The Storm Begins
On the night of September 6, 2014, the river Jhelum broke its banks and drowned Srinagar.
I had arrived in Srinagar on August 31, 2014 to a slight chill in the air. Two days later, a slow, intermittent drizzle began resembling a deluge. I had to jump over puddles in the streets of Srinagar while walking and use an umbrella that rested lopsided on one side, as an extension of my body. The trip was research based – I was trying to look into certain aspects of the Indian state’s counterinsurgency campaign in Jammu and Kashmir, in particular the impact of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This considered project on the impact of AFSPA also meant that I was interviewing and interacting with many officials and soldiers of the Indian army. This put me in a unique position to assess and observe the behaviour and narrative of Indian army personnel during the September flood. I was traveling in Kashmir with an independent researcher and a young Kashmiri translator, whom I will call Rehanna, to protect her identity.
During the few days I spent in Srinagar before the flood, I stayed at Green Acre, an old, stately, colonial-style home that belongs to a Kashmiri Rajput family. Part of this home was converted into a three-storey hotel for tourists, while the family inhabited the other part. Each room was done tastefully, with walnut-wood furniture (including a stately writing desk), Kashmiri carpets, rugs and throws. Vivek Wazir, the young man who ran the establishment, was friendly, while chiding the staff to serve visitors. The Wazir family left Kashmir at the onset of the conflict in the 1990s and moved to Canada. They returned to their roots almost two decades later, once ‘normalcy’ was restored to the valley and they, as Hindus, felt safer.
I spoke to Mr. Wazir on my return to Chennai three weeks later. It had taken us that long to get out of Kashmir. I had been unable to reach him while in Kashmir. By this time, national and international media attention was focused on Kashmir. The flood was a one off event – a drowned city had also seen the complete collapse of the civilian administration.
Mr. Wazir answered the phone sounding a bit harassed. I reminded him of who I was and asked him if his family was safe and how they had weathered the flood. He described a scenario where he and a few of his family decided to stay on and not be rescued. There were 45 people in the hotel at the time and they took shelter on the top-most floor and waited for rescue. Army helicopters got everyone out except those who chose to stay. Mr. Wazir’s family managed to get their own small boat and used it to get provisions in later days. At the time I spoke to him, he said that the water was still about two feet high. It had been three weeks since the initial flooding.
Green Acre is in Rajbagh, a low-lying elite colony in Srinagar, where the richer people live. On the night of September 6, when the Jhelum inundated Srinagar, Rajbagh was one of the worst-affected areas, along with the Bemina neighbourhood and Lal Chowk. Rajbagh lies in a bit of a depression. It seemed logical for the water to mostly accumulate there at a level of about 20 feet. This easily submerged the first floor of all houses and buildings in about 20 minutes that fateful night. As the water crept up to the second level, people fled to even higher ground, wherever they could find it. Mr. Wazir could not put an estimate to the damage to his home, but richer Kashmiri families have heirlooms and artifacts that date back to the last century or more. These have been handed down through the generations and have become precious keepsakes for many families. I was later informed that a friend, a well-known Kashmiri journalist, had trudged for approximately six hours to his mother’s home, and among the valuables lost by his family, included a 250-year-old hand-written edition of the Koran.
Before and After the Sailaab
My assignment demanded that I move from Srinagar to interior places in the Kashmir Valley. Luckily, we decided to head to Bandipura on September 3 to conduct further interviews. We were received by two local journalists in the rain in Gulshan Chowk and were told that there weren’t many places to stay in Bandipura. I met Shah Faisal, the District Collector of Bandipura in a brief meeting that day. He was on his way to Srinagar and did not have much time to speak apart from inquiring kindly after our work and offering us any assistance needed. A former Civil Services examination topper, Mr. Faisal said that he was busy with an impending flood situation.
Bandipura is a small town about 6 hours away from the Line of Control (LoC) and has the notorious distinction of having the maximum number of recorded half-widows – women who have lost their husbands during the conflict but are not aware if their men are alive or dead. Villages surrounding Bandipura include places like Hajin, which is seen as an “Ikhwani” village and Aloosa, from where insurgent recruitment has been high. No doubt for these reasons and for the fact that many militants coming from across the LoC chose Bandipura as a landing station, counterinsurgency operations have been particularly tough in the area. Places like Bandipura have “town captains,” officers of the Indian army that are in charge of liaising and policing the area. The town captain during this time seemed a bit unpopular among locals. Many people reported that he conducted raids and beat people up. None of these were reports we could confirm officially.
The river that runs near Bandipura was also brimming and over the next few days, we saw bulldozers and workers trying to de-silt the river bed and raise the embankments in some places. The volunteers worked for hours in the rain.
On September 4, I sat in the offices of a local Rashtriya Rifles regiment stationed in Bandipura and watched as one of the local Commanding Officers issued flood readiness alerts. The army men were preparing boats and improvising tyres to fashion makeshift floatation devices. The Colonel’s phone on his desk rang incessantly, distracting him and the path of our conversation on local radicalisation of the youth. But he issued commands almost ceaselessly, apologising for the patchwork nature of the conversation. I understood. I was an interloper and he had a real job to do.
We awoke in a guesthouse in Bandipura on the morning of September 7 to an absence of signals on our cell phone networks and no electricity. At that point, we did not know the extent of the disaster. We asked the local staffers of the guesthouse about the flood situation. No one seemed to know very much of the details. Later in the day, they would tell us we could not go back to Srinagar because of the sailaab (flood). The roads connecting Bandipura and other regions of Kashmir to Srinagar had simply come under water and some of the bridges were washed away.
The road from Srinagar to Bandipura, where we had witnessed a protest against the local government for the lack of proper water supply, had been washed away.
Traveling in Kashmir in a rented SUV driven by a tenacious driver called Hassan, we had been on the road for a few days already with a box of meager supplies that included junk food, Maggi noodles and a couple of cartons of Amul milk, along with chocolates substituting for energy bars, biscuits and crackers and one carton of mixed fruit juice.
Between September 3 and 9, we did interviews in surrounding villages of Bandipura in ankle deep water, trudged through slush mixed with cow dung in villages and shivered in the gentle, cold and unceasing rain. The river that also ran through Hajin village was perilously close to breaking the banks and we worried about the surge of water in Lake Wullar. A few days later, we made a call to carry on moving forward towards Gureiz on the Line of Control. Six hours later, permits in tow and after being checked at four points by the army and the Border Security Force (BSF) during our journey, we were able finally to reach a location, Dawar in Gureiz Valley, on the Line of Control where one of our three cellphones worked. It had been five days since the flooding of Srinagar.
On the Line of Control
The village of Dawar is located in Gureiz valley, is surrounded by anti-infiltration fencing and rests squarely on the LoC. There was no sign of a flood here. But people were restless, and, in every local eating place, they asked us if we had come from Srinagar and what the situation there was. Many Kashmiris of Dawar were concerned about their family and friends in Srinagar and all we could offer by way of help was to send phone numbers and addresses of people given to us by locals of Dawar, to Raheel Khurshid, Head of Twitter India’s Government and Politics Division, who was then kind enough to dispatch rescue boats to check on those addresses. At least one person was rescued from Rajbagh through this method.
The Tourism Reception Centre in Dawar is one of the two places people can stay when they visit Gureiz. We had electricity there for approximately 4-6 hours each day. During this time, we heated water for bathing, charged our phones and camera batteries and tried to read when we were not hiking through surrounding villages and traveling to areas designated as ‘forward areas’. We were, during the ‘power on’ period, also able to watch the news. What we saw on the news shocked us. The visuals on television made us realise we had escaped by sheer good luck. Oddly, someone later pointed out how odd it was that we reported being “safe” on the LoC, when it was one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world and at that particular time there had been intermittent firing between Indian and Pakistani posts for over a week. We had visited one such post near Sheikhpura.
What we saw on the Indian news media revealed two things. First, many of the familiar places where we had been roaming just a week before were simply gone. Rehanna’s house was under water and she spent the night fretting about the safety of her parents and pets. We were relatively certain that my fellow traveller’s third floor apartment was safe, but did not know how badly affected my hotel, Green Acre, was.
The Hideout Café in Srinagar, where we ate kebabs and soft, layered parathas , cooked by Muzi, a 75-year-old, elegant, Kashmiri man, was also seemingly gone. Muzi had met us, fed us, talked to us about a Kashmir before the ugliness of conflict. He pointed out to us proudly how his establishment did not have a single religious adornment. “I don’t have to wear my religion on my sleeve,” he declared while we drank his excellent coffee. We had promised to come back and see him within a week. This never happened and we have been unable to reach him since.
Second, the journalists on television were praising the Indian army for their rescue efforts. The chopper pilots were hailed as heroes as were the local BSF, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Territorial Army regiments, all of which were, in one capacity or another, involved in the relief. Relying completely on the news reports, we felt a surge of hope. We felt that perhaps Kashmiri and Indian attitudes may mutually change after this horrific event. The army seemed to be doing its relief job well from what the journalists told us on TV. I pondered over the possibility of the logic of loyalty, politics and conflict changing once people were able to square away the contributions of the Indian army during the flood with the heavily oppressive counterinsurgency that has happened in Kashmir.
What was interesting about the visuals on television was that not a single dead body was seen floating in Srinagar’s waters. Our translator, who had been on the phone all night tracking her parents with the help of the local Station House Officer of Dawar, came into the room one afternoon and sat heavily on the bed. She was tired and emotionally drained and we were urging her to stay and not go back to Srinagar where she would be unsafe. She had finally spoken to her mother at a relief camp and said her mother was airlifted and had reported bodies floating in the water. But the television showed none. We were puzzled. No death toll was reported and within a week, the army claimed 100 per cent evacuation.
How was this possible in a country like India, where the sheer numbers of people in need of rescue during a natural disaster also means that many will die? The only exception occurred in Odisha last year, where less than 10 deaths were reported when a cyclone hit. The State government of Odisha had pulled of an exemplary evacuation before the cyclone could exact a human toll. But we already knew that Kashmir was a different ballgame. With the State government functioning intermittently and only with the support of soldiers, Kashmir looked to be a lot worse, instinctively. We were fairly certain that the civil administration had collapsed and was itself in need of rescue. Further, Badami Bagh cantonment, we had heard from an Intelligence Bureau official, was under water. For the longest time, I believed the news on television. It was “feel good” news. Our soldiers had saved Srinagaris.
Two Tales of a Rescue
In Gureiz, after we had exhausted research possibilities, we asked the local BSF regiment for assistance in returning to Srinagar. We were asked to wait for a few more days before returning since the roads were still not right enough for travel to Srinagar. Along the Jammu highway, there was at least one incident of a truck bearing relief materials being looted. We decided to keep moving, since the Gureizi were running out of food supplies. We were clear that we didn’t want to return to Srinagar where we would ourselves be a burden on the authorities and we didn’t want to leave a footprint on Gureiz by taking away their short supplies. Getting diesel for instance was a problem and we had to buy some from the army suppliers, the only organisation that had a surplus of everything.
On the way back to Srinagar, we were sheltered along the LoC by an infantry regiment where we stayed for three days. When we traveled, we had one security person in plainclothes assigned to us. Again, we had little information about the situation in Srinagar except what came to us through the military channel.
One day the Commanding Officer of this infantry regiment told us it was safe to leave for Srinagar and so we did, escorted by a plainclothes military operative in a civilian vehicle. It took us about six hours to drive to Srinagar through the winding, treacherous roads from the LoC. We were to be handed over from the regular army to the Territorial Army’s 162nd Battalion, in Srinagar, also a part of the umbrella Jammu and Kashmir Rifles. Our driver was given strict instructions to not stop anywhere. We stopped only for a cup of tea and for more diesel at a gas station that was selling some. Here we took our one and only bathroom break.
As we crossed Bandipura on our way back that night on September 15, upon nearing Srinagar the lines of traffic slowed. About an hour away from the drowned city, army patrols remained active. A heavily-laden truck lay on its side and in the glare of the moon and traffic headlamps, we could see dark water everywhere in the surrounding unlit landscape and in patches even on the road. We were stopped at one point as a car was pulled off the road. Our driver asked us to keep our car windows rolled up. The man in plainclothes stepped out of the car and began speaking to one of the army men who stood armed cradling an AK-47 and pacing. I had asked for a radio dispatch to be sent through their equipment to the 162nd Battalion. It was 9 pm and the regimental officers had been waiting for us for about 4 hours.
Suddenly a local man in a pheran [traditional Kashmiri attire] came up to our window. On offer was namkeen [salty snacks] He told us “not to worry”. The car would be off the streets momentarily and we could be on our way. We took some of his namkeen and thanked him, our heads neatly tucked under our shawls. He moved on and gave some namkeen to the army jawans . I reached into the back of the car, found some more namkeen among our supplies and offered it back to a few people. The army men took it eagerly.
Soon we were on our way. Men, huddled in an impromptu gathering of solidarity, Kashmiris and soldiers alike, hastily stubbed out their cigarettes and moved to their lined-up vehicles. The traffic began moving again. As we edged our way towards Srinagar once again, we began seeing people camped on this highway. It was the only dry place around. All houses and land were still under water. One army man shouted at our driver. He said, “ bhai dheere chala. Log so rahe hain .” “Brother, drive slowly, there are people ahead and they are sleeping.”
In this garrison state, the oppressors now watched over the sleeping bodies of Kashmiris on a highway.
As we reached the outskirts of the main city, the vehicle seemed to drown a bit. The going was slow and water sloshed around the wheels. The complaints from our driver, Mr. Lone, became more vocal. He hated having to drive us and himself into a flood. He did not know why we would want to go into a flood and not away from it. “It will spoil the vehicle,” he said. After navigating our way through some back channels that were not heavily flooded, we found ourselves at the heavily guarded entrance of the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles Regimental Centre. To save time, our car was not subjected to a detailed bomb-detection check; just a cursory one. A havaldar had been waiting for us since 5 pm. They were worried when we did not show up on time. The havaldar , clad in a track-suit, chastised us for being late and told the driver to follow him as he revved his motorcycle and took us inside a massive campus, miraculously saved from the flooding.
We thanked the havaldar , shook hands with the waiting and slightly worried Commanding Officer (CO) and went to bed after a quick hot case full of dinner was served up with some cinnamon tea. For two women scholars traveling alone, getting the VIP guestroom to sleep in, was a real treat.
The next day the CO came to see us before breakfast. We told him we needed to get to Rajbagh and retrieve our laptops from a third floor apartment. He seemed skeptical of our efforts. He said the place was still heavily flooded. He reported there had been incidents of stone-throwing on army rescue boats and jeeps, so we would have to use our grumpy civilian driver. The army had, as of the previous day, called off its rescue efforts. No boats or choppers would ply.
We ventured towards Rajbagh, which was still under 12 feet of water. We walked for a few kilometers to the water line in Rajbagh. In what turned into a long and hot day, we waited for and negotiated a boat for the cost of Rs.1,000 and managed to recover our laptops from a third floor apartment. At the site, at the waterline, many people waited with similar requests. Two Sikh brothers had a grandmother trapped in a house still. She had not been rescued. We made common cause with them and tried to prevail on a man who had hired his own boat to get his belongings out. Initially, he did not want to share his boat. But public pressure prevailed. Shouts of “ insaniyat de vaste ” [”do it for the sake of humanity”] were heard, with us adding the only female voices to the discussion.
“The army has stopped rescue,” said one man in the crowd. I asked a young man standing next to me, “was there stone-pelting here as well?” The man said no, but another man responded saying there was a reason for the stone-pelting of the army rescue boats. None of us took the conversation any further.
We finally got our boat, a narrow shikara , which magically took the weight of five people. We had two plainclothes protectors with us, who for some reason had decided to wear dress shoes. Two expert Kashmiri boat boys steered our boat and took us to the apartment building. The building next to ours had completely collapsed into the water. Asbestos sheets floated in the water, precariously balanced on god knows what. Later one of them would bear my weight as I sat gingerly on one of those asbestos sheets holding a sturdy rope on which backpacks would be slithered down to me. With each backpack and with every single movement I made, the asbestos sheets sank a bit lower.
We could not swim through to the apartment or steer the boat to the entrance and dive in. We opted to climb once I spotted an open balcony door. The boat boys and I balanced a wooden beam and one of them scaled it to the second floor balcony with an open door. I tried the same and the beam began snapping under my weight. I instantly stopped. The boat boys got the stuff we wanted out and accepted the payment they had asked for. We gave them whatever we had in our pockets, which wasn’t much because the banks were all shut and we had as yet not located a single ATM machine that was not under water.
One of the boat boys suggested I was a bad climber with a sharp twinkle in his eye. I said yes, because compared to me you are Akshay Kumar and Shahrukh Khan all rolled into one. He chuckled happily and repeated the comment in Kashmiri to a crowd on the “shore” about five minutes later when we hit dry land. As we struggled with our little rescue mission for laptops with sensitive data on them, the two Sikh brothers floated past us on the reluctant messiah’s boat. Ensconced between them, was a frail, old woman. She held onto one of them. We waved at each other and gave them a thumbs up in silent congratulations for having found their grandmother.
But at the back of our minds was one question – 100 per cent rescue? Was this even possible?
Once we had trudged about three kms to the place where our SUV was parked, we decided to do a little more stocktaking of what had happened in terms of rescue. That evening we spoke to officers and men of the regiment that was housing us. The 162nd Battalion was instrumental in much of the rescue effort, but all of it lasted barely nine days. After incidents of stone-pelting were reported, the rescue boats were stopped. The CO showed us news clips featuring his men conducting rescue operations. He also categorically stated that the people in need of rescue had not done the stone-pelting. According to him, people from surrounding areas had flooded into Srinagar and many asked for personal favors – rescue this one and rescue that one. For the first couple of days, the army apparently tried to comply with the requests, but after chasing a few false leads where they arrived at empty houses and were then asked to go in a different direction, they refused to entertain such requests. Irate relatives of trapped people threw stones. As one of the officers said, “How can someone standing on a roof in a flood waiting for rescue find stones to throw?”
In later days, the army’s role during the flood relief has been severely questioned. What the media reported was off the mark. Even a week after we made it safely back to Chennai, our non-governmental organisation and journalist friends were going out every morning and instead of filing stories, were rescuing people. One morning, I got an irritated call from one Kashmiri friend, who had returned to Srinagar from Delhi to help in the rescue. He said that the army had facilitated only about 40 per cent of the rescue effort. The rest of it was self-rescue he argued. He added that he and his friends had been distributing supplies to people through the local Gurudwaras, the only organisations that had the capacity to cook for large numbers of people because of the langars (dining areas) they maintained. Indeed on our last day in Srinagar, we saw trucks staffed by turbaned Sikhs loading and unloading what looked like sacks of grain and flour.
However, the army’s version was very different. Many of the men of the 162nd Battalion had sustained minor injuries from debris while wading through water. Some of them showed the injuries to us and spoke about how some of the more tricky rescues were done. Because of the threat of pelting, they often hurled supplies to people, some of which landed in the water, instead of in the hands of intended beneficiaries.
One of the men expressed displeasure, “how can they stone their own rescue?”
The 162nd Battalion of the Jammu and Kashmir Rifles (Light Infantry) is an interesting regiment. It is also technically a part of the Territorial Army, which means that many of its officers are not full time army men. The ranks of the regiment are mostly comprised of Kashmiris, often those who were militants at one time and were then turned into being supporters of the army (Ikhwanis) and then later into regular army men. Their sons and male relatives get recruitment preference into the regiment. Another part of the cadre comes from local youth who are recruited into the regiment and have no background in insurgency. But in all while the officers may not be of Kashmiri origin, the foot soldiers, Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) often are.
When the flood occurred on September 6, this regiment was ready to operate but had about ten boats. The 70 reported boats came a couple of days later. Both the BSF and the CRPF did not have the capacity or boats for any rescue, said the CO. So how did the rescue proceed?
In what follows, I will outline what seemed to have happened in Kashmir, based on interviews with many locals and army officials.
According to local unnamed sources involved in the rescue, during the first two days after the flood hit, the army, say sources, allegedly evacuated, as a priority, Badami Bagh cantonment, which was badly hit by the flood. The Command Hospital at Badami Bagh was under water so medical supplies were affected as well. The hospital lost MRI machines, X-ray machines, scanners and other facilities and equipment.
After the second day, roughly around September 8, the army intensified civilian evacuations, the sources claimed and stopped it a week later while hundreds were still trapped. This information came to me through various Whatsapp messages and a couple of videos that were sent to me upon my return to Chennai, by local Kashmiris involved in the rescue. These Kashmiris were angry that the army had taken a lion’s share of the credit for a job half-done. Our journalist friends, holed up in an office in a safer area, were reporting but were also working from dawn until dusk rescuing people. One of them injured his shoulder breaking down a door.
The army, on its part, practiced a rational authoritarianism during the rescue. They did not always rescue old people; women and children came first. This often split families, which like our translator’s family, were then scattered in different camps. The army did not work around the clock. We were told rescue operations stopped at sundown because the army did not want to enter dwellings in the night because they were worried about human rights violations being falsely reported on their behalf. The army also seemed under-equipped to deal with a disaster of this scale. Between securing the other cantonment and its own base and detailing security protocols for the airport and other sensitive establishments and dispensing relief at camps, the actual rescue operations were perhaps not in tune with the scale of the people in need of rescue. Of course, first they also had to rescue the civilian administration of Srinagar.
The army had set its priorities rationally – rescue the civilian administration and its own people, then rescue trapped locals. Frankly speaking, most armies in the world would probably decide according to these priorities.
However, two things have played into the Kashmiri anger against the rescue efforts. First, that many Kashmiris were also involved in the rescue, and this was largely ignored by the Indian media. Second, the army was accused of turning the rescue into a public relations exercise taking greater credit, which was amplified by the Indian media. I must clarify that the purpose of this piece is not to say the army did nothing. They did help. Soldiers were injured. Officers and soldiers did work long hours not only rescuing people but also sheltering them. At this point, even the army officers were not looking at Kashmiris as Kashmiris but as a population that needed to be dragged onto dry ground as fast as possible. Then the stone-pelting incidents happened, for reasons that lie at an intersection of politics and resistance, and the equation changed. The army dug its heels in and handed over the rest of the rescue effort to an under-staffed civilian administration.
The civilian administration had completely collapsed as well. It was reported that Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had tried to help in the rescue by using his own personal helicopter and that many people were pulled out through this. However, on-the-ground reports tell us that locals organised most of the rescue. My friend, a resident of Rajbagh, flew in from New Delhi and had his aunt rescued. She had taken shelter in her attic when the flood hit. He later also pointed out that the Badami Bagh cantonment had its water pumped out, while Rajbagh, under 20 feet of water, only had one pump.
This was backed by Vivek Wazir and by our own eyewitness account. Driving past Badami Bagh, we had noticed six pumps working to pull water out of the cantonment. Vivek told me that one pump in Rajbagh meant that the water was being pulled out at the rate of a couple of inches a day. My friend added that one pump in Rajbagh was not enough and that the pumps were borrowed from the fire department. So why did the army have a monopoly over the fire department’s pumps?
As is always the case with Kashmir, narratives begin to differ with every person one speaks to. The CO said they did not play favourites, the public said otherwise. A local journalist was angry that the army had tried to turn this into a public relations exercise. He said that the rescue was stopped once all the “Indians” were pulled out. The CO differed. He cited an incident where about 60 Bihari labourers were trapped in a mosque. When the army boats were heading towards that neighbourhood, people on roofs apparently told the rescuers about the people trapped in the mosque and urged the army to rescue them first. They apparently said that they had supplies that would last a while, but the labourers had none. So, the army went ahead with the mosque rescue. On the way back, the rescue boats were stone-pelted. The CO felt he had walked into a trap.
The next day we were driven to the commercial airport and fast-tracked through security. We sat on an Indigo flight, exhausted after our time in Kashmir, managing survivor’s guilt, knowing we had the luxury of leaving. With Kashmir, it seems, at the risk of editorialising, that no narrative from one side is ever complete, clear or truthful. Versions of events change with every pace and it becomes extremely difficult to navigate such murky waters.
(The names of some officers of the Indian army, BSF and other State functionaries that we spoke to, and local, Kashmiris who offered us assistance, have been withheld or changed to protect their identities.)