Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Taken at the flood --- Army gains where media fails



By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Sept 14

If perspectives of this month’s flood disaster in Jammu & Kashmir, especially the New Orleans-like inundation of Srinagar, were shaped only by national television, this would be a simple story of how the Indian Army again pulled the chestnuts out of the fire. Day after day, this monochromatic narrative played out with minor variations, like the suggestion that Kashmiris should thank the army for saving their undeserving hides.

The insensitivity even took the form of taunting questions to Kashmiris about whether they should now learn to love the army that they criticised so much. Had TV channel editors warned off their half-baked correspondents, the army might have benefited enormously from public gratitude for its selfless work. Instead, there was seething anger on the streets of Srinagar at this crass and tactless milking of nationalism.

The stage on which this disaster played out is littered with protagonists, most of who did not receive the attention they deserve. First amongst them is the Aam Kashmiri. The national media failed dismally in highlighting the local response, and the rescue effort that locals mounted when their government proved unable to. While the state government has been rightly castigated for evaporating when it was most required, there has been insufficient examination of the pretenders --- the separatist leaders who usually waste no time shoving their way into the limelight. The central government has reaped the benefits of the army’s good work, but has questions to answer about why its other agencies failed to function, such as the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA).

Let us publicly acknowledge the common Kashmiri --- an inappropriate term because Srinagar’s inhabitants demonstrated in the face of calamity that they are uncommon folk. From Day One of the crisis, even before the army could swing into action, students, mohalla leaders and common folk began moving the marooned to safer locations, using makeshift methods. Initial army efforts benefited from these splendid youngsters, since government servants had simply abandoned their responsibilities. Then, with families separated and people missing, these techno-savvy youngsters used social media to bridge the communication gap. Others established relief camps to receive emergency supplies that began flowing into the valley as the country rallied behind Kashmir.

The local media, even with its publication equipment knocked out by the flood, comprehensively outdid the national media. Taking quickly to social media, local reports provided the first insights into the bravery of locals.

Notwithstanding this grassroots solidarity, the disaster revealed a traumatised, fractured and leaderless society. Of Kashmir’s many internal fault lines, none has emerged as starkly as the abyss between the people and their leaders. This mirrors the street violence of 2008, 2009 and 2010, when leadership slipped into the hands of the people and previously unknown luminaries like Masarat Alam. This month, again, the Kashmiri leadership --- both elected and separatist --- vanished, reappearing much later as a speck in the rear view mirror, scrambling to invent a rationale for itself.

Not even a disaster so immense should sweep away an entire government structure. If, as Chief Minister Omar Abdullah dramatically declares, Kashmir’s police, civil servants and even ministers were themselves struggling to survive, why did they not reappear later, in whatever battered form, for rescue work? When students and local community members could organise rescue work, what reason was there for governance to evaporate? The bleak conclusion is that the J&K government has become a securitised structure, focused only on the physical protection of its leaders and functionaries. Will the J&K government call its absconding functionaries to account? Unlikely, given that the absentees include top bureaucrats and ministers.

In another environment, fundamentalist, even jihadi, elements might have garnered credibility by coming forward when government leadership collapses. This happened during the 2010 floods in Pakistan, when Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the Lashkar-e-Toiba front) was prominent in organising rescue and relief, just as it had done after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. Fortunately, the separatist leadership in Kashmir is less dynamic. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who could have opportunistically gained brownie points, only discredited himself by accusing the army of “staging rescues” for TV cameras. Geelani grossly underestimates the Kashmiri people.

It is hard to dispute that the army has emerged from this disaster with its image enhanced. Yet, it is the nature of day-to-day politics in Kashmir that this is only a transient gain. A single fake encounter, a single allegation of rape or molestation, and the public dialogue will revert to the injustice of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the alleged brutality of “India’s army of occupation”. New Delhi must realise that the military’s good work in the floods is a mere opportunity for a political outreach to Kashmir. If the moment is not grasped, it will quickly pass.

The most impressive dimension of the army’s rescue work was not the 2,26,000 people rescued; the infant handed out swaddled in a blanket; the grandmother hauled out of swirling waters; or the chopper landing on the roof of a house to convey the frantic inhabitants to safety. The army does those things all year round. Instead, an unusually impressive performance has come from the army’s media organisation, the army liaison cell (ALC). Under an imaginative commander, Lieutenant General Shokin Chauhan, the ALC transformed its FaceBook page and Twitter feed into an information exchange, in which distressed enquiries from across the country were forwarded through a closed WhatsApp group to Srinagar, providing inputs into decisions about where to send rescue parties. Similarly, details of people rescued flowed back from Srinagar, with the ALC disseminating the good news to the world. The army’s longstanding weakness has been its public interface. This could be changing.

13 comments:

Deepak Sharma said...

Well said, Indian Army needs to be a little more open to public interaction besides, sdbhavana camps and GOC,s dinner with Civil Admin or source at unit level. It is a known fact that any good deed however great is as good as the smallest error, this is true even with our own life, so easy to negate whole life's good effort with one bad word. Smaller scale floods hit Pulwama and Awantipur in 1996-97, we did the rescue ops as part of 81 mtn bde. It took me about a month to find out that approx Rs 1cr per km/annum for maint of bund wall of Jhelum is siphoned off starting at new delhi to local contractor with total impunity. Not even one percent is spent on ground. This floods were coming in any case and took a little longer than it should have. It was covered by NDTV besides other channels but no one reported the cause or other aspects of floods. I submitted a report in writing through normal channel and was not surprised with casual handling. There needs to be change of concept of the AFSPA, if it need to be effective, to have participation in local and or state level governance at suitable levels. Do we ever learn lessons as a nation, as an organisation. These floods are declared as an act of Nature or God as we may like to put it depending on personal choice. There will be no fact finding activity in true earnest to preclude irresponsibly behavior of God or Nature again.

Mukund Achar said...

I agree, it is an opportune moment to make a new beginning with the Kashmiris. The Central Govet has done the wise thing by not Tom-tomming it's role in the rescue efforts. Unlike Uttarakhand last year, I also didn't notice food packets with Sonia's picture on them this time! In the face of the collapse of the State Govt, when I seem to have missed even a single statement from the Chief Secy, the state must be swiftly put under Governer's Rule for the re-building of the State. Professionals in every field must be made advisors..... Winter is almost upon us.

Baba Tiruvalam said...

Very relevant point when Ajay says
"If, as Chief Minister Omar Abdullah dramatically declares, Kashmir’s police, civil servants and even ministers were themselves struggling to survive, why did they not reappear later, in whatever battered form, for rescue work? ".

This is equally applicable in other parts of the country also. IF THE NETAS CAN ORGANISE WITH MAMMOTH CROWD AT SHORT NOTICE WHY CAN'T THEY MOBILISE RELIEF WORK THE SAME WAY???

Anonymous said...

If the Army used WhatsApp to communicate amongst themselves, i'm sorely disappointed.

Kamal Dadhwal said...

Rebuilding of the state must start in right earnest,by first placing the state under President's rule to prevent any obstacles and pilferage by the local politicians

Bhasker Gupta said...

well said- ajay shukla sir- articualte and to the point- adgpi has indeed reinvented itself-much more is possible -esp by way of blogs- forr which i have already suggested a method the the ddgpi- maybe yr word wil hasten the process- as we have an immense space to gain from- jai haind- an insied and devoted comrade- am avlbl ofr sugestions/ action- in case u deem fit- pl cntct at bhaskergupta12@gmail.com
regds

Suresh Mandan said...

The Army or the Air Force does not need the public interface.The people know that what Army can do no one else does.The Army has resources, organisational heirarchy and a disciplined and self less force.It has always done its best during floods, internal security or during the terrorist attacks.It does not need any certification either.

Jean Luc Picard said...

A well thought out and well written article.

Could not agree more. Recognition must be given to those not in the limelight as well.

In this case the Kashmiri youth who took part in rescue efforts and in the Army and Air Force to not only the rescuers on the tip of the spear but also the guys planning, coordinating and organizing at the back.

Lastly, I also wish Media agencies start professionalizing themselves and not constantly insult the intelligence of the viewer. Dont try and propagate, just report.

Anonymous said...

Very good perspective, one of the many things our media should learn on reporting the truth.

Anonymous said...

moment passes... thankless... will be... thankless...

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir

PLEASE write about the SUKNA SCAM
and how LT GEN Rath was first convicted and then acquited

Also the role of GEN V K Singh

ROBINSON said...

The government needs to do a post mortem on NDMA's efforts. The minister in charge of NDMA is nowhere to be seen.

Anonymous said...

You got it absolutely correct. But then again that is the cultural difference between our two people. We the Kashmiri's help but never mention it (the left hand must not know what the right has given). You guys give a little and then advertise it big. All this will get is hatred and people are saying we are not them and they are not us. We do charity for the sake of Allah, you do it to win us to fly your flag.

Jamat ud- dawa in Pakistan is one of the major charitable organizations. Not sure you know this, but they also get funding from the government and are allowed to collect Zakat. The civil society in Pakistan is much stronger.