After a video of a supposed verbal spat between India's Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and Mayor of Snagov, Mihai Anghel, went viral, questions were raised about what had really happened at the Romanian shelter.
In an exclusive interview with The Quint, Mayor Anghel explained that he wasn't looking for a political scandal and that all he did was stand up for the Indian students, who wanted to know just one thing – when were they going home?
What Had Happened?
Speaking over a video call, Anghel says, "Our team received 157 Indian students. We received little help from the Embassy here and all the food and other necessities were provided by us. The citizens of the Snagov region provided all of it. Then I saw this gentleman walk in the late evening, appearing full of himself with cameras, and addressing the students in a very arrogant tone. He was as if prepared to present a PR speech, and not comfort the students who had just fled war and wanted to go home."
The students had crossed the Siret border on 27 February and were given shelter inside a school gymnasium of Ghermanesti village at the Snagov commune. The mayor said that they had received instructions from the local Indian authorities that buses would come the next day. However, with Scindia's visit, he hoped that the students' questions would be answered.
"They weren't given details of their flights or any schedule during Scindia's address. How long were they supposed to stay there? The minister was talking about how they had rescued dogs and some other points about all that he'd done," the mayor recounts, visibly annoyed, and adds, "These kids weren't treated with dignity at the borders and the speech was an addition to that. It really put me off. He hadn't provided any of the necessities for these students and came here and disrespected me when I asked him for details about their flight home."
Union Minister Scindia talked to The Quint about the apprehensions raised by the mayor during his interview. On a phone call, he explains, "The students had just made a very arduous journey. There was going to be some apprehensions and some worries, which was what was expressed by the mayor... which is fine. I mean, I’m there to assuage those concerns. As a representative of India, we have to stomach that – get to the solution and get them out."
'I Lost My Cool as I Was Sad'
In the video, Scindia was seen asking Anghel to "stand back," to which the latter responded in a firm tone that it was the Romanian team that had provided shelter, food, etc, to the students, and not "him".
When asked why he lost his 'cool', the mayor tells The Quint:
"I wasn't angry like a lot of people think. I lost my cool because I was sad for those kids. I heard so much about what they went through at the border and they shouldn't be used for some PR shoot. I didn't know that he was the Aviation Minister. I would have done the same if I knew. I was compelled to call his behaviour out. You can't come to my country, my home, and disrespect us."
At the end of the video, the students were seen applauding the mayor for his response.
Did the two discuss the altercation?
Anghel reveals, "We shook hands and dealt with it like adults. Someone among the students told him that I was the mayor of the region. He didn't apologise for disrespecting us. I don't expect an apology and I understand the times are difficult for everyone – for the Indian evacuation teams as well. At the end, when we shook hands his tone was very cold. Neither firm nor soft, as if he was in a rush. He had no time; finished the address and went away. It was a very unpleasant exchange."
Scindia confirmed to The Quint that the two shook hands afterwards, adding "that was the end of it".
Abuses, Threats, and Trolling
With the video now having gone viral, Mayor Anghel has been at the receiving end of threats and abuses by Indian social media users. He sent The Quint a screenshot of one of the abusive messages, which read, "F**k you. You talk to the Indian government minister ok. Behave." He has blocked all the accounts that have sent him threats and abuses. However, Anghel expressed surprise at the trolling. He said that he didn't expect these threats for having shown kindness to the students.
"I am receiving a barrage of hate messages possibly from paid trolls who are bombarding my official pages. I am a politician and I can handle all this, but receiving a hate message from foreign citizens and not my own people, is a first," he reveals. On the flip side, the students sheltered in Snagov have been sharing messages of gratitude to Anghel for helping them in their hour of need.
"It’s not just the students, I have been getting calls from their parents as well. I just spoke to a family that was grateful for the kindness these kids received in my country. This is all that the students were looking for, not the PR drive they were subjected to. Even on the flights, they tell me they were asked to say great things about what minister's team had done. They are educated to be doctors. You can’t fool them. They refused," he adds.
Vipin Singh, a student of Ternopil National Medical University who was present during Anghel’s exchange with Scindia's, says, "After going through such a terrible time, it wasn’t our government that helped us... it was Mayor Anghel and the Romanian people. I can’t hide the truth. People should know. Indian authorities only helped us with a flight from the airport.”
A distraught Singh adds, "The next day, Mr Scindia’s PA called and messaged us the next day and asked us to record videos thanking his efforts. Some of us refused, but I had to record it as I was scared that they may leave me stranded if I spoke the truth. I was desperate to see my family and had to say what Scindia’s team instructed me to."
'Won't Stop Fulfilling Our Humanitarian Responsibilities'
During his trip as a part of the four-member minister team that traveled to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova, and Romania, Scindia oversaw the evacuations of Indian students in Romania and Moldova. The minister informed in a tweet that over the past seven days, 6,222 Indian students were evacuated from Romania and Moldova under Operation Ganga.
Speaking of the next groups of Indian students arriving at the shelter in Snagrov, Anghel says, "Just before I called you, we sent off 134 students to the airport. We won't stop fulfilling our humanitarian responsibilities and hopefully one day I can speak to minister Scindia and this will all be behind us – only the welfare of the students would remain a priority."
"I have immense respect for the people of India and will continue to learn about the wonderful, brave people that they are.Mihai Anghel, Mayor of Snagov
(The author is an independent journalist based out of Paris. An alumna of University College Dublin, she writes about International Conflict and War.)