Why Indians should not cite foreign press to validate their views

Don't be too elated by positive coverage in seemingly influential international media, or be too upset about being attacked by it.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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In the pre-internet days of the Nineties, access to foreign newspapers in India was restricted to a few institutions and some big libraries in metropolitan cities. So, for most newspaper readers of that generation, it was in Indian newspapers that one could get glimpses of what the foreign press was saying about India. For readers of The Times of India, then and now the most circulated English daily in India, one such experience was on July 18, 1993.

That day, the newspaper published an interview with VS Naipaul. The writer, based in England, shared what he had read in The Independent, a British newspaper, about the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus in the early 1990s. “Its correspondent in Delhi reported that the Indians removed the Hindus from Kashmir to give their armed forces a free hand. So the expulsion of the Hindus was self-done; it had nothing to do with attacks on them. I don’t know how true this is.”

One can imagine how thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, who were forced to flee the Valley by extremists, would react to a report that reduces the cause of their exodus to a conspiracy theory. One way of getting a sense of their response could possibly be by reading journalist Rahul Pandita’s memoir, Our Moon has Blood Clots: The Exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits

The Independent‘s reporting, however, isn’t unusual, given the prisms that the foreign press — particularly its Western variant — employs to view India and the Indian state, and the events and developments in the country. They are often formulaic.

It’s in this context that the present alarm raised, and even validation sought, by some commentators and social media activists from how critical the foreign press has been in its reporting and commentary on the Citizenship Amendment Act is misplaced. While the opposition to, and support for, the law can find their own platforms, the editorial positions taken in the foreign press aren’t the turf for scoring validation points for either side. They haven’t earned for themselves that gravitas in the formulaic ways they have reported and analysed India over the centuries.

These blinkers have a long history. As early as the 1850s, the formulaic impulses could be seen in the pages of the Western press and the man who had placed them there went on to become one of the most radical theorists in modern history. Writing a series of reports on India in the 1850s as the London-based correspondent for the leftwing American paper, The New York Daily Tribune, Karl Marx interpreted the Sepoy mutiny of 1857 as a mass insurrection. His reportage, co-authored with Friedrich Engels, on the mutiny was somehow meant to fit into his general narrative of identifying an Asian precursor to predictions of the European revolution.

Though a few historians subsequently tended to stretch the historical import of the event as “the first war of independence”, its analysis as a full-blown, anti-colonial armed insurrection was a poor piece of journalism as well as historiography. Even some later Indian Marxists and theorists like Manabendra Nath Roy dismissed such analysis and saw the mutiny as a clash between decaying feudalism and mercantile capitalism for political supremacy. Marx’s earlier reports were clearly captive to a template.

Coming back to the present, the way internationally visible dailies like The New York TimesWashington Post and The Guardian, or magazines like Time, The New Yorker and The Economist, have reported and commented on India only goes on to reinforce the prisms through which they have been looking at the country. These publications have rarely accommodated voices that don’t conform to how their newsrooms want to see India, its events and issues, and are hardly representative of all shades of Indian opinion. 

Given the global reach of these publications, the Indian government and its leadership — for example, the prime minister — have occasionally sought space in them to articulate their views. However, this is occasional and would always carry the handicap of being seen as the government’s public relations exercise.

The problem is not just restricted to unrepresentative opinion and op-ed pages in these papers but also absurd cases of ill-informed reporting. Sometimes the lines between the two are blurred to echo alarmism, the default dialect of the language used for writings on India in the international press. A case in point is Asgar Qadri’s 2017 piece in The New York Times which imagines the sari, a common Indian female attire, as the fashion statement of the rise of Hindu nationalism.

The naivete visible in such hyperbole is only matched by The New York Times underplaying the Pulwama terrorist attack that killed 40 CRPF men as “an explosion”, before facing online backlash and changing it to “bombing”. Criticising the newspaper, and news agency Reuters, for their coverage of the Pulwama attack, a commentator wrote: “The NYT doesn’t seem to care that such explosions have claimed thousands of lives in India over the years. The NYT doesn’t seem to care that Pakistan is preparing suicide bombers and sending them across to kill whoever they can in India.”

After the deadly 26/11 terror attack, NYT‘s headline read: “India Faces Reckoning as Terror Toll Eclipses 170”. In a piece for The Hoot, Vamsee Juluri, a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco, had stated then how the international press hurried to “domesticise 26/11”, to show that terror, like water problems, is something that is routine in India. 

More significantly, this wasn’t an isolated case. Juluri analysed 26 articles, reports and editorials in NYT related to the paper’s coverage of the India-Pakistan confrontation in wake of the Pulwama attack. In a detailed Medium post, with the strap reading “How Headlines Are Used to Mislead Readers, Blame the Victims, and Clean Up After Mass Murder”, Juluri identified a pattern in how the newspaper had a slant in its coverage. “Contrasted with the Times’s uncritical reports of Pakistan’s ‘offers’ and ‘vows’ to curb militancy, it appears there is an element of judgment being made about India as a counterpoint here, and perhaps a justification being offered for the actions of the suicide bomber,” Juluri remarked. 

Besides the slant in times of terror strikes, confrontation or strife, even the choice and pitch of journalistic stories that the foreign press seems more interested in makes it an unrepresentative register for knowing about the country. In this piece, published in The Hindu two years ago, Shravan Bhat asked, “Are foreign journalists ignorant of the true India or is their focus on news that sells?’’ He observed: “It seems they feel that a narrative of dreariness and outrage is what will sell. In a country of 1.3 billion people, every rape story has the potential to make the New York Times. Every communal scuffle can make the Guardian.’’ 

Another sphere where the foreign press has carried its blinkered frames is in foisting Indian icons on an international readership that might not be aware of the credentials of the talked-up personalities. 

Earlier this month, The New Yorker published a profile of journalist Rana Ayyub. The piece introduced Ayyub as one of “India’s best-known investigative reporters”. While the fear of being seen on the other side of the ideological divide in the Indian media might have deterred many influential journalists to rebut such claims, the fact remains that most of them would admit that Ayyub hasn’t done much investigative journalism to be described as such. Many would even admit that sting operations do not constitute serious investigative journalism. Be that as may, even the investigations that have earned her acclaim haven’t passed the muster of judicial scrutiny.

One wonders whether The New Yorker would have itself published her investigations, as compiled in her book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, which the Supreme Court of India dismissed as “based upon surmises, conjectures, and suppositions and has no evidentiary value”. 

Moreover, the wider journalistic community has no access to the raw footage of Ayyub’s sting operations. So, it’s unclear how its journalistic merit can be ascertained. However, such critique requires the delinking of ideological binaries from a rigorous evaluation of her work. That is unlikely to happen anytime soon in the Indian media. Besides eulogising Ayyub, who can be at best described as a prolific columnist, the piece falls short of what one would call rigorous reporting from Kashmir. In the very first few paragraphs, writer Dexter Filkins, through Ayyub, suggests that some 30 victims of pellet gun injuries were being nursed at a hospital in Kashmir. This claim is never investigated and is left for the reader to assume as true. Contrast this to a dispatch in The Caravan where the reporter hears of one such rumour — of 35 victims of pellet eye injuries being nursed at a hospital — and investigates the claim to find that this was not the case.

Needless to say, such word-of-mouth reportage, that too in The New Yorker, which prides itself for its fact-checking, inspires little faith. 

Then, of course, there’s American magazine Time’s off-the-mark assessment in identifying heroes from India in the past. In 2004, it paid the price for personifying the romantic Indian middle-class tale of a young salaried bureaucrat wading through state system for efficiently delivering relief to citizens. Before being jailed for his alleged involvement in the Bihar flood relief scam, a young Indian Administrative Service officer and district magistrate of Patna, Gautam Goswami, had been chosen by Time as one of the “Asian heroes of 2004”. It was ironic that Goswami’s flood relief work, which eventually accounted for his fall from grace, was cited by Time as a reason for him figuring in the exclusive list.

Interestingly, the man who wrote Goswami’s citation for Time was none other than its South Asia correspondent Aravind Adiga, who four years later went on to win the 2008 Booker Prize for his debut novel The White Tiger. In his journalism, Adiga seems to have been gullible in buying the inflated narratives about civil servants, which abound in the Indian media.

Thirteen years later, the naivete shown by Time in listing student activist Gurmehar Kaur as one of the “next generation leaders” and “free speech warriors” wasn’t surprising either. There are many problems with Kaur’s inclusion in a list of next-generation leaders, and some of them can be seen in the note the magazine carried for her.

First, it’s not clear what kind of leadership she has been credited with. And even if that could be vaguely inferred, what exactly has she done to earn that? Can social media responses, which anyway swing between outrage and ridicule and ways of dealing with them, constitute young leadership? Is a successful victimhood campaign for being trolled, which, of course, can get vile, the new roadmap to youth leadership? 

The naivete about Indian campus politics is something that drives even sections of the Indian media that almost waits to paint any campus confrontation as an issue of civil liberties. I have addressed some of the problems in the media narratives on the Indian campus in an earlier piece.

The obvious question is: how can the Indian readership believe certain influential sections of the foreign press when they want to understand distant countries, say Chile or Tanzania, when they see unrepresentative portrayals, flawed assumptions and shallow understanding in their coverage of something they know more closely – the everyday life in India?

In fact, the uncritical acceptance of their reputation poses another danger: it easily gifts them credibility for which they should be working a lot harder. It’s in this context that Juluri offers this piece of advice to media consumers:

“Too many seemingly educated Indian people take the ‘brand magic’ of newspapers like the New York Times at face value in order to comfort themselves about their own often inaccurate meritocratic beliefs about the world. The supposedly best aren’t always what they seem, and you can study, understand, and see this for yourself. The growing outcry about ‘fake news’ isn’t confined to social media, and ‘big’ media need to be deal with critically and attentively too. This is a moral, civic, and for parents, familial duty that is inescapable in this age of violence too real and media too false. I hope that all of us will pay greater attention to what we read, see, and hear, and try to imagine the real lives and sorrows that are being shut out from our attention by the merchants of destruction and distraction today.”

One way to be alert is to neither be too elated by positive coverage in seemingly influential sections of the foreign press, nor be too upset about being attacked by it. In the present context, to put it briefly, one should think twice before citing the foreign press for validation points.


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