Indian obsession with Kashmir in times of devastating floods shows how State deflects attention from failure of development model

Ajaz Ashraf

The change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir has overlapped with floods ravaging parts of India. Yet the popular response to these two events has been in sharp contrast: Kashmir continues to dominate media headlines; the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A has been celebrated in north India and mourned in the Valley. Kashmir has largely blanked out from the media stories on the death and devastation caused by monsoon-driven floods.

Unfortunately, these decisions are frequently being justified as a bitter pill €

Unfortunately, these decisions are frequently being justified as a bitter pill €" a necessity for the "people's own good" in the long-term. AFP

The contrasting responses to these two events illustrate the popular imagining of the Indian State and the expectations people have of it. These expectations reveal how dominant groups in the nation prioritise the problems for the state to solve.

Statistics can provide a clue whether Kashmir should indeed take precedence over floods as a national problem. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) website, which maintains data on terror incidence and casualties, 75 security personnel and 25 civilians have died in Kashmir until 21 August.

These figures pale in comparison to the death toll in the month-long flooding of some states in India. Over 250 people were reportedly drowned in swirling waters until 14 August and a whopping 1.2 million people were compelled to leave their homes, not as a precautionary measure, but because inundation made it impossible for them to live there.

Around 120 people died in Kerala alone; another 58 in Karanataka and 91 in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

All these four states are among the top 15 states in terms of economic development. Nor did Nature's fury spare relatively poor states like Bihar and Assam, where the death toll in floods totalled nearly 200 until 25 July. Both Assam and Bihar are ravaged by floods just about every year, as is Kashmir by militancy.

Statistics tell us that the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir has improved over the years. According to SAPT, 1652 civilian and security personnel died in 2001; these figures were down to 156 in 2008, to 128 in 2009, and slid down to 37 in 2012.

The death toll in Kashmir has always see-sawed €" it went up to 137 in 2017 and 181 in 2018.

It is hard to collate statistics for deaths in floods that India witnesses every year. But the magnitude of displacement caused by natural disasters can be gleaned from the record of the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), which was established in 1998 to furnish authoritative data on internal displacement. The IDMA's profile of India says, "Between 2008 and 2018 about 3.6 million people were displaced on a yearly basis, the majority triggered by flooding due to monsoon rains."

About displacements in India in 2018, the IDMC report notes, "In 2018, disasters displaced 2.7 million people, about 2 million of which was associated with the monsoon." The 2018 figures were nearly double the figure for 2017, it noted, adding, "The poverty and vulnerability of many of the households affected was a significant factor in aggravating the losses, damage and displacement caused."

The IDMC also tracks displacement arising from armed conflict. The displacement caused by floods "dwarfed" that on account of conflict. "Cross-border shelling led to more than 160,000 displacements in€¦Kashmir. Heavy fire from Pakistani forces triggered about 54,000 [displacements] in January [2018], when people deserted a number of border villages, and as many as 100,000 from Jammu, Samba and Kathua districts in May [2018]."

Given the IDMC's observations, it seems incomprehensible why Kashmir takes precedence over floods as a national problem. Or why the state should be obsessed about bringing peace to the Valley and indifferent to saving people from water graves.

It will be argued that the problem in Kashmir is because its people do not wish to live under the Indian State. They conspire against the State, which cannot countenance its own undermining and disintegration. By contrast, floods are classified as a natural disaster, against which the most efficient and powerful states are helpless.

The proponents of this argument will recall how the American city of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which killed as many as 1,836 people, in 2005. New Orleans was said to have been flooded because of the faulty construction of levees built around the city.

Yet deaths in hurricanes in the US are nowhere near the fatal casualties in India's monsoon floods. Hurricane Michael killed just 16 in the US in 2018; the year before, Hurricane Harvey claimed 68 lives in Texas; Hurricane Irene another 40 in 2011. Obviously, floods and hurricanes are different in nature €" it is hard to control storms, but is easier to reduce casualties these can inflict, through measures such providing advance warning to people to stay indoors.

Rivers inevitably spill over the banks every monsoon. But flood situations have been aggravated, as the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) recently noted, because of "dam mismanagement and land degradation€¦in different parts of India."

Dam mismanagement involves discharging water without coordinating with other damn authorities and not issuing a prior warning. The EPW pointed to the irony: "There has been an increase in flood damage even as more and more areas get 'protected' by 'flood control' infrastructural projects: dams and embankments€¦ While rivers are not allowed to sculpt land due to structural interventions, real estate muscles in and encroaches upon any elbow room available to the rivers." Structural interventions include change in land-use, diversion of forest land, razing of mountain slopes and blocking of streams for undertaking construction activities.

Indeed, the havoc that the extant notions of development have inflicted on the people makes it frightening to hear the Indian state invoke development to justify the change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir. This is more as Kashmir isn't a laggard as Bihar and Assam are on the scale of human development index. Kashmir is also credited with the best land reforms in the country, as economist Prabhat Patnaik pointed out in a recent piece.

From this perspective, the slogan of development will serve the interests of realtors and corporates in Jammu and Kashmir, as it has in areas where dams and embankments have been built to manage floods. Hopefully, peace in the Valley will not fail as flood-control mechanisms have in large parts of India.

It might seem curious why the state's obsession with the Valley is popularly endorsed €" and its palpable indifference to controlling floods not denounced. This dichotomy can be best explained through noted political scientist Partha Chatterjee's distinction between civil society and political society.

Chatterjee classifies civil society in India as largely comprising the urban middle class, which represents, as it does in western democracies, the "domain of capitalist hegemony." Political society, on the other hand, overwhelmingly consists of the rural population and the urban poor.

Chatterjee explains that members of political society have the formal status of citizens, but they do not relate to the "organs of the state in the same way that the middle classes do, nor do governmental agencies treat them as proper citizens belonging to civil society." Their expectations from the State are low. The benefits they get are either because of their usefulness as voters to political parties or they organise themselves and bargain hard with the state.

The travails of ordinary people reeling under floods are not made a part of the national discourse because it would inherently challenge the State, its priorities and the development model. By contrast, the disquiet in the Valley, regardless of its ebb and tide, undermines the middle-class' idea of India as a united market, a melting bowl where all identities are dissolved, where a special status for a state is perceived as an impediment to the country's integration. These ideas conform to the typical model of European nation-state, which doesn't have to tackle India's diversity.

It is to maintain its hegemony that the middle class has subordinated floods to Kashmir on the Indian State's list of priorities. Yet the irony is that those who live in the floodplains of India's great rivers and in Kashmir will continue to suffer. The State does not perceive them to belong to civil society, nor treats them as such.

Also See: Security forces detain Kashmiri reporter from residence in Jammu and Kashmir’s Tral; 500 local leaders, activists detained over 12 days

SC to hear petitions challenging abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir today; CJI Ranjan Gogoi to preside over hearing

Union minister Mansukh Mandaviya says abrogation of Articles 370, 35A in Jammu and Kashmir has ended 'domination' of separatists

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