On April 25, within hours after Nepal was rocked by the devastating earthquake, the Indian defence forces swung into action and sent their relief and rescue teams to the Himalayan country. As an immediate neighbour, India was the first to reach there with help and support. Within hours of the calamity, Indian Air Force (IAF) planes airlifted personnel from the Army and the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), trained in rescue operations. The Army and NDRF personnel immediately got down to the task of restoring communication lines, electricity cables and basic services, and rescuing the injured from the rubble, and evacuating them, clearing the debris and providing the much-needed medical and humanitarian aid.
Thinking out of the box, the Army tapped into its 38,000-strong Gorkha contingent, 28,000 of whose members belong to Nepal, for deputation in the affected areas because their familiarity with the terrain would be helpful in ascertaining the material requirements and in guiding the relief and rescue efforts. The Army also requisitioned the services of some of its 30,000-strong Gorkha ex-servicemen. The IAF sent over 950 personnel and dropped more than 400 tonnes of relief supplies. An Indian Army mountaineering team, which was on an expedition to Mt Everest, rescued more than 270 mountaineers belonging to various nationalities from the Base Camp. IAF helicopters airlifted 19 mountaineers and the Army evacuated 251 climbers by road. The Chief of the Army Staff, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, personally monitored the operations, constantly staying in touch with his Nepalese counterpart, General S.J.B. Rana. Gen. Suhag deputed two senior officers to Kathmandu to coordinate and supervise the operations in association with the Nepalese Army.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched “Operation Maitri” promising to “wipe away the tears of every Nepali”. He sent senior Ministers to ensure that the relief work was carried out effectively. Medical teams, engineering task forces, skid steers and earth movers, blankets, medicines, oxygen cylinders, tents, satellite phones, everything needed in times of disaster reached Nepal in the first few critical hours. ALH and Cheetah helicopters were pressed into service to reach relief materials and equipment.
“We are committed to helping Nepal. We will provide assistance until the time it is required,” Major General Ranbir Singh, Additional Director General of Military Operations deputed to monitor the operation, said.
The Army helped make a 45-bed hospital and three field hospitals with 18 medical teams functional in different areas. Twelve engineering teams with heavy equipment were dispatched to clear the roads and remove tonnes of debris.
The exemplary relief and humanitarian assistance provided by the Indian forces received worldwide appreciation, including from the people and the government of Nepal. Nepal described India’s immediate help at a time when it was left totally paralysed without resources and trained manpower to handle the disaster as a “blank cheque” which spurred other nations to pitch in.
Sitanshu Kar, the Indian Defence Ministry’s public relations officer, said: “Within four hours of the tragedy, the first relief plane from India landed in Nepal. In a disaster of this scale, the first few hours are very critical for rescue operations and we ensured that no time was wasted.” He said India’s instant help attracted positive reactions on various social media platforms. “We received heart-warming messages, praising us for ‘doing a great job’, thanking us for the ‘unconditional support’, and so on.”
The Director General of the NDRF, O.P. Singh, who supervised the relief operations, toldFrontline that India’s contribution was well received. “We were the first to reach Nepal. By the evening of April 25, seven NDRF teams, comprising roughly 322 personnel trained in rescue operations of this scale, landed in Nepal. On day one, we pulled out seven people alive from under huge debris. In all, 15 people were rescued alive by various rescue missions, and out of whom the NDRF rescued 12,” he said. Thirty-four countries were involved in the rescue mission, but India’s presence was the largest and most visible, he said. The NDRF deployed 748 personnel for the rescue and relief work.
But an unexpected consequence of the Indian government’s effort was the high-decibel coverage by the Indian media, especially private television channels. The Indian media lost no time in reaching the affected areas, and TV channels started telecasting horrifying scenes of the disaster, bringing the extent of damage to the world’s notice. But, they also competed with one another to beam the “most exclusive pictures from Ground Zero”.
While the people of Nepal entirely recognised the prompt response of India, a strong feeling that it was a public relations exercise boosted by sections of the Indian media began gaining ground. By April 28, social media was abuzz with criticism of India and the Indian media. The bad publicity resulted in a Twitter hashtag, #GoHomeIndianMedia. A cartoon in a Nepali newspaper depicted a grinning TV journalist carrying a camera popping out of the pocket of an Indian Army man carrying relief materials. The Army man was also shown to be grinning.
Soon social media users began posting and sharing criticisms that the Indian government was turning the rescue and relief operation into a mega public relations exercise. Some of the comments on social media sites read:
“We are grateful for your help but don’t do mediabaazi.”
“GoHome Indian media.”
“Indian media continues to disappoint and dismay India.”
“Your army and airforce are doing a good job, they are professional, but don’t take riff raff journalists.”
The Indian government was taken aback by the criticism. Highly placed sources in the Central government told Frontline that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) parliamentary party discussed the matter and also damage control measures. “Part of the blame for making the media hyperactive goes to the Prime Minister who tweeted that the Nepalese Prime Minister came to know of the earthquake through his [Modi’s] tweets. The ever over-enthusiastic media did the rest,” a senior BJP leader, not wanting to be named, said.
Sitanshu Kar admitted that the high-decibel coverage by certain news channels did make it look as if the government was converting one man’s sorrow into another man’s joy. “But this was not something we did. On day one and day two, we did not take any journalists along. Those who reached there went on their own. From day three onwards, we took four or five journalists along on our sorties as per standard operating procedure. But how they cover and what they say is not under our control. The media need to be sensitised on ways to cover events like this,” he said.
For example, loud, shrill reporting from the bedside of a seriously injured child, who was being readied for an operation in a makeshift hospital, or thrusting the mike in front of a woman’s face as she stood grieving, or focussing the camera on long queues of grief-stricken people waiting for food, all showed lack of sensitivity, and it was up to the channels to train their reporters before sending them to cover such events, he said. He said the Defence Ministry exercised its discretion on which pictures were to be released to the media. “Some pictures were so horrifying and stark that we decided not to release them,” he said.
O.P. Singh said that while the coverage by a section of the media might have made the rescue and relief work seem like a PR exercise, overall the reaction of the people of Nepal was positive and appreciative of India. He said he interacted with the Nepalese authorities, including the Army chief, and at no stage did he encounter any negativity.
Another criticism of India’s proactive role in Nepal has been that it is doing it to counter China. “But that is not true. I did not see any competitiveness in this. As it is, China only had 168 personnel there involved in rescue and relief measures, while we had a large contingent and we were everywhere. So there was no question of competing with anyone,” he said. Senior officials said that with Modi’s policy of engaging with neighbours, it was not surprising that India went all out to help Nepal, especially in a time of disaster.