora in
Kashmirís complex, blood-soaked history. The lazy slotting of victims and
villains just doesnít hold in a shifting society; truth lives in shades of grey.
Itís also time for the Valley to be more vocal about violence,
to rip off the shroud of silence and let the men who were beast enough to kill a
first-time politician last week know that there is no constituency for them.
The problem is, sometimes you need emotional confidence and a
sense of belonging to speak up. Trapped between the battle lines all these
years, most Kashmiris have been pummelled into a self-defeating passiveness.
Perhaps it comes from carrying the burden of a grief that is
unique and thus isolating. In which other state would an archaic rule that
forbids direct dialling from Ďourí Kashmir to Ďtheirsí become one more element
of an unfolding tragedy?
Before the prime minister intervened to have phone lines across
the LoC operational, we connected divided families via satellite, through a
crackly audio line. One man discovered on live television that his sister in
Muzaffarabad had died. I watched the lines on his face change Ė silent, in shock
and, above all, so alone. Would the pain of that moment make him more assertive
for his own future or simply push him into philosophical resignation?
In the end, fuzzy as it sounds, it really is all about dotting
the lines on a battered drawing board. Connecting people, not just across the
LoC, but bridging the great divide within.
With his mop of untidy curls and his shy but cheeky smile, Qazi
Tauqeer, the boy from Srinagar who made the giant leap to national iconhood, is
one such example. Fifteen million Indians voted to make him the winner of Sony
TVís Fame Gurukul. He now must sing for us all.