Saiba Varma

On Tuesday, September 1, the rains came. By the next day, much of the city of Srinagar in the Indian-controlled region of Jammu and Kashmir was already under water. The water levels of the major rivers—the Chenab and Jhelum— continued to rise, steadily licking the stone walls and banks that tenuously separate the rivers from people. In one particularly tragic incident, at least thirteen members of a single family were killed after landslides hit a house in Thanamandi, in the region of Jammu. By Saturday, the water was everywhere, in both north and south Kashmir, and a national emergency was declared.

Areas in the region lost electricity on Saturday, and perhaps most frustratingly of all, all telecommunications were cut off (and still are, although reportedly slowly being restored). Many have not been able to reach their loved ones for days and have no information as to their whereabouts. Needless to say, for those waiting for news, the past 72 hours have been excruciatingly slow and gut-wrenching. Indian news channels have been inundated with images of people wading through waist-deep water, stranded on roofs and in attics, homes under water, some being rescued by boats. In the Old City of Srinagar, people have set up communal kitchens, bringing temporary relief to hundreds who now wonder what awaits them back “home”—and what this word might now mean. The death toll has continued to climb, now somewhere near 375, although many people are still missing.

Sitting in Durham, North Carolina, receiving news on the phone and via a mainstream Indian news channel, NDTV, I scoured the newspapers for information. What else does one do from so far away? Apparently, this news—the deaths of almost 400 and displacement of thousands—does not seem “newsworthy” enough to the American public. Unlike the floodwaters, its unable to spill over national boundaries, in our so-called "globalized" world and remains parochialized, restricted to the headlines of Kashmiri and Indian newspapers. My brief survey of some major Western news outlets yielded the following results:

Huffington Post, of whom I have quite low expectations, let’s admit, focused its screaming headlines on a domestic violence scandal in the United States and the usual sideboob nonsense. The Guardian, an outlet that I read on a daily basis, released a one-minute video about the floods, buried in the “World” section of its paper, not anywhere near the front page. The New York Times has reported nothing, as far as I’m aware.

The one news outlet that did report on the flood is The Economist. The title of the piece perfectly captures the sentiment in the article: “Predictable Tragedy,” it reads, with an image of two men holding umbrellas, watching the muddy waters of a river swell and sway. If we go by the logic of The Economist, the silence surrounding this emergency is justified because the event is simply too boring and too routine to report. The article opens (italics mine):

“Three factors regularly conspire to bring tragedy to north India and Pakistan, often at this time of year. The Himalayan mountain range is young, steep and unstable: landslides and flash floods are all too common. The summer monsoon reliably delivers an intense abundance of water, swelling rivers, lakes and flooding water-courses incredibly fast. Last, booming populations on both sides of the border are pushing humans to clear trees, settle on steep hillsides, straighten the banks of streams, put up homes immediately beside rivers and in flood plains. Tragically, but predictably, disasters follow.”

Yes, it’s all so yawn-worthy and so damn boring. These are areas where tragedy occurs “regularly and predictably,” every year, in fact. The author takes this moment, an unfolding disaster, by the way, to critique the lack of Indian and Pakistani governmental cooperation on humanitarian and water issues, not to mention to ask whether there might be a “political consequence to the current misery” in the upcoming elections.

Sure, we can—and should—ask these important questions, understand the larger ecological, developmental, and environmental issues that have led to this tragedy, just as we should also develop a sound analysis of the Indian state and Army’s humanitarian efforts (particularly the fact that in recent memory, relief work is always left to the Indian military). But apparently, these questions can, and should be asked without expressing a modicum of sympathy or empathy for those who are still missing, still waiting for help.

The author concludes:

“As with the previous disasters, survivors may have to accept that such horrors are part of the risk of living in a fragile environment with regular bursts of extreme weather. The only way to ensure greater safety would be to move elsewhere.”

Yes, if only we could all move elsewhere. Given the choice between silence and callousness, I guess I’ll take silence.

Image via US News

Saiba Varma is a postdoctoral fellow at the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University, where she teaches writing classes on violence and suffering. Her research focuses on Kashmir valley and its psychiatric and psychological humanitarian interventions. Varma also has a PhD in anthropology from Cornell University.