By Gopal Khanal (June 8, Kathmandu) –
India’s involvement on rescue efforts in the aftermath of the April 25 devastating earthquake in Nepal drew flak after a section of Nepalese and Indian social media users raised questions regarding coverage by the Indian Television channels. The infuriated Nepalese youths began a campaign on Twitter against the Indian media with the hash tag ‘go home Indian media” after some Indian journalists were found involved in manhandling Nepalese police personnel during the security clearance at the Pokhara Airport. On the other hand the Nepalese media also raised questions over the India’s involvement in rescue and relief works. Undoubtedly, the fury over Indian media was an indirect displeasure towards Indian establishment.
As an immediate neighbour, India’s prompt response and help to Nepal in such a difficult time was anticipated. And per our need the Indian rescue teams landed in Kathmandu within six hours of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that struck across the country including northern parts of India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. Prime Minister Narenda Modi tweeted within an hour of the quake and expressed solidarity with the Nepal government and Nepali people and pledged that India would make all support to Nepal. Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Delhi chief minister Arvinda Kejriwal also followed the suit.
Initially, India’s response from the top political level to Nepal’s tragedy got high praise among Nepalese media and intelligentsia too. Modi’s announcement of all support to Nepal should not be taken as strategic but it was a sincere support demonstrated by an emerging South Asian power to its immediate neighbour.
Some Nepali political analysts termed India’s support and Indian officials’ behaviour as the clear manifestation of ‘big bother attitude’ toward a ‘small brother’. But Indian Foreign Minister, Susham Swaraj, denied such comments. Recently, she came up with a statement that India’s support during ‘Operation Maitri’ was quite successful. She said India helped Nepal as neighbour and friendly nation. (Susham Swaraj’s press statement in the first year of Modi government, 31 May)
China, USA, UK, EU, Bhutan, Japan, Pakistan and the entire international community including United Nations provided assistance to Nepal’s rescue efforts. Nepal’s all foreign partners have extended their whole-hearted humanitarian support to Nepal.
The role of Nepal’s two neighbouring countries China and India is incomparable with others nations. In fact, Nepali people always expect mutual engagement and understanding between the two neighbours with regards to Nepal’s prosperity and continue it even in the post-quake reconstruction and rehabilitation process. We hope Indian Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jingping will be able to transform their rhetoric into reality. Media reports suggest that both India and China have reached an understanding in principle to support in Nepal’s rebuilding during Modi’s maiden visit to China (May 14-16).
This article will not describe more on support from international arena including China, USA, UK, and EU in the rescue and relief operation. Rather it will focus on India’s response. The article will talk on why India’s help in rescue and relief operation sparked controversy.
India’s Friendly Response
After expressing solidarity with the people and government of Nepal through social media, the Indian Prime Minister talked to Nepal’s President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav and his counterpart Sushil Koirala who was in Bangkok to on his way back to Kathmandu from Indonesia after attending the commemoration of the Bandung Conference. Modi pledged immediate rescue and to continue relief works in Nepal. Similarly, within an hour the Indian Home Minister separately made a telephonic conversation with his Nepali counterpart Bamdev Gautam and leaders of ruling parties–UML and the Nepali Congress. He assured of all support to Nepal.
Within couple of hours of powerful jolt in Nepal that claimed over 9,000 lives leaving at least 222200 injured, Indian Prime Minister Modi held an emergency cabinet meeting and decided to extend all support to Nepal. He also directed the state authorities to make all efforts in Nepal. India sent a first batch of rescue team and materials in aid for rescue efforts. Then after, Indian rescue teams spearheaded by the Indian military personnel remained on the forefront among the rescue teams from 34 countries including China.
On May 1, Indian Prime Minister Modi sent a two-member delegation led by Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Kumar Doval to reiterate that his country always stands ready to extend support to Nepal in such difficult juncture.
On 8 May, bordering states of India—Bihar and Utter Pradesh extended support to Nepal government. Even though Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was not allowed to visit Nepal by the Indian Foreign Ministry of India; that was their domestic issue. Besides the central and provincials governments substantive support, Indian people supported through different means to the quake-hit people.
On 7 May, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj paid a visit to the Nepalese Embassy in New Delhi and signed the condolence book. She wrote, ”I salute the spirit, courage, and resilience of the Nepalese people in the face of such adversity. I assure them the Government and people of India stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and will fully support them in overcoming this adversity.” She also said that India continues to extend fullest support towards continuing relief efforts and is committed to assisting Nepal in the recovery and rehabilitation phase, in accordance with the requirements and priorities of the Government of Nepal. These all show India’s sensitive attitude towards Nepal.
India’s help to Nepal in this difficult situation was undoubtedly praiseworthy. But just after a week of the earthquake, the situation was dramatically changed. People of Nepal expressed their fury through social media against India’s engagement in the rescue works. Firstly, the Nepali people pointed out that Indian rescue teams were airlifting Indian countrymen instead of getting involved in evacuating Nepali lives who were being entrapped in the rubble. It was quite natural that Indian rescue teams should have given first priority to save their compatriot. It should have been explicitly conveyed to Nepal government by the Indian side. Indian rescue teams paid more attention in far-flung areas of Nepal to airlift Indian citizens such as those that were stranded in the Everest base camp.
On the one hand, the Indian rescue teams paid more attention to their citizens; on the other hand, they hyped their contributions through the Indian media more than what exactly they did. Thus ‘Operation Maitri’ hit back the Indian side itself. It was a backfire to the Indian government due to their poor handling in rescue efforts. But India Foreign Minister Sushama Swaraj denied and said- ‘Operation Maitri- was successful.’ (Sushama Swaraj’s press statement in the first year of Modi government, 31 May)
Second, Indian government led the rescue and relief works; that was natural and positive. But Indian army and other missions exerted pressure to Nepal government without coordination of the Nepal Army. A section of Indian politicians had lobbied for their direct access to quake victims without taking consent of the Nepali government. But the Nepal government resisted the pressure till the end of the rescue works and maintained that foreign rescue teams should carry out their activities in coordination with Nepal’s state mechanisms. Initially, the Chinese rescue and helicopters were not permitted to enter Nepal. Though, the Chinese CSR (Search and Rescue team) was among the first among other foreign teams which landed in Kathmandu on April 26. At a press meet, Chief Secretary Leela Mani Paudyal praised the China’s International Search and Rescue Team (CISAR)’s prompt response toward rescuing the entrapped Nepalese in the destroyed physical infrastructures. China’s request to clear the clogged-up Araniko Highway due to the quake was denied by the Nepalese side in the beginning. Some Nepali daily newspapers highlighted that it was the Indian side which exerted Nepal government not to allow Chinese military helicopters to Nepal. Some Nepali journalists also mentioned that Nepal’s airport was totally under the control of the Indian security personnel though it was not true.
It was reported that Indians rescue operations were all carried out in coordination with the Nepal Army but the activities of the Indian rescue teams was quite indifferent than what the Indian Embassy said. For each Indian team, a “liaison officer” was provided by Nepal government to fulfil administrative problems and issues of transportation, Indian Embassy official told me. According to him, like the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force was also working under the tutelage of Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Indian officials had complaints to Nepal government too. According to them, several of Indian relief planes had to return after being denied landing in Kathmandu airport. India had sent senior diplomat Gopal Baglay to coordinate the Indian relief and rescue efforts, but Baglay’s flight came back to India before being redirected back to Kathmandu, an official said. Nepal government didn’t make public comments on it.
Indian TV’s xenophobia
Indian media’s positive thing was that they had reached in the Barpak area of Gorkha district, the epicentre of the earthquake. They had first shown the images of the villages of Gorkha and Sindupalchowk in their channels. From the media perspective, they had done a commendable job by disseminating the information to the people.
But how did they do this? They had travelled in the helicopters of Indian Air Force, which were supposed to carry out the rescue teams and relief materials. Indian TV journalists were heard impolitely telling the Nepali duty officer that it was their right to go along in the Indian Army’s chopper. The Hindu’s Jayanta Sriram has pointed in his report that this led to a situation ”in which TV Journalists inadvertently became embedded reporters”. (Sensitive reporting in a time of catastrophe, S. PANNEERSELVAN, THE HINDU)
The Indian TV channels were also filled with sensational coverage of rescue and reliefs works. They were busy in broadcasting the victims’ pains and suffering ruthlessly. Indian news channels had been proudly boasting that they were the first to reach “Ground Zero” and to bring “exclusive” reports across the world. However, the generalization of India media while maintaining ethical standards and sensitive coverage cannot be logical. We cannot put all Indian journalists in the same vessel. Indian newspapers have covered the earthquake and post earthquake efforts made by India with sensitivity. In nutshell, Indian TV practiced yellow journalism in an abnormal time.
The other side- contents- were really poor. Some TV channels had shown the demolished part of six lane roads- Lokanthali to Kausaltar with the caption that Nepal’s only one international airport was also damaged by the earthquake. Similarly, they used the photo of Vietnam’s children with the captions that Nepal’s children have become homeless and hapless due to earthquake.
Nepal has always been a place of strategic importance. After the earthquake devastated large areas of Nepal, both the powerful neighbours-India and China- moved immediately to reach out help Nepali people. It gave the impression that both India and China wanted to win the hearts and emotions of ‘hapless’ Nepali people by more aid and support. India had been looking for the right time from where New Delhi’s role could be seen; that opportunity was provided by the earthquake. China was also looking for the time to maintain close ties with Nepal that had began with Prachanda led government (2008-2009). It was sure, for both nations, there was not just the support and humanitarian assistance but there was strategic interest also. The rising economies were also willing to demonstrate their kindness and influence as leading regional powers.
India’s major concern in Nepal is of China’s growing influence–against the spirit of ‘Nehru doctrine’. While in opposition BJP had blamed UPA government of having failed in neighbourhood policy-saying that ultra-leftists forces had taken the rule in Nepal. Similarly, China has out-spaced India in Kathmandu. When China became Nepal’s biggest foreign investor in 2014, that made India much worried. These instances had put Narendra Modi government in pressure to uphold traditional grip on ‘Indian subcontinent’.
Indian foreign policy experts think that India should be seen as a more reliable power in the region in times of need. Indian Foreign Minister Shusma Swaraj has highly evaluated the role of their team in Nepal. India’s appraisal of their personnel undoubtly could be expected effective and positive. US went too far to applaud India in regarding the latter’s leading role. US Principal Assistant Deputy Secretary for State, in remarks in DC on 2 June said, India’s Quick Response to Nepal Quake Shows India’s Growing Leadership.
As if all India did was not enough, Indian envoy Ranjit Rae’s independent briefing to Kathmandu’s diplomatic community on 5 May regarding the support of his government further insinuated that India was leading the assistance. Ambassador Rae also drew in controversy.
Thus the role of India, though genuinely carried out to support needy Nepali people had a mixed bag. Prime Minister Modi seemed to have realized the shortcomings. Modi’s response to Nepali counterpart after the second earthquake had duly addressed the Nepali sentiments.