Earthquake rumors spread panic in Indian Kashmir

Authorities have decided to go after rumor mongers who spread stories that a strong earthquake was likely to devastate Indian Kashmir, an official said Thursday.

The offenders could be arrested and jailed for up to one year, said Amir Ali, a spokesman for the state’s disaster management authority.

Cellular text messaging triggered a panic across the Himalayan region after a 3.9-magnitude tremor hit Mattan, a town nearly 35 miles (60 kilometers) south of Indian Kashmir’s main city Srinagar, on Tuesday.

It carried rumors that a strong earthquake would soon cause a hillock to explode and destroy everything within an area of 15.4 square miles (40 square kilometers).

“The moment we went back into our house after Tuesday’s tremor I received frantic calls from friends saying that a big earthquake will strike,” said resident Mushtaq Ahmed. “The tremor did not create as much panic as the rumor.”

It revived memories of a strong earthquake in 2005 that killed about 80,000 people and left 3 million people homeless, mostly in the Pakistani portion of Kashmir.

With rumors refusing to die down, authorities on Wednesday advised people to hand over to police anyone found spreading them.

“Nobody can predict earthquakes and spreading rumor is an offense,” said Ali.

Residents said the rumors have been fueled by mock drills being carried out by the disaster management authority for nearly a month. The drills are part of a government campaign to educate officials about precautions to be taken before, during and after a disaster, especially earthquakes.

Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan, and both claim it in its entirety. The longtime rivals have fought two wars over its control since they won independence from Britain in 1947.

Associated Press