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Media jingoism boomerangs

Barely two weeks after a major earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people, Nepal suffered an aftershock, killing more than 70 people. Over 3.5 million people still need food assistance; 600,000 houses have been destroyed or damaged; and only five percent of the $415 million aid that Nepal needs has reached it.

This presents India with a real test: demonstrating solidarity with Nepal. But 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. The message recently trending Nepal’s social media was #GoHomeIndianMedia.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the arrogant tone when he declared that his Nepali counterpart got to know about the earthquake through his Twitter message – a horrible indiscretion. Finance minister Arun Jaitley boasted that India has emerged as a world rescue-and-relief leader.

However, the 700-strong NDRF team was only one of the 34 international rescue contingents totalling over 4,000 members. It succeeded in rescuing less than 20 live victims and pulling out 133 bodies from rubble (Indian Express, May 9).

The Indian media’s “shrillness, jingoism, exaggerations, boorishness and sometimes mistakes in coverage … rankled the host community,” said Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal magazine. The media hijacked the disaster response on behalf of the Indian government, and shamefully ignored the Nepali people’s pain, borne with great dignity, and their valour.

The Indian media’s self-congratulatory message was accompanied by apathy towards human suffering. Whole helicopter sorties were flown into Nepal carrying only journalists and cameras, without medical personnel, food or relief material.

Many Indian reporters behaved like embedded wartime journalists. The main story was not the suffering of the Nepali people, to be conveyed with empathy, but the generosity of the Indian government. A reporter intruded into the emergency ward of a hospital and read out his story by the bed of a boy with broken limbs and a head injury.

Three factors explain this loutish conduct: chauvinist nationalism, competitive rivalry with China, and a superior attitude towards Nepali society and culture. The media reflects the crass, aggressive ‘Mera-Bharat-Mahan’ nationalism imbibed by the Indian middle class, especially its illiberal, consumerist, greedy upper crust. This has psychologically seceded from ordinary citizens; indeed, it sees the poor as a drag.

India’s excessively nationalistic education curriculum – which presents India as the world’s greatest civilisation marked by continuity – its public discourse, and India’s recent rise as an economic power, have created a malevolent notion of the nation’s ‘manifest destiny’ as a Great Power to be more feared than respected.

China is seen as an enemy which humiliatingly defeated 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, and launched an adventurist ‘forward policy’, which China repulsed with a punitive expedition.

The operation over, the Chinese troops went back, taking no prisoners. The two countries have since come around to negotiating borders along the formula China first proposed. India recognises China’s high status internationally, but not in its immediate neighbourhood or “sphere of influence”. One reason for India’s hyped-up rescue mission was to tell the Nepalis that India, not China, remains indispensable to them. This backfired.

India has intervened in Nepal’s affairs countless times by making/brokering partisan political deals, fomenting movements against particular rulers and imposing a blockade (as in 1988-89, when Kathmandu wanted to import Chinese arms).

Many Indian ambassadors to Nepal expect to be consulted before any major policy decision is made by its sovereign government. India obnoxiously tried 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.

Regrettably, many middle-class Indians have a superior attitude towards Nepal – partly because of their ignorance of Nepali culture, and partly out of an anti-working class bias. Nepal may be tiny and poor, but its people take tremendous pride in their culture, identity and autonomy.

Nepal’s Standard Time is 5.45 hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time/GMT. 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 respect this, but most don’t. That 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 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 during the lean season.

India took 41 years to ratify a land boundary agreement with Dhaka. It 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 an inferior country.

India has militarily and politically intervened in Sri Lanka and Maldives, creating complications which rebounded on it. New Delhi financed, armed and trained the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE turned against India, drew it into a disastrous ‘peace-keeping’ operation, and eventually assassinated Rajeev Gandhi. India also became complicit in the Rajapakse regime’s butchery of Tamil civilians.

It’s only with Bhutan, a virtual protectorate of India since colonial times, that India has had consistently smooth, friendly relations. But this didn’t help India in preventing the kingdom from expelling ethnic-minority groups totalling one-seventh of Bhutan’s population.

The Nepal rescue episode revealed another unpleasant truth. The conduct of many Indians is regarded as combative, confrontational, aggressive and unacceptably rude in many neighbouring countries. Their body language is often offensive and their street behaviour raucous.

The middle-class Indian is increasingly acquiring an unenviable reputation worldwide, similar to that depicted in the famous 1963 film The Ugly American starring Marlon Brando, based on a 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 judgement and obsession with seeing his mission in black-and-white cold war terms.

This analogy happens to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the US’ ignominious withdrawal from the country.

The term Ugly American soon came to be used to refer to the ‘loud and ostentatious’ type of visitor in another country, who might be well-meaning but who courts hatred by displaying arrogance and superiority and by behaving in uncouth ways.

Many Indians – especially affluent ones who travel abroad – are acquiring such a reputation because they talk loudly, set high ring-tones on their cellular phones, smoke in no-smoking areas, and leave litter everywhere they go – just as they do at home. In Southeast Asia, they have become notorious for driving hard bargains, and then still demanding further discounts.

This is undermining India’s ‘soft power’, or at least adding an unsavoury dimension to it. Indians must pause and ask where their hubris is taking them.

The writer, a former newspapereditor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.

Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.co.in

Praful Bidwai, "Media jingoism boomerangs," The News. 2015-05-16.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political leaders , Indian media , Earthquake-Nepal , Food assistance , Aftershock , Rescue operations , International relations , Foreign policy , India relations-Neighbours , India , Nepal , Pakistan