Indian Navy Did The Hard Work But America Took The Trophy

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EDITORIAL: By Saeed Naqvi, Copy Edited by Adam Rizvi, TIO: Among my many memories of Sri Lanka is Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, 2004. For the Indian Navy, great keepers of traditions, it was what they call a ‘family holiday’. Ships with officers and their families on board go far out into the open seas, sipping Gin and tonic.

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Like all other ports, Kochi too was emptied of ships. One of them received an urgent message from Naval Headquarters: send families home on passenger boats and proceed urgently to Sri Lanka which is in the eye of the biggest tsunami in history.

I flew into Bandaranaike airport via Mumbai and drove straight to Trincomalee. One of the world’s finest natural harbours was the site of unspeakable devastation. The wonder was the diligent application of the sailors. They were unfazed and made no fuss about the tsunami’s fury.

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The scene at Galle was worse because it is a smaller harbor. It was cluttered with slate, roofs, trunks, cars twisted by sheer badgering, buffeting, badly broken; in the midst of floating tyres were mattresses, household gadgets, shattered TVs, twisted metal, beds made from wood and more floating wood, piling up at the mouth of the harbor in a giant, abstract form. Magically, in three days the harbour had been cleared.

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Unless one can see, in the mind’s eye, the unimaginable scale of the disaster, the relief and rehabilitation work in Sri Lanka by the Indian Navy can never be appreciated. I kicked myself that I had not come with my cameraman. The shame was that there was no cameraman from India, none from the Navy either, a fact relevant to the narrative later.

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This effusive praise of the Navy is for a reason. In the debris were items mentioned earlier – refrigerators, washing machines, mixi grinders, radio sets, floating furniture – and a hundred other things – all painstakingly repaired by the Navy’s engineers, sailors and seamen. Our very Indian “jugaad”, or “make-do” came in handy.

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In these circumstances what would the US Navy have done? Demonstrate its power and amplify its presence on the global media, dwarfing anything that the Indians had done? This, alas, is exactly what happened.

After what I thought was the conclusion of the assignment, I waited outside Galle airport. Larger than anything on show so far, the SS Wisconsin swam into my ken. It had anchored out at sea. Smaller boats emerged. Clambering onto these boats were a bevy of cameramen. Only when they had steadied their cameras on their shoulders did the ship disgorge its sailors. And all of this after the Indian Navy had repaired the eastern coast and Galle harbour.

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When I reached Mumbai I picked up The Times of India. My heart sank. On top of page 1, four columns wide, was a photograph of US marines marching into Sri Lanka. Naturally, not a word about the Indian Navy. All that I had seen in Sri Lanka was an illusion? It hadn’t happened? As Bobby Talyarkhan used to end his columns: “Do you get me, Steve?”

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Propaganda and the pitfalls therein are being amplified in front of our eyes right now. Just as well I am now not peripatetic enough to have charged off to cover Ukraine. I fell back on the oldest trick in the book: watch the big stars of the BBC, CNN etcetera and divide the 100 of what they say by 90, 80 or 70, in some cases, to arrive at a plausible percentage of the truth.

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Ukraine is the inflection point in world affairs because a new multipolar world is taking shape. Towards this evolution, New Delhi has positioned itself brilliantly. The trajectory could well lead to a Permanent Membership of the Security Council. Until then, we walk on egg shells everywhere. In Sri Lanka too. All of this demands consistent optics of being equidistant. This requires a vigorous independent media focused on foreign policy and which is not on a western dole.

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What has hit the Russians where it hurts is the relentless barrage by the western media, sometimes undiluted propaganda, designed to demoralize Putin, mobilize global opinion and to cause chanceries of the world into decisions that would give some more respite to a world order whose best days are past. Mark my word: Kremlin is deep in thought on this global media war.

Our news channels are so insulated from foreign affairs that on critical occasions they fall back on the BBC, CNN, Reuters, Associated Press, New York Times and so on – all representing interests totally at variance from the new direction of our foreign policy. Whither atmnirbharta or “self sufficiency”?

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The western media is part of one bloc opposed to another. India meanwhile, is engaged with all. It will, of course, not be easy to unhinge the foreign policy elite from old ways of thinking because of its inability to accept the disappearance of the unipolar world. This pro US tilt in the elite’s intellectual makeup does not have its origins in the collapse of the Soviet Union only but it has a longer history. When Nehru was leading the Non Aligned movement, his handpicked Secretary General of the foreign office, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, was more inclined towards the US where he had served as the Agent General of British India.

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Take another example. At a time when the Indian Ambassador in Moscow could speak to key members of the Central Committee on the phone, the Birlas and the Jains posted no correspondents to Moscow. In fact the culture of dependence on former colonial masters to fill our foreign pages is all pervasive. The new foreign policy will need a new culture of covering foreign affairs.

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Not having bureaus in Kabul, Iran, Dhaka, Myanmar, Beijing, Moscow, London, Islamabad, Washington and key stations in South East Asia, Latin America, Africa will leave us gasping for breath, not quite becoming an Asian power on the rise. Our effectiveness in Colombo would have been multiplied if we had had competing, news bureaus in the island during the current crisis.

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Curated and Compiled by Humra Kidwai

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Saeed Naqvi

Saeed Naqvi

Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer. He has interviewed world leaders and personalities in India and abroad, which appear in newspapers, magazines and on national television, remained editor of the World Report, a syndication service on foreign affairs, and has written for several publications, both global and Indian, including the BBC News, The Sunday Observer, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Washington Post, The Indian Express, The Citizen and Outlook magazine. At the Indian Express, he started in 1977 as a Special Correspondent and eventually becoming, editor, Indian Express, Madras, (1979–1984), and Foreign Editor, The Indian Express, Delhi in 1984, and continues to writes columns and features for the paper.

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