A Short Note on Playing by the Script

Vinay Lal
Late October, 2005

The earthquake that struck Kashmir on 8 October 2005, measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale and classified as a “major” earthquake, caused an immense loss of lives and entirely flattened many small towns and villages. Some 25,000 people were reported to have died on the Pakistani side in the first few days, but soon the death toll was revised to around 74,000. Some 1,400 people have been killed on the Indian side. But nobody really knows the exact toll of the Kashmir Earthquake, not least because many of the places struck were isolated villages, for some of which an exact census figure didn’t exist. The earthquake triggered landslides that buried entire villages. Rescue teams in the first two weeks had only reached places such as Muzaffarabad, the administrative capital of Azad Kashmir (or, in Indian parlance, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir [POK]), and the small city of Balakot. Muzaffarabad, some 19 kilometres to the southwest of the epicentre of the earthquake, is the closest bit city in the affected area. For several weeks, hundreds of villages, many of which are accessible only with difficulty in the best of times, remained out of bounds. The last earthquakes of this magnitude in the near vicinity took place at Quetta in 1935 and in Gujarat in 2001.

Everything in the aftermath of the earthquake has gone according to script. World leaders, not a very impressive bunch even by the degraded standards of contemporary politics, have all gone on record to express their deep sense of shock and to assure us that the world stands united in its grief at this tragedy. Offers of aid have, to evoke the tsunami of Christmas 2004 and the swelling waters of Hurricane Katrina, come pouring in. As of the morning of October 13th, less than a week after the earthquake, the United Nations reported that $165 million had been pledged by donor nations. The ever magnanimous United States, which (falsely) parades itself as the most generous country in the world, and has been chastened — if ever it is chastened — by adverse world reactions to its initial niggardly offer of $10 million to the victims of the tsunami and its callous neglect of the poor in hurricane-struck New Orleans, has promised $50 million of assistance to the wily Pervez Musharraf, one of its chief allies in the ‘war on terrorism’. It also managed, after four days of the lethargy said to afflict all Oriental nations, to send eight Chinook helicopters from its vast fleets in Afghanistan and Central Asia to assist in rescue and aid missions. Meanwhile, the victims on the ground have, justifiably, complained of being forgotten by the world, not to mention their own nation-states, and their condition is becoming desperate as hunger and winter take their toll. And, to top it all, though the world had not been one week into this disaster, there was already talk of ‘donor fatigue’.

To these utterly predictable elements of the narrative one can add a number of other platitudes, all called forth by the political circumstances which have shaped the recent history of Kashmir. The earthquake struck across both sides of the border shared by India and Pakistan, and Indian newspapers such as the Hindu and the Indian Express were expressing only the most widely shared sentiment when they commented that a natural disaster such as this earthquake reveals to people their common humanity and their common sense of loss and grief. Of course, people across both sides of the divide get killed every day, and why an earthquake should be required to sensitize people to their common humanity is a question for philosophers, students of ethics, and indeed all thoughtful people. Death strikes us all, at some instance or another, whether we are in our infancy or have served our time in this world, and whether we are white or black, tall or short, Pakistani or Indian, and male or female. Shortly after the earthquake, or some other natural disaster, we evidently forget our common humanity; and, consequently, we should perhaps ardently hope for natural disasters from time to time, so that we should never forget our common humanity. Moreover, though Katrina may have temporarily eroded the idea that the global South has something of a monopoly on natural disasters, the large death toll from the earthquake in Kashmir will confirm the inescapable impression that the term ‘natural disaster’ is naturally suspect, and that places in the world which have been rendered politically vulnerable by circumstances and accidents of history have also become more vulnerable to what are held to be “natural disasters”.

This, then, is the script: a “natural disaster” in some developing country or newly emerging economy; an outpouring of global support and sympathy; the expression of support for a beleaguered government and the victims by “world leaders”; the call for humanitarian aid; complaints, entirely justified, by victims of aid arriving too late; promises and pledges of aid; self-congratulation by donor countries for their magnanimity; shortly thereafter, “donor fatigue”; warnings of an impending health disaster; and the disappearance, within two weeks or thereabouts, of any mention of the disaster from major newspapers and media outlets. The world then awaits the next natural disaster.