November 2005 
Year 12    No.112


The great divide

Why was there such resounding indifference to the earthquake in Kashmir?


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 more stark.

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 Muslims..."

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 future.

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. n

(Barkha Dutt is managing editor, NDTV 24x7. This was the first of her fortnightly
columns for the
Hindustan Times.)

(Courtesy: Hindustan Times.)

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