“We expected better from Modi. We really believed him when he came here and said he would make sure that everyone affected by the floods would be helped.” I heard this so many times in Srinagar last week that I started to say it in my head before someone repeated it again. The funny thing was that people nearly always made the comment with acceptance and not anger. They admitted, when pressed, that they were angry about having to rebuild their shattered lives without any help from the government but at least now knew for sure that “nothing had changed” in the age of Narendra Modi, and that this disappointed them almost as much as the absence of flood relief.
The stories of absent flood relief in Srinagar are painfully similar and painfully different at the same time. I started to hear them from the moment I landed in this city on the first anniversary of the worst floods in living memory. My driver Ashfaque whose home remained under water for many days last year laughed cynically when I asked if any government relief had come in the two months since I last saw him. “No. Just the Rs 3,800 I had when you were last here. My neighbour whose house was completely destroyed has received Rs 75,000.”
Does he know anybody who has received more than this? “No. Nobody has. Because no money has come from Delhi yet. Unless this happens, our government cannot give us any more than they have because it is broke. They don’t have enough money to even pay salaries on time.”
In residential areas, narrow streets and tiny alleys continue to be filled with remnants from the floods. Rubble and broken pieces of wood lie in heaps. White bags of cement lie on top of each other in the midst of other building materials. There are signs of construction but relatively little building activity. People are rebuilding their homes slowly, sometimes one room at a time, as and when they have enough money to invest. Many said they had been forced to sell their wives’ jewellery and take all their savings out of banks to rebuild at least some rooms in their broken homes before winter comes. They do not want to depend for one more winter on the shelter and comfort of friends and neighbours.
In the bazaars of Srinagar, there are almost no signs of the ravages that the floods brought. Mushtaque Ahmed sits in his cloth shop in Lal Chowk and tells me that he could not enter it for a month because it took that long for the waters to recede. “Everything was destroyed,” he says dispassionately, “everything. And, the bad thing was that the week before the floods came I had stocked the shop with expensive lehngas that cost me Rs 14 lakh so all of that money went waste.” He pointed to shelves on which in neat piles lay heavily embroidered wedding clothes. It was his specialty, he said, to stock wedding clothes and these days all the women wanted to wear were lehngas. When I asked how much compensation he had received from the government, he said that he had not received a single rupee but that he had got some money from his insurance company.
In the middle of our conversation, a stocky, white-bearded man walked into the shop and introduced himself as Bashir Ahmed, president of the Traders Association of Lal Chowk. He said I should come to his shop next. So I walked across to A-1 Dry Fruits where he sat perched among glass containers that contained walnuts, almonds and other such things. On the shelves above the perch on which he sat were bottles of honey and packets of saffron. Bashir Ahmed explained that because the goods he sold were expensive he had lost crores of rupees. But, he was not among the worst sufferers. “I had insurance,” he said, “but 60 per cent of the people who own shops in Lal Chowk do not have insurance. They lost everything.”
In the Super Shoppe, I met one of them. The shop sells cosmetics and hosiery and the young owner, Imran, said he had made the mistake of not having insurance. “The cosmetics companies were helpful,” he said. “They replaced the goods that were damaged but the hosiery companies could do nothing.”
Had he expected that the government would do more? “Yes. We really thought after Modi came here and promised to give us relief as soon as possible that he would do something. Now we have lost hope.” It took him seven months to open his shop again and although it was late afternoon, I was his first customer that day because after the floods tourism to Kashmir has dropped so severely that people describe it as the worst season in five years.
Srinagar’s hotels and houseboats have remained almost empty through the summer. The bazaars are so bereft of customers that when I walked into a shop I was greeted with effusive warmth. It made me guilty that I had come not to shop but to ask questions. Before the floods there were so many good seasons that people had begun to believe that Kashmir’s time of bad seasons was over for good. The reason why there was real hope that this might be true was that Kashmiris who had lent their support to the militancy have lost faith in the movement and its leaders. In the words of a young politician, “Most people have realised that India is not going anywhere and that this struggle for freedom is futile. What is disappointing is that Modi seems to be doing nothing to seize the moment to really try and win the hearts of the people of Kashmir.”
What should he be doing? “Well, making a real effort to help those who were badly affected by the floods would be a good place to start. It in inexplicable that he doesn’t see this.”
Rarely has there been a moment in Kashmir’s troubled history when the possibilities of lasting peace seem so obvious. For the first time ever, there is a government that is an alliance between a Kashmiri nationalistic party and a Hindu nationalistic party. The significance of this alliance was commented on by Mufti Mohammed Syed himself when he became Chief Minister six months ago. He indicated then that the alliance signalled a new beginning and a real chance for the mistrust between Jammu and Kashmir to be reduced. The opportunity to do this and to heal the wounds caused by the violence of the past 25 years still exists but if there is a serious effort being made in this direction it is being kept secret. Instead, there is talk of a revival of militancy with a new young hero as its leader.
Wherever I went, I met people who talked to me about Burhan Wani. This young man in his early twenties has become such a legend that people speak of him as if he were a storybook hero, a sort of Scarlet Pimpernel of the Internet age. He regularly posts videos on social media sites urging young men to join his Islamist cause but nobody seems sure where he is or even if he actually exists. All that is known of him is that his father is the principal of a school in Tral and that he became a militant after security forces killed his older brother.
In the videos that appear of him on the Internet, he is seen flanked by two armed men in combat fatigues holding their weapons over his head in an arch. He is heavily armed himself but smiles charmingly into the camera as he urges young Kashmiri men to join him in his fight. He even asks Kashmiri policemen to join the cause because “we have the same Quran and the same God”. In Kashmir, there are rumours that he offers unemployed young men a salary of Rs 35,000 a month to come fight in his army. With high unemployment in the Valley and a season so bad that drivers of tourist vehicles are ready to work for less than Rs 5,000 a month, Burhan’s appeals fall on receptive ears. Unless the Prime Minister realises soon that there is an opportunity for peace in Kashmir that is quickly slipping away, there is every chance of a new phase of militancy beginning soon.
On my last evening in Srinagar, I went to see my friend Dilshad Sheikh in her beautiful, ravaged house. Dilshad is the sister of the actors Feroze and Sanjay Khan and has lived in Srinagar since she came here as a bride at the age of seventeen. On the day of the floods — September 7, 2014 — she woke up in the morning to find that there was water in her front lawn. By that evening, her home had drowned and she had to finally abandon it by jumping into a boat on water that had reached the level of the roof. For the next four days, she lived without food and water in the nearby Comrade Inn in which there were more than 300 stranded tourists. Like thousands of other people, she has spent the past year trying to rebuild a home and a life that has been shattered to pieces. She is among the lucky ones since she has the resources to do this without government help. There are thousands of ordinary people in Kashmir who will never manage to rebuild their broken lives unless government help comes soon. If it does, we may see a tiny flicker of hope in a very bad season in Kashmir.