Boxing Day reminded me of Dec 26, 2004, the day the tsunami trampled Aceh in Indonesia, Galle and Trincomalee in Sri Lanka and devastated the east coast of India. An air force plane enabled me to be in Galle that fateful day.
Captain Murlidharan Nair, Captain T. Asokan and a host of other naval officers from Kochi were holidaying on the high seas with their families when news of the tsunami reached them. Families returned home in smaller boats even as reinforcements arrived for the navy to advance with 37 ships to ports in the eye of the tsunami.
Galle’s ample harbour was choked with debris, which included giant trees, smashed boats, furniture, doors, household goods and bloated carcasses.
The host country, Sri Lanka were astonished at the efficiency with which Indian officers and men could clear Galle and Trinco harbours. It was a heartwarming Indian show along a vast stretch of the coastline from Indonesia, Sri Lanka to India.
Then something quite extraordinary happened.
A giant US warship docked a few meters at sea, visible from the Galle airport from where I was to be flown to New Delhi. The first passengers to disembark from the warship were two US cameramen. A speed boat brought them ashore where a high platform was in readiness for the cameramen to position themselves.
Then came the marines with gear that would be impressive on film. Americans had arrived on relief duty with great fanfare.
It was dark by the time I reached New Delhi. Next morning’s newspapers were a shock. Across six columns of the Times of India was a photograph of the US ship disgorging marines, engineers, grenadiers. The headline in heavy font was: “American ship brings relief.” Not a word about the Indians.
Here I was witness, yet again, to the triumph of propaganda over fact. Everybody in Sri Lanka knew that Indian ships had arrived the day after the tsunami hit the coastline. In fact by the time the American ships arrived most of the required relief had already been administered by the Indian Navy. It was a performance the nation could have been proud of. This was the sort of stuff prime ministers took special leave to inform their respective parliaments about. Sadly, no such notice was taken of the Indian Navy.
In this instance there was a total disconnect between soldiers involved in the world’s most challenging expedition and the Defence Ministry. In fact the most well informed person in South Block was Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran who could tally the US version from Chanakyapuri and the Indian one from Colombo.
Saran was at this stage managing another issue of some delicacy that the tsunami had thrown up. The first diplomat to visit him was the ambassador of Israel. He wanted permission for Israeli pilots to fly a plane to Nicobar Islands to rescue their citizens. What were they doing in Nicobar? The issue resolved itself because the Israelis in Nicobar chose to extend their idyllic holiday once the water level dropped.
Not only was there zero publicity for the extraordinary work done by the Indian Navy, but late comers like the Americans allowed their publicity departments to heap all the credit for the tsunami management on themselves, the Americans.
This was the period when Indo-US relations were being given the sort of boost that would end up in a huge, strategic embrace after the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. A new term was introduced and promoted by the US ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, to define regional cooperation between India, US and the European Union. The term was “Tsunami model”. The implication was quite stifling. Regional initiatives would require US and EU endorsement. It has been dropped because it tended to shackle New Delhi regionally rather than confer on it any new authority.
India was ahead of all the other nations eventually involved in tsunami relief for reasons I have explained at the outset. Boxing Day is plonk in the middle of Christmas, New Year holidays. That is why Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, George Bush, Kofi Annan – indeed most world leaders — were on holiday. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his cabinet colleagues and the armed forces could by contrast meet immediately and act.
The question is: Why was the heroic work done by 37 Indian Naval ships in Sri Lanka, Aceh, the Maldives and India’s eastern coast completely missed out by the global as well as the Indian media?
The reason is simple. The global media, BBC and CNN, will always aggressively promote their own national interests. For India’s achievements to be noticed, New Delhi will have to have a global media of its own. Otherwise the nation will fritter away its prime time programming on trivia, with little plausibility, brought into focus as aggressive debate.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic issues, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on [email protected] The views expressed are personal.)