‘Kashmir on edge’. This has to be one of the most clichéd news headlines in local context. Yet in the current circumstances it sounds quite apt with chaos on the streets and speculations in online and offline conversations. On Friday evening, the valley descended into panic. Fear-stricken people thronged petrol pumps, ATMs, grocery stores and medical shops. As I write this piece, we are still unsure about the utility or futility of this frantic exercise of stocking up essentials.
The crisis, marked by days of anxiety and nights of uncertainty, has taken a toll on everyone. Depending on one’s proximity, the feelings range from plain curiosity to overwhelming fear. For instance, think about the people who eke out the living every day unlike the salaried people. For them the uncertainty of survival is simply overbearing. Similarly, the traders are fretting over the prospects of a prolonged shutdown. People associated with tourism- hoteliers, houseboat owners, cabbies, shikara walas - are suddenly out of business with no tourists around.
People stuck in hospitals stare at the possibility of being left stranded with no food or money. Kashmiris residing outside fear for the safety of their loved ones back home. Students just hope that the academic calendar is not thrown into disarray again. Many families may not be able to host marriage functions. They may either postpone the weddings or end up being content with more austere celebrations. People associated with weddings- from wazas (cooks) to catering agencies - would be as anxious as the bride and the groom.
Some commentators suggest opening up of official communication channels to counter rumour mongering and panicky situation in the valley. The fact remains that when communication through proper channel does not work, the grapevine steps in to fill the gap. The grapevine made up of rumour and gossip is not controlled or controllable. It’s always there but its effects can be moderated if communication channels are working well. Problems arise if the grapevine is the only form of communication or is seen as more reliable or important than the information sent by the administration.
Many people are at ease as long as they can access Internet. After all, the web provides valuable multi-source information and also serves as a vent for many anxious souls. What would happen if we can’t access Internet?
In our daily conversations, we use the word crisis quite casually. If we test the merit of the current situation, David Umansky’s eight universal characteristics of a crisis may come handy, viz., surprise; insufficient information; escalating flow of events; loss of control; intense scrutiny from outside; siege mentality; panic; and short term focus. Similarly, Hermann listed three characteristics- surprise, threat and short response time- separating crises from other unpleasant occurrences.
The rush at petrol stations since Friday evening was unprecedented as if the people were filling the tanks to flee as far as possible from the city, as if they had been warned of an invasion of aliens.
Speaking of panic and aliens, the famous ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast comes to mind which triggered fear in large parts of US on October 30, 1938. People mistook the dramatized radio version of H.G. Wells’ classic science-fiction tale of Martians invading Earth as a fact. In a chilling radio performance, American actor Orson Welles announced that aliens from Mars were invading New Jersey. Performers posing as witnesses described unidentified flying objects (UFOs) and strange creatures firing a heat ray that had killed dozens of people. Notwithstanding the clear disclaimer in the programme that it was a theatrical broadcast, many Americans thought that the alien invasion was real. Next day’s newspaper reports reflected the widespread panic caused by the prospect of an alien invasion. "Thousands of listeners rushed from their homes in New York and New Jersey, many with towels across their faces to protect themselves from the 'gas' which the invader was supposed to be spewing forth," the Daily News reported. The Associated Press reported of the hysteria among radio listeners throughout America and actual panicky evacuations from sections of the New York.
Back to Kashmir, the situation is certainly much more serious than the ‘War of the World’ episode. People are more than just anxious. They don’t know what is to transpire. They don’t know what they can do to avert the impact on their families beyond stocking up eatables, medicines and petrol. The question on everyone’s mind right now is: ‘what will become of us?’