“Only India and Modi are helping us,” says earthquake victim Dhruba Kandel in a Reuters report from Dhading. Four days after the earthquake, Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju told Parliament that India had emerged as “a leading nation in disaster response”. While such sentiment is evidently widespread in the Himalayan nation and is obviously gratifying to Indians, the uneasy question being asked is whether India should have been crowing about its relief efforts.
Even as 4,000 rescuers from 20 countries struggle through the rubble in Kathmandu valley, the Indian government and media have been creating an impression that India was not only the first to reach out but that its relief efforts dwarfed others. Indian TV channels added to the chatter with programmes that screamed ‘Nepal ke dard mein Bharat bana hamdard’ (India shares Nepal’s grief).
Many people in and around Kathmandu are all praise for Indians and the smooth evacuation of over 4,700 Indians and over 1,900 foreigners in the first four days. Nepal’s ambassador to India Deepak Kumar Upadhyay echoed the sentiment when he said his country was overwhelmed at the swift assistance provided by the Indian government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to his Nepali counterpart within an hour of the earthquake and the first Indian plane with men and material had already left for Kathmandu within the next six hours.
But a sobering headline in Kantipur Times reproduced in TelegraphNepal.com—’There is more myth to India’s support than reality’—voiced a muted but growing disquiet. The report quoted officials at the Tribhuvan International Airport as saying, “More than one thousand Indian armymen have landed in Nepal. Some one hundred armymen have also come through the land route in five trucks and four Bolero jeeps. Who is going to ask them how many of them are there?”
Indian army helicopters, the report claimed, were deployed to evacuate the 39 members of the Indian army team scaling the Everest and give rides to Indian media personnel, who took up space that could have been utilised for victims. There were 800 climbers around the Mt Everest base camp, claimed Nepali officials.
Another report in Hindustan Times quoted Brigadier General P.S. Bogati of Nepal army complaining, “The Indian air force does not share its sortie schedules with the Nepalese army and takes hell of a time on the ground in an already congested airport.” While the general cribbed about an IL-76 aircraft taking eight hours to unload 28 tonnes of drinking water, defence secretary R.K. Mathur in New Delhi complained that two C-17 Globemaster III planes circled over Kathmandu for three hours before returning to India. “We can’t keep wasting flying hours like this,” he was quoted as saying.
Reports that an Indian medical team twiddled their thumbs at the sprawling Indian embassy in Kathmandu even as teams from Israel and other countries set up field hospitals raise questions about the quality and planning in India’s response. It was clearly not enough to rush doctors and medicines. Cots, stretchers, body bags, paramedics etc were equally important to launch medical missions. But while Indians complained that they were not given any work, the ease with which other countries put up field hospitals indicate other possibilities.
India would expect to have earned goodwill and trust with its massive relief and rescue efforts. Only the future will tell if an overzealous bureaucracy has made it counterproductive.
Royalists, democrats and Maoists in Nepal have all harboured and even nurtured suspicion about India’s ‘designs’ for a long while. The fractured polity was responsible for Prime Minister Modi’s proposed visit to Janakpur last year being cancelled. The fear of ‘Sikkimisation’ of Nepal by India, real or not, makes Indo-Nepalese relations delicate at the best of times despite religious and cultural bonds. Curiously, China suffers from no such baggage.