A flood of rhetoric

On October 8, 2005, an earthquake of magnitude 7.6 shook Kashmir. The tragedy was of epic proportions. Most of the casualties were on the Pakistani side. Over 80,000 people in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and about 2,000 people on the Indian side lost their lives. It was a tragedy that should have moved the two countries beyond political positioning, but unfortunately did not.

The Indian government sent assistance in the form of food, blankets, tents, medicines and opened three border points on the Line of Control (LOC). But, to my knowledge, Pakistan did not accept the most obvious offer: to conduct joint relief operations. Many of the affected places including Muzaffarabad lie close to the LOC and, logically, relief operations should have been a joint effort; it was, after all, a shared tragedy.

Material help poured in from countries across the globe but only we — India and Pakistan — could have helped people together on the ground. Cooperation did take place in the immediate aftermath but this was nowhere near proportionate to the extent of the tragedy. And, in any case, it was very short-lived. Politically we keep talking about people-to-people contact but, at a time of human suffering, it seems to evaporate.

Today, we have a similar tragedy on our hands. Large parts of Kashmir are under water, communications have been cut off and access to many areas is almost impossible. The scale of the disaster is unprecedented and it will be weeks before we actually understand its magnitude. Across the LOC, people are suffering, needing help and support. This is the time when synthetic lines born from violence and jingoism have to vanish; and very quickly indeed. The political establishment needs to remember that they are not programmed robots that protect national interest; they are human beings who are placed in a position to primarily ‘care for people’. While national identity draws them to respond to ‘their own’, hopefully a sense of humanity will push them beyond national identities. Those receiving help will not question rescuers on their nationality, they will be grateful that someone — anyone — has come in time to help.

We forget too often that the world is only a geographical being; its political features are not real. At any border, you will find nothing in nature that tells you this is India, and Pakistan begins beyond this point. The fences you see are artificial impositions. In a previous column, I had said that the Kashmir dispute is a property dispute. Shouldn’t neighbouring landowners work together when a landslide hits both of them?

Nature does not recognise political borders and, when its fury strikes, it strikes with a remorseless logic of its own that has nothing to do with the ingenious devices of human beings. It is time India and Pakistan, with Nepal and Bhutan, come to terms with the fact that all of them face a common challenge in the shape of environmental unpredictability. Clearly, business cannot be as usual with the ecological preservation policy of these border regions.

It is time a Karakoram-Himalayan ecological region was brought into being. This will naturally cover political areas that traverse multiple countries, instantly changing the way we see the region. Scientific research, seismic study, hydrological status and conservation policy must be worked out on the basis of the shared ecology. Imagine conservationists travelling between both countries working out ways by which this fragile ecosystem can be protected. Involving the people living in the region in these projects will make this a community effort, with the ‘community’ being defined only by the common geographical sameness.

A shared disaster-management force for the region that consists of citizens of both countries is well conceivable. They must be able to respond immediately to disasters without tripping over political barbed wires. This could re-define the concept of political borders in South and South-east Asia. Such a proposal is as viable for the border regions we share with Bangladesh, China or Myanmar.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered to help Pakistan and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif has reciprocated. Unfortunately these signs of humanity last only till the tragedy is alive. We forget that the disaster lasts for a few days, relief work for a few weeks but the rehabilitation goes on for months, even years. Is it not binding on the Indian and Pakistani establishments to remain together rehabilitating people of the region? Suffering is one area where politics must yield place to humanity.

Originally written for The Hindu

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