Friday, May 05, 2006

Reflections on the earthquake in Kashmir

A message from Kashmir to the governments on either side: get out of the way

Sukumar Muralidharan
October 24, 2005

The devastating earthquake in Kashmir confronted the two affected countries with a challenge they were clearly unequal to. The harsh Himalayan winter was imminent. And relief operations in both India and Pakistan had simply failed to mobilise the material resources to begin treating the injured and rehabilitating the homeless.

Pledges of assistance had come in with much fanfare from around the world. But when the sums were totalled, the money involved was derisory – two weeks after the disaster, aid pledges from all over the world totalled a mere $ 90 million, when conservative estimates by the U.N. put the requirement at just over $ 300 million. And the monetary magnitudes involved, in all their meagreness, were immediately of no substantive use. By the time they traversed the bureaucratic channels of aid disbursement, it was clear, the harsh Kashmiri winter would have been well advanced. And a natural disaster would have been transformed into a manmade catastrophe.

Disaster fatigue is a worrying reality of the global situation today. But even in a world that has become cynical about human suffering, the Kashmir disaster has challenged the humanitarian impulse to break free of the layers of political deadweight it is normally buried under. It is still delicately referred to as the South Asian, or the Pakistan, earthquake. To concede to it the title of the Kashmir earthquake would be to recognise that a region abandoned by the world has an identity and a set of interests uniquely its own. But given the legacy of the dispute between two neighbouring states over Kashmir, the questions are unavoidable. When governments are unable to deliver what they are obliged to, as part of the social contract that keeps them in authority, will they step aside and allow the people to do what they can? Or will they insist on their monopoly on wisdom, even when in default on their side of the bargain?

The Kashmir earthquake in short, offers governments on both sides a pretext. Donning the vestments of humanitarianism, they could renounce the rights they have assumed and allow the people of Kashmir to speak for themselves, not to mention, organise relief efforts on their own. If the synergies among the people artificially separated for decades by the Line of Control (LoC) were to be recruited to a humanitarian cause, the final effect could well be beneficial. Indeed, people power, when fused with a worthy humanitarian cause, could well absolve floundering governments of the burden of blame for failing to measure up.

General Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president and army chief has long spoken of the opportunities that he has uniquely enjoyed to “resolve” the Kashmir dispute “once and for all”. The Kashmir earthquake afforded him a renewed opportunity to revisit this familiar theme. But first he had to deflect the overtures from India, to relax the rigours of crossing the LoC for a humanitarian purpose. It did his confidence little good that the Indian proposal involved defence personnel traversing the border by both air and land, to offer their humanitarian services to the affected Pakistani population.

Early claims that Indian Army troops had crossed the LoC to deliver relief supplies were rudely refuted. And the initial effort by Indian Air Force transport planes to ferry across vitally needed equipment and stores were rebuffed. It was only after a prolonged process of negotiation and possibly the mediation of certain external powers, that the first Indian military planes were allowed to land on Pakistani territory.

About ten days after the disaster, Musharraf chose to make a dramatic offer to India which far surpassed anything that had been proposed from this side of the border. Kashmiris he said, should be freely allowed to cross the LoC in both directions, to partake in the grief on either side and to be part of the effort at its mitigation. He followed this up by reprising his familiar theme that the “dispute” could be resolved for all time by converting the tragedy of the Kashmir earthquake into an opportunity. The LoC which kept apart a people and made them victims of the rivalry between hostile States, in short, should be rendered irrelevant.

India reacted cautiously to this effort by the Pakistani general to steal the platform that it thought it had a unique claim over. Rather than address the Musharraf proposal directly, it proposed instead that telecommunication links across the LoC, shut down since 1990, be reopened. And while the two governments kept talking across each other, rather than engage in a purposeful mutual dialogue, militant groups on both sides of the LoC were stepping into the breach, knitting together civic solidarities, enabling people to deal with the adversities of nature without putting in jeopardy their inherent sense of self-esteem. In insisting that relief efforts should conform to the model of a patron-client relationship, governments on both sides of the LoC may well have conceded valuable ground to the militant groups. Politicking in the context of a natural disaster in other words, is always bad policy.

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