Barely two weeks after a major earthquake which killed more than 8,000 people, Nepal suffered a powerful aftershock, adding to its misery and killing over 100 people. More than 3.5 million people are still in need of food assistance; 479,000 houses have been destroyed and 263,000 damaged; and only five percent of the $415 million aid Nepal needs has reached it. Given the extensive destruction and caving in of hill roads, it has been near-impossible to reach relief material to those in dire need.
The aftershock presents India with a real test of demonstrating its solidarity with Nepal, but it’s a sure bet that India won’t rise to the challenge. Operation Maitri, the post-April 25 rescue effort by the National Disaster Response Force which the Indian media hyped up, has left a bitter taste in Nepal. After the first week, the message trending Nepal’s social media was #GoHomeIndianMedia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the tone for Indian arrogance when he declared that Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala only got to know about the first earthquake through his Twitter message—a horrible indiscretion, even if it’s true. Not to be left behind, finance minister Arun Jaitley boasted that India has now established itself as a world leader in rescue and relief.
In reality, the 700-strong NDRF team was only one of the 34 international rescue contingents totalling 4,050 members. It succeeded in rescuing less than 20 live victims and pulling out 133 bodies from rubble, according to its chief OP Singh (Indian Express, May 9). But as Nepal’s mighty neighbour, India wanted to take credit for everything.
The Indian media’s “shrillness, jingoism, exaggerations, boorishness and sometimes mistakes in coverage … rankled the host community,” Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal magazine, told the BBC. The media hijacked the disaster response on behalf of the Indian government, and indulged in chest-thumping. It shamefully ignored the Nepali people’s pain, borne with great dignity, as well as their valour.
The self-congratulatory and triumphalist message of the Indian media was accompanied by total apathy towards human suffering. Whole helicopter sorties were flown into Nepal carrying only Indian journalists and cameras, without medical personnel, food or relief material.
Many Indian reporters behaved like embedded wartime journalists insensitive to the destruction they see. Their main story was not the suffering of the Nepali people, to be conveyed with empathy, but the generosity of the Indian government, reported with hubris. A reporter intruded into the emergency ward of a hospital and insisted on reading out his story by the bed of a boy with broken limbs and a head injury—with no concern for his condition.
Three factors explain the loutish conduct of the Indian media: chauvinist nationalism, competitive rivalry with China, and an attitude of superiority towards the Nepali people, society and culture. The media reflects the crass, aggressive “Mera-Bharat-Mahan” nationalism imbibed by the Indian middle class, especially its illiberal, consumerist upper crust. This stratum regards greed as a virtue and has psychologically seceded from ordinary citizens; indeed, it sees the poor as a drag on itself.
Many factors have contributed to the false idea of India’s “manifest destiny” as a Great Power to be more feared than respected. These include an excessively nationalistic education curriculum—which presents India as the world’s greatest civilisation marked by a unique continuity—a steadily coarsening Right-leaning public discourse, and India’s recent rise as an economic power.
Take the Chin factor. China is seen as an adversary which inflicted a humiliating defeat on an innocent India in 1962 and grabbed its territory. But reality is more complex. India supported Tibetan secessionism, refused to negotiate its borders with China, citing colonial precedents like the MacMahon Line, and launched an adventurist “forward policy”, which China repulsed with a punitive expedition.
The operation over, the Chinese troops went back to their positions, taking no prisoners. The two countries have since come around to negotiating borders along the formula China first proposed. China is in a different economic and military league from India, and its major trading partner.
India recognises China’s high status internationally, but not in its immediate neighbourhood or “strategic backyard”. One reason for India’s hyped-up rescue mission was to show its superiority over China, and tell the Nepalis that India remains indispensable to them. This badly backfired.
India has intervened in Nepal’s affairs countless times by making/brokering partisan political deals, fomenting movements against particular rulers, imposing a blockade (as in 1988-89, when Kathmandu wanted to import Chinese arms), or foisting unpopular water-sharing agreements.
Indian ambassadors to Nepal often expect to be treated like viceroys, who must be consulted before any major policy decision is made by its supposedly sovereign government. India played an obnoxious role in trying to help King Gyanendra stay in power in the face of the massive popular movement of 2006, and later to keep the Maoists out of government. This was widely resented.
Regrettably, many Indians, especially middle-class Indians, hold this superior attitude towards Nepal—partly because of their ignorance of Nepali culture and traditions, and partly out of a class bias. Most Nepalis they encounter are poor labourers. They don’t realise that Nepal may be tiny and poor, but its people take tremendous pride in their culture, identity and autonomy.
Nepal has set its Standard Time 5.45 hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time/Greenwich Mean Time. The 15-minute time-difference with India is less a fact of geography than a sign of the social-political distance from India that Nepal wants to stress. Indians must appreciate and respect this, but most don’t. That only breeds further resentment.
India’s relations with other neighbours—barring Pakistan and China, which are in a different category from these “friendly” countries—are similarly skewed, unequal and often tense. India played a hugely helpful role in liberating Bangladesh, but pursued its own parochial agenda. India rapidly forfeited its goodwill by building the Farakka barrage on the Ganga, unilaterally depriving Bangladesh of water flows during the lean season.
India took 41 years to ratify a land boundary agreement with Dhaka, and hasn’t still signed the Teesta waters accord. The Indian elite fails to appreciate Bangladesh’s recent achievements in literacy, health and food security, and treats it as a backward or inferior country.
India has militarily intervened and politically messed around in Sri Lanka and Maldives, creating complications which rebounded on it—as in the case of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, whom New Delhi financed, armed and trained. LTTE turned against India, drew her into a disastrous “peace-keeping” operation, and eventually assassinated Rajeev Gandhi. India also became complicit in the Rajapakse regime’s brutal armed operations against Tamil civilians.
It’s only with Bhutan, a virtual protectorate of India since colonial times, that India has had consistently smooth, friendly relations. But India didn’t use its influence to prevent the kingdom from expelling minority ethnic groups totalling one-seventh of Bhutan’s population.
The Nepal rescue episode revealed another unpleasant truth. The conduct of many Indians is regarded as macho, combative, confrontational, aggressive and unacceptably rude in the neighbouring countries. Their body language is offensive and their street behaviour often raucous.
India, rather the middle-class Indian, is increasingly acquiring an unenviable reputation worldwide, similar to what was depicted in the famous 1963 film The Ugly American starring Marlon Brando, based on a political novel.
The novel’s location is a fictional nation in Southeast Asia (meant to allude to Vietnam). It describes the United States’ losing struggle against Communism because of American officials’ arrogance and failure to understand the local culture. The film shows how a well-intentioned new US ambassador to this Asian country creates a political disaster because of his poor judgment and obsession with seeing his mission in Cold War terms.
This analogy happens to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the US’s ignominious withdrawal from the country, albeit after killing three million civilians.
The term Ugly American soon came to be used to refer to the “loud and ostentatious” type of visitor from the developed world in another country, who might be well-meaning but who courts hatred by displaying arrogance and superiority and by behaving in insensitive and uncouth ways.
Many Indians, especially affluent ones who travel abroad, are acquiring just such a reputation because they talk loudly, set high ring-tones on their cellular phones, shout across long distances to one another, smoke in no-smoking areas, and leave litter everywhere they go—just as they do at home and close to where they work. In Southeast Asia, they have become notorious for first driving hard bargains, and then still demanding further discounts.
This is undermining India’s “soft power”, or at least adding a crude, unsavoury dimension to it. The “Ugly Indian’s” nation will impress none and put off many. Indians must pause and ask where their hubris is taking them.