The day Srinagar sank

Published September 20, 2014
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

The deluge

THE deluge came from nowhere. It rained and rained for days on end. Instantly, on Sept 4, 2014, Jhelum, the benevolent, beautiful river that slices through the heart of Srinagar, started to swell. Like a ferocious beast expecting an agonising delivery. It burst open all of a sudden. As evening began to fall, the streets of the city were filled with water.

By nightfall the river snaked its way into people’s drawing rooms and kitchens. Terrified, people scrambled to their first floors, trying to make contact with their friends and relatives. It was of no use. Communication systems were all dead. Every house was a separate island, marooned. The inhabitants had nowhere to go.

Fear built up fast. Hearts sank. The sick needed medicines kept in cupboards on the ground floor, which was now completely inundated. Babies required instant food, kept away in the fridge that now swam in the compound. No one had time to retrieve anything.

If desperation had an address during those dreadful nights of Sept 6 and 7, it was Srinagar. From the upscale neighborhoods of Rajbagh, Hyderpora, Jawahar Nagar, Shiv Pora and Gogji Bagh to the working class localities of Abi Guzar, Goni Khan, HS High Street, Bemina, Qamarwari, Barzulla, and so on, the entire city was battered badly — by an entity that has forever nurtured it: Jhelum.

The story ceased to be about the victims, or the breakdown of official machinery. Instead, it became a stream of sickening eulogy to the army.

That evening tide was different. An eerie silence hung in the city. No one could sleep. There was no call to prayer in the mosque. Familiar landmarks were gone, erased by rising waters. The rich and the less privileged were equally passed up.

News reports suggested that the chief minister, the highest elected executive of the state, was rudderless, unsure of what to do. Geelani Sahib, his bête noire and the main pro-freedom leader, paced around at home, unhelpfully looking out at the lashing rains. Everyone was trapped. Used to many political and bloody tempests, Srinagar was now witnessing the biggest upheaval in ages.

Each hour brought in more water. Like the tale of Noah, someone unlocked the fountains of the great deep and floodgates from hell. By dawn, water was filling into the top floors. Panic-stricken people made a last frenetic flight to their attics and rooftops.

Howls now filled the autumnal air. There was no government, no military, no Armed Forces Special Powers Act, no checkpoints, no VIPs or VVIPs. Badami Bagh cantonment, the biggest garrison of the Indian army in Kashmir was under water. For a while the oppressed and the oppressor were both immersed. There indeed was an azadi of sorts. Only there were no witnesses to it.

The despair

When the lights went out and mobile phones died, people shouted from the top of their voices, from attics and balconies so that neighbours could hear them. There was much squawking and bellowing across the city as if it were a mediaeval dwelling where people lived on atolls. With nothing else to hold on to, natural survival instincts kicked in and there appeared to be a reassurance in the frenetic hollering, suggesting that we are still alive.

Those who had access to battery-operated transistor sets (which still operated) listened keenly to the last source of comfort, anticipating some help, any news that would come their way. Soon Radio Kashmir Srinagar, that iconic broadcaster, which won’t even shut during wartime, suspended its transmissions. Water had filled its centres. The only flicker of hope was gone. The beloved Radio Kashmir was off-air.

The deception

As soon as the gravity of the situation dawned upon them, the central government and New Delhi-based TV channels realised the political nature of this tragedy and marched on to Srinagar to write a new narrative.

Here was a conflict and a calamity: All at once. The electronic media wasted no time to build a tempo around the unfolding situation in Kashmir, complete with a Bollywood-style promo. Shortly thereafter the TV channels began a huge PR exercise for the army, which had by now started its rescue and evacuation operations.

In an ironic twist, the story ceased to be about the victims, or the breakdown of official machinery — questions that journalists should ideally ask. Instead, it became a stream of sickening eulogy to the army. Every single channel airlifted its so-called ‘celebrity journalists’ to Srinagar. This included well-known broadcasters like NDTV whose anchor Barkha Dutt, more or less appeared on a mission to outdo the high-octane Arnab Goswami of Times Now with her rather tasteless commentary.

So whilst heroic local volunteers and rescuers swirled and struggled around in makeshift catamarans, canoes and whatever they could lay their hands on, to find survivors, chopper journalists continued to take joyrides. They thrust microphones down the throats of those rescued after a four-day ordeal, hungry and haggard, asking if they feel gratified to be winched up.

“Do you want to thank the Indian army?” one female reporter asked an old man as soon as he was pulled up on a helicopter. No, you were not allowed to catch your breath. The electronic media corps demanded an answer first.

It never occurred to any embedded journalist that it is the army’s duty to respond to national emergencies and come to the rescue of local population. The tragedy was not that there were fewer boats on ground; the tragedy was that journalists and camerapersons with equipment got a place on army’s rubber boats when residents were crying to be saved from rooftops.

To film helplessness as part of a PR exercise or a spike in TRPs is an obscene reflection of the state of Indian media.

The dénouement

Perhaps all things beautiful have a hex cast upon them. May be there really is a price to be paid for exquisiteness.

There was no Noah’s ark when the floods came.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 20th , 2014



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