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Lessons from Nepal for Kashmir

Lessons from Nepal for Kashmir

INDIA’S televised plunge into Nepal’s earthquake calamity to play the Good Samaritan was a commendable initiative even if it was perhaps brought about by the fear of China getting in first. Indian analysts have suggested this could be the case. The last time a similar Nepal-linked fear of China coursed through the veins of the Indian establishment Rajiv Gandhi responded by clamping an economic blockade on the landlocked neighbour. Ergo: a caring hand is an improvement on spiteful aloofness.

It would seem odd then that resentment has surfaced among the Nepalese people against the Indian media, some of it over its concentrated coverage of the Indian relief operations. More room could have been created for the victims had the Indian media not hogged the space on helicopters and other scarce resources. This is what one open letter says.

When Delhi’s top diplomat and its national security advisor landed in Kathmandu together, offering everything, anything to alleviate the suffering of the stricken neighbours, the BBC’s lead story was about issues less demonstrative. It was about the minute-by-minute struggle to get aid to far-flung and intractable regions of the devastated nation.

Let’s hope the official focus on their country’s good work in Nepal will not deter Indian aid-givers from joining the much-needed coordination between all the resource providers. In this regard, a nearly habitual Indian reference to Israel even in Nepal’s relief operations could have given way to wondering why the Cuban medical corps is missing. Are they there? Cubans are easily the best doctors in any contingency. They have been excellent in the fight against Ebola in western Africa. Earlier, Cubans doctors brought succour to northern Pakistan after a massive earthquake devastated the region in 2005.

It is well known and also my experience from covering natural disasters that religious and nationalist groups are better equipped in delivering aid vis-à-vis the leaden-footed state machinery. In the Latur earthquake that struck India’s Maharashtra state in the mid-1990s close to 10,000 were left dead. I saw volunteers of the Hindu extremist Shiv Sena and Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh gathering dead bodies with bare hands even as rotting skin peeled off the corpses. Right-wing groups ran the ambulances and provided relief.

The way the RSS has entrenched itself, politically and culturally, in Nepal’s Hindu revivalist constituency no one should be amazed if they upstage the government’s relief operations. The RSS work is scarcely different from Muslim extremists expanding their constituency in Pakistani Kashmir. Hindutva volunteers were most efficient in getting shelters up for the victims of a most destructive cyclone in the coastal Andhra Pradesh in the 1970s.

I was waiting for the 182-page detailed and independent analysis on last year’s Kashmir floods when the Nepal earthquake struck. Professional men and women from different parts of India have prepared the report. It offers many eye-opening conclusions. I can only discuss one or two.

Reading it you can see how the Indian establishment, busy with Nepal’s rescue, has happily accepted foreign aid for India also, including from Pakistan. It has given no explanation why Kashmiris have been excluded from this humanitarian largesse.

Pakistan sent tents and blankets for victims of the Gujarat earthquake in January 2001 under then chief minister Narendra Modi’s watch. The British Red Cross sent 47,000 blankets. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sent emergency hospitals. The Swiss Disaster Corps, which is famous for its expertise in coping with avalanches and earthquakes, sent a team of 48 rescuers with sniffer dogs as well as 10 tonnes of supplies.

All this went into making Mr Modi an expert on earthquake, expertise he is no doubt using in Nepal. So why was similar relief denied to Kashmiris on the Indian side in the aftermath of last year’s flood havoc? What we can glean from the detailed report is that Kashmir’s military occupation is both a factor in the precipitation of natural calamities there as also responsible for keeping useful foreign help out.

“Responses to natural disasters are getting increasingly militarised, across the world,” the report says. It quotes studies as showing that natural disasters have provided an opportunity for military penetration and consolidation in politically marginalised regions, such as tsunami-hit Tamil-controlled northern Sri Lanka (2004) and Aceh (Indonesia), and post-earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir, and border areas of Indian-administered Kashmir (2005), through the militarisation of humanitarian rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts.

“The flooding of [Jammu] and [Kashmir] in 2014 provokes comparison to other natural disasters in militarised landscapes, and socially and politically marginalised, ecologically fragile borderlands.”

Rather than seeking to create a calculus of suffering, based on the relative scale of various disasters, the report flags some similarities and differences as possible avenues for further research.

Studies of the caste and ethnic dimensions of relief and rebuilding efforts of the Indian state after the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004), or the racialised nature of the US government response after Hurricane Katrina (2005), have powerfully highlighted how social inequalities, militarisation, and political marginality play a role in creating ecologically vulnerable populations, the report says.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake affecting areas across the Line of Control in Kashmir, “the Indian and Pakistani militaries simply did not make the saving of Kashmiri lives a top priority.

“As India and Pakistan engaged in diplomatic one-upmanship — making and refusing offers of help based on political opportunism rather than humanitarian concerns — the death toll mounted.”

Even as the relief and rescue operations on a war footing make way for the long haul and attendant complexities of rehabilitation in Nepal it might be useful to learn relevant lessons from the Himalayan tragedy. These may include sensitivities too many in the Indian media have been impervious to, in Nepal, in Kashmir, as anywhere else.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

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Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2015

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