Suhasini Haidar

Sound not a trumpet

Nepal policemen cordon off the area as rescue workers prepare to pull out survivors from the rubble of a building in Kathmandu.   | Photo Credit: Manish Swarup

Every world religion, the Gita, Bible, Quran and other ancient scriptures, have a reference to one maxim: that when giving help or charity, even your left hand shouldn’t know what the right hand is doing. When the deadly earthquake struck Nepal, India rushed in all it could at incredible speed: within six hours, officials said, the first Indian C-130s had landed at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, loaded with relief supplies.

Since April 25th, India has been at the forefront of the rescue and relief operation, with most number of personnel on the ground. As neighbour, friend, and a country with open borders, the government’s response was instinctive, and entirely commendable. In addition, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to hold a meeting within hours, giving directions to conduct operations without any delay or distinction between Indians and Nepalis, spurred on the rescue effort.

However, unlike what the scriptures may advise, our efforts have been anything but silent and self-effacing. Within an hour of the emergency meeting, three press conferences were held in Delhi, outlining just what India was going to do. Each of them, addressed by senior officials of the government essentially gave us the same information: the instructions given by the Prime Minister on Nepal, the number of planes in the rescue effort, an itemisation of the supplies being sent to Kathmandu etc.

This repetition could have been avoided, even so, the immediate relaying of information was appreciated by the media, and probably reassuring to those in Nepal as well. However it didn't stop there. The next day saw more aftershocks, and more press conferences. And the next day too. One joint press conference was addressed by at least five secretaries to the Government of India. Creditably, they were all working 24/7, relentlessly monitoring the relief and rescue operations. Not so creditably, they were repeating each other and also repeating the information given at other press conferences held by the Defence ministry and the Army separately as well.

Was it really necessary for India to publicly itemise the relief it sent, with the Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Defence secretary, NDMA chief and head of the Meteorological Department spending precious time building that narrative at press conferences rather than monitoring the operations themselves? Is it even normal for us to be reminded periodically that the Government is working? Tweets from the PIB, Doordarshan and other official arms, for example, informed us every time the Cabinet secretary or Home secretary “reviewed operations” or held internal meetings to discuss them.

Ok, so the Indian media ran with the narrative the government built. Very quickly and very loyally, they went into the disaster zone also focussing on India’s effort over Nepal’s pain. They made their mistakes, and in any number of blogs and personal accounts since then, journalists who travelled to Nepal have accepted those mistakes, introspecting on why twitter trended the hashtag #gobackindianmedia. (Except perhaps the genius who super-imposed the Indian flag and our Prime Minister’s visage on to every scene of destruction, and the other who built an animation of tears rolling down from the ‘eyes’ of Pashupatinath with the tricolour wiping the tears, both of whom really should #gobacktojournalismschool ).

Today, the focus is on the media’s insensitivity and brash jingoism in the face of tragedy, but not much time is spent on who fuels the jingoism. Most journalists are trained the same way, to keep moving on a story, using whatever access one gets. Whether it is the coverage of the 26/11 attacks, the last round of India-Pakistan talks, or the Tsunami, the media is blamed for reporting what it sees, or its camera captures, but few stop to wonder how they got that close in the first place.

How was it that the Tribhuvan airport tarmac was dotted with television journalists, even as officials complained that there wasn’t enough place to park their planes?

Was the Indian army and airforce given instructions to take every journalist who applied for a spot on their planes and helicopters, or was it unscripted that every plane seemed to be teeming with them, going into remote areas, and bringing them back? Compare it with previous disaster operations: during the Uttarakhand flash flood of 2013, and other such calamities the rule was that helicopters could take you into an area, but on the way back, every seat was meant for people being rescued. In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, the air force and district administration refused to take journalists one at a time, finding it was more efficient to take one group of journalists every 3 days in one lot. When our team protested with one officer overseeing the disbursement of relief supplies in Nicobar island, he turned around, sized us up, and said, “I am sorry ma’am, but its either you or those bags of rice that I can take on board. Which should it be?” Our egos may have been bruised and our eagerness to tell the story daunted, but the truth of his words were deeply felt, and we meekly got in line behind the more essential need of the day.

In the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake, India was not the only country to loudly proclaim its generousity, of course. From US and China to Pakistan, Israel, Bhutan and the Maldives, every country released aid along with scores of photographs of teams preparing into help with the rescue effort, planes rushing in (rotor to rotor, as one tweet put it) with appropriate hashtags to drive the message of solidarity and charity home. Perhaps as we say prayers for those who lost their lives in the deadly quake, and hope for a swift reconstruction of the Himalayan country that has friends worldwide, we may all take a leaf from our own ancient wisdom: danam diyate anupakarane (give without expectation) says the Gita (Chapter 17,Verse 20), Sadaqat (charity) is better given quietly, or concealed, it says in the Quran ( 2:271), 'When thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee' , says the Bible (Mathew 6:2).

Even new age tech Guru Steve Jobs, who reportedly followed no faith, imbibed the idea. In his own lifetime, he was often criticised for not making big donations to philanthropic causes like his contemporaries did. It was only after his death in 2011 at the age of 56 that word of the hundreds of millions he and his wife had donated emerged. The money continues to be disbursed, albeit through a charity that doesn't even bear his name.

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 1:17:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/blogs/blog-suhasini-haidar/article7180008.ece

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