Sailaab Nama: An Insider’s View of Kashmir Flood Catastrophe


Army jawans rescue flood-stranded people using a rope across a stream in Jammu. PTI photo.
Flood-stranded people being rescued using a rope across a stream in Jammu. PTI photo.

I am yet to speak to my mother, my sisters, my nieces and nephew. There is no way to find out how they have fared. Like me, most Kashmiris outside Kashmir are on the edge and profoundly angry


The floods in Kashmir can provide an outsider a momentary glimpse into the reality of Kashmir behind the corporate media propaganda smokescreen that is fumbling at the moment and like Truman Show (1998) exposing bits of the backstage. At the moment there are three key actors in Kashmir. There are the floods, the state and the people. Each one is on its own. One limb of the state—the state government was the first to crumble before the approaching waters.

The other limb—the mammoth military apparatus that has inundated Kashmir since several decades, took two days to wake up to the crisis and when it finally did, its priority was to fish out the rich Indian tourists and the people close to the establishment out of the state. In the initial days, local people had to risk their own lives to get their marooned relatives to safety. Some hired local boats, some swam or waded through water, some made makeshift rafts out of anything that floats, including water tanks, car tubes, foam sheets, inflated baby bathtubs, so on and so forth to save their dear ones. The rest either drowned or kept moving up the floors of their houses as the waters kept rising until they reached their attics.

How it all began

It kept pouring off and on for at least ten days. During phone conversations with my mother in Srinagar, she kept complaining about the gloomy weather and the lack of sun. We would also casually talk about the possibilities of sailaab (floods) ‘Sailaab gots ne khasun!’ she would exclaim, not sounding even half alarmed or convincing even to herself. When I finally started getting agitated about its likelihood and asked her about the supplies of medicine and food at home, she sounded too reassured. “We have everything. A quintal of rice has just been purchased some days back and then of course there is the kitchen garden. We will survive months without any access to the outside world” she said jestingly. As the waters started rising and flooding low lying areas in South Kashmir, serious alarm bells started ringing in my head. I called her up to warn about our relatives and friends who reside in low lying areas of Srinagar and that she must offer them accommodation at our home till the weather improves. She did so, but perhaps not sounding worried enough, not a soul moved in.

Eventually, even while Shivpora, Raj Bagh, Jawahar Nagar, Gogji Bagh started getting inundated with waters people were not moving or being persuaded hard enough by their relatives and friends to move. Not imagining the floods to be so harsh, regardless of where they live, people felt their houses would be the safest places to stay in. The state did not issue a warning let alone persuade people from vulnerable areas to leave neighborhoods using public address systems (like they are wont to while announcing curfews and crackdowns). In fact on the contrary, the state made people complacent by repeatedly suggesting over the media that the weathers were likely to improve. Waters rose quickly and most people had no time to escape.

If at all Srinagar and its surroundings were to have a chance, its low lying areas had to be evacuated on war footing within the margin of three to four hours while the South Kashmir was still submerging. There was no effort to do so. No announcements in the neighbourhoods. No emergencies declared over corporate Indian News channels or local Doordarshan channels. On the contrary the government kept bragging about its flood preparedness and the supplies it had stocked – the one lakh something sand bags that have been kept ready in case of emergency. One wonders if those bags are still lying around in some warehouse and if at all there is any sand in them.

The last time I spoke to my mother was while the waters were filling Raj Bagh and Jawahar Nagar. She said she will be fine given that our locality is on relatively elevated land. She said both my sisters will be fine “…though just in case, they have kept their cars pointed in the direction of our house with bags full of emergency supplies in them.” she giggled. “They will start moving homewards if and only if things get worrying.” Soon the lights went off. She said, “If the communications too get snapped for a few days, rest assured that we would all be safe.” As my last attempt, I called my father-in-law trying to persuade him to shift from his place which is at a lower altitude than our home. He was too convinced that he will be safe where he is and that we should not to worry too much. We said our last goodbyes.

Sooner than one could think, all phones went dead.

A friend whose new born baby, wife and her parents were stuck in Rajbagh moved his lazy arse in the nick of time but only after some hard persuasion by another friend based in Delhi. He pulled them out of their house moments before it submerged all the way to the rooftop. Lucky bugger! By the time he got back to his home in Rainawari, water had started filling his own house too. Last I heard from him on facebook, he had made himself and his family comfortable in a stranger’s house in a relatively safer neighbourhood.

As the batteries started running out, the last outposts of internet communication went down. Soon there was absolutely no information coming out of Kashmir. Next the locally run online news networks went off. The local radio and television (that have previously managed to remain functional even during wars) were down. There was no state authority that one could call in Delhi or Kashmir for authentic information. This condition prevails even today.

The shutting down of the last means of communication coincided with the arrival of Modi in Kashmir. We assumed that the state had, as is usual in Kashmir, jammed communication for ‘security’ reasons. But then they have not been restored till date even in the unaffected areas of Srinagar. Some networks have started picking signal in certain pockets. Much of the city and most villages still remain completely out reach by phone or road. During his ritual aerial survey, Modi announced 200 boats and 1000 Crores. Someone online said, if he cared enough for the enormity of the crisis he saw unfolding, he would have announced 1000 boats and kept the money. At that moment, people needed rescue boats across the valley and not the money.

All the rescuing of my relatives and friends whom I managed to speak to were carried out through the efforts of extended family, by someone personally going into the troubled waters and pulling people out or by anonymous voluntary efforts of the local youth. One sees some Disaster Management people and Army efforts operating in certain pockets but it is not an organized effort and at a scale that aims to pull out all the people who are at the present precariously holding on to their lives. A good indicator of this failure is that even in places in the immediate vicinity of the army cantonment like Shivpora and Indra Nagar have not been fully evacuated till this moment. If this is the condition of the posh areas of the city, one can only guess the status of the poor neighborhoods and those living in the submerged countryside.

The most authentic and reassuring information trickling out of Kashmir is through raw footage shot by volunteers while moving through various accessible neighborhoods. Some of them were smart and sensitive enough to wade their way into BSNL headquarters and upload videos on critical days so as to provide some reassurance to those away from home in wake of the prevailing information blackout.

The national media vultures wasting time on helicopters while valorising the army that provides them free lifts, are getting even the names of rivers and key land marks in Kashmir wrong. The panelists in the newsrooms are busy rubbing salt into the wounds of Kashmiris by upping the nationalist rhetoric and magnifying the “generous” help that the state is providing to the ungrateful and seditious populations in Kashmir. No one tells them that under the Geneva Convention the state is duty bound to protect the lives of people that happen to be under its thumb. The added nuisance are the hoards of Indian nationalists and communalist urchins who have infiltrated social network campaigns meant for rescue effort. They are flooding the web with their venomous condescension, hate and contempt for Kashmiris. It is particularly tasteless to do this in a moment of humanitarian crisis. We are simultaneously dealing with the deluge of water and hate. It is not encouraging us to fall in love with India.

On the plus side, for the moment, the bunkers, the barricades, the concertina fortifications, the army and police check points and various symbols of military control and repression have been washed away with the floods, giving people some unanticipated reprieve. The guns and armored vehicles have gone missing. At the moment people are free to go wherever they want. They have moved in everywhere and reclaimed their homeland. They move about freely, day and night, on foot, in boats and in vehicles that still have some fuel left. In a strange way, in this tragic moment people are experiencing a certain sense of freedom and liberation.

Stranded and rescued people are being fed by Mohalla Committees and villagers who have moved in with their precious but meagre resources, setting up community kitchens on the roadsides. I saw at least one fruit supplier with his truck and a few volunteers wading through water in various inundated neighborhoods and handing out fruits to marooned people. Looking at some of the videos reminded me of the exhilarating sense of solidarity, sacrifice and freedom we last experienced only in 1989-90 while the state had lost control. I am glad two decades of rigorous brutalization has not dampened that sense.

Aerial rescues have been few and far between and mostly focused on the wealthy tourists and VIPs who have been flown out from places that were already safe. The migrant workers from Bihar and UP are the worst hit. They are stranded all over the place with not shelter or food.   I am told more than half of military helicopters supposedly deployed for rescue operations are not functional and in bad repair. The relief supplies that Kashmiri diaspora and well wishers from outside Kashmir are trying to send is facing lot of bottlenecks both in despatch as well as on arrival in Srinagar airport, the airport happens to be the only access to Kashmir at the moment. Most airliners are charging money for carrying relief supplies.   The insensitivity that prevails is unlike how it usually is during disasters elsewhere.

The center cannot hold. The state has abandoned the people of Kashmir. Due to its fear of Kashmiris, it won’t allow professional international rescue and rehabilitation operations that are desperately needed at the moment. We are on our own.

I am yet to speak to my mother, my sisters, my nieces and nephew. There is no way to find out how they have fared. Like me, most Kashmiris outside Kashmir are on the edge and profoundly angry.

This first appeared in

Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.

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