Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Southern Voices

The coverage in India focused on the violent scenes of Madhesh, downplaying the gains in fundamental rights and inclusive polity

That Nepal is not in the news [in India] is in fact good news, MJ Akbar, the veteran Indian journalist and currently the spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said to me during an interview in the early 1990s.

 It was a couple of years after the economic blockade of 1989-1990. The tensions had subsided and there wasn't anything happening that was bad enough to merit coverage in the Indian press.

So, when the Indian media began to swirl with Nepal headlines and commentaries, following the now famed Indian "notes" and the unofficial blockade, it was natural to be curious about what bad had transpired, apart from the spiraling violence in the plains. Apparently, our sovereignty was in danger.

In this article I share my cursory reading of the Indian print press, without much comment of my own.

The coverage of the present crisis is obsessively focused on the violent scenes of Madhesh protests as engulfing the country, downplaying or ignoring the several gains in fundamental rights and inclusive polity. Focus soon shifted to rising anti-Indianism coinciding with India's terse acknowledgment of Nepal's constitution and the blockade. News is shallow and jingoist.

Cautionary dispatches on the sliding "sphere of influence" in favor of China abound. You will hear many times that Madhesh violence may spill over across the border, Indian channels have been blacked out in Nepal, and Nepal has turned to UN over "blockade" of trading points, etc.

Still, the Indian government is "consistent" in maintaining that there is no blockade. And the media serve officials and politicians in their posturing. Indian denial and some Nepali leaders' silence or lack of an unambiguous characterization of the blockade initially left many media outlets, including international press, unsure about pursuing this story idea.

Indian policy influence reflected better in editorials. Major newspapers carried some editorials and they were not just critical but also approving of some aspects of the constitution.

Two days before the constitution was promulgated, The Times of India ("Himalayan dawn", Sep 18) observed that "voices of dissent remain", but it's "important not to lose sight of the achievements". It called on India to remain a steadfast partner of Nepal. The TOI, however, hasn't editorialized the undeclared blockade yet.

The Hindu ("Constitution sans consensus", Sep 22) was rather critical. It commented that "there has been a degree of closure" in the constitution-making process, but the constitution has not lived up to the promises in addressing the issues of Madheshis, such as border demarcation, proportional representation, delineation of electoral constituencies, and citizenship norms.

The Indian Express ("Crisis and Constitution," Sep 16) recalled Modi's advice a month back to Koirala, "to ensure accommodation as well as restraint" and emphasized the need to bring everyone on board. It ran another editorial in less than a week ("Fragile democracy", Sep 22) describing the official Indian "note" as terse but acknowledging that "New Delhi has good reason to be concerned".

The Pioneer ("Nepal crisis continues", Sep 23) pointed out "Nepal's obdurate indifference to India's concerns" commenting that "non-inclusive Constitution rightly worries India". It cited dangerous potential of the violence spilling into India and gaining in proportion and the "worrying direction of China".

Unlike other newspapers, The Asian Age ("Nepal must settle statute agitation", Sep 21) printed a more objective and analytical editorial without an outright call for India's role or intervention. Navbharat Times ("Nepal Moves Forward", Sep 18) also cited the ongoing strife but saw resolution was possible. It ended with the words: "Anyway, hearty congratulations and good wishes to our neighbor from our side".

Editorials emphasize on the need to address dissent, and some unequivocally welcomed and supported the constitution before the launching of the Indian "trial balloon" in The Indian Express in the form of seven amendments. None of these editorials, not even those published after September 23 (when blockade began) has anything to say about the Indian aggression. Must be a message by omission.

Opinion writing reflected diversity of views. Of the two dozen or so opinion articles that were widely shared in social media, few were balanced and most blatantly biased against Nepal or India.

Among the most vocal were the "retirati", the former ambassadors or army-intelligence officials. It's customary for them to echo the official position.

Jayant Prasad, writing in The Hindu just five days before the statute was promulgated, reverberated Modi's exhortations on inclusion and consensus, and warned of troubled times ahead if Nepal failed to respect past agreements with the Madheshis. Shiva Shankar Mukherjee was more blunt in his rather oddly titled "news analysis" piece in TOI (Sep 25), advising India to "ignore the fulminations of armchair analysts, parachute pundits" and to "stay the course".

Shyam Saran, in The Indian Express ("Constitutional error", Sep 26), wrote of the "blatantly discriminatory features of the constitution" and ultra-nationalist and anti-India rhetoric that was alienating the "one friend and well-wisher Nepalis have". He referred to the blockade obliquely, to paraphrase: Nepalis complain about open border but they are the ones who suffer "whenever movement across the border is disrupted".

Another former ambassador Rakesh Sood, writing in The Hindu ("Making friends, influencing Nepal", Sep 26), observed that India had failed to notice the changing winds in Nepal, to effectively implement her policies and to choose reliable interlocutors. Growing anti-Indianism was a concern and that Kathmandu was apprehensive that India might resort to a strong-arm tactics as in 1989-90, ie the year-long economic blockade. Now India's challenge, he suggested, was to recover lost political ground in Nepal.

PK Hormis Tharakan, the ex-RAW chief (The Economic Times, Sep 22) argued for a moderate line: India has to be mindful of the pitfalls of going beyond a point in supporting Madheshi aspirations and that Indians must not dismiss the constitution in its entirety. Anil Chopra (DNA, 3 October), a retired Air Marshall of the Indian Air Force, looked at the debacle in geo-strategic terms calling India to calibrate a response to the growing Chinese influence in Nepal.

Mani Shankar Aiyar (NDTV, Sep 26), an Indian Congress politician, appeared the most sympathetic to Nepal, lodging a scathing attack on Modi who "has thus done our vital interests in Nepal irreversible damage". He even called for apologizing to Nepalis "for the atrocious behavior of our establishment and wish them all the best for a stable future".

Some expatriate Indians, like Sandip Ghose (Dailyo, 2 Oct) offered the context and a more nuanced reality of Nepal in his reflective commentary. He did not shy away from calling the blockade a "blockade" that will be talked about "for years to come".

Even the scholar-diplomat SD Muni, increasingly seen as a harsh critic of Nepal, pointed out that the new constitution is a welcome move and it offers space for improvement. He wrote that India's Nepal policy needs caution, not grandstanding.

Journalists like Keshav Pradhan (Times of India), Sandeep Dikshit (Tribune India), Vinod Sharma (Hindustan Times), Bharat Bhushan (CatchNews), and Sudhir Bhaumik offered balanced opinions, often criticizing the aggressive stance of India but at the same time pointing out Nepali flaws.

Among them, Dikshit was perhaps too vehement in his defense of Nepal's constitution and its process. He also argued that Indian media's coverage of Nepal and the Indian official dirge made it seem that the entire Himalayan republic was in mourning. Commentaries and even news reports by Prashant Jha (Hindustan Times) were at the other extreme, visibly pro-Madheshi and pro-Indian, and often wanting in balance and credible sourcing.

Least said the best here about opinionation via readers' comments. Never before has there been such an open people-to-people exchange of hatred and animosity between Nepal and India. Distortion of facts, inaccuracies, exaggerations and abuses embolden chest-thumping and jingoism.

That's the summary of reading. What do I make of all this? That is for another time.

Published in Republica, 06 October, 2015