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July 23, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Rajeev Srinivasan


Nikhil Chakraborty, the doyen of Indian columnists, passed away a few weeks ago. His occasional op-ed column was an example of the finest in Indian journalism. He was an old-fashioned liberal and leftist; one whose passion and affection for his country and about his fellow-countrymen shone through his articles. He appealed to my neo-liberal sensibilities: for he was genuinely concerned about India’s progress, ideology be damned.

Nikhil Chakraborty’s life and times remind me of one of the greatest journalistic efforts in history: Emile Zola’s attack on the French government. When I was in France a few months ago, I learned that the centenary of this act was being celebrated with due fanfare. Dissent doesn’t sit well with the powers-that-be, but it is an act of courage that needs to be saluted.

I contrast the Zola situation with the journalistic response to Pokhran II. Yes, there was considerable dissent expressed by sections of the chattering classes, but alas, much of it seemed based on personal peeves, political grandstanding, and just plain ignorance. Responsible journalists should offer constructive criticism; in the case of Pokhran II, there is also the issue of closing the ranks against a common enemy, the jaundiced global media.

Informed and impassioned dissent is one thing; this was Zola’s act. However, many Indian commentators responded to Pokhran II with a mixture of sins: they let their distaste for the BJP blind them to various strategic issues; they let their knee-jerk Sinophilia blind them to the historical imperatives that drive that country; and they seldom bothered to check any facts but accepted factoids spewed by the usual suspects, the media empires of the West.

These are acts worthy only of yellow journalists; Indian columnists ought to be ashamed of themselves. For, they have become unwitting accessories to India-bashing abroad: it is clear that the US media, for example, unerringly picks out any signs of a break in support for the Indian government (not to mention the sorry circus put up by J Jayalalitha et al.) We can expect these to be factored into the pressure tactics applied by Strobe Talbott and others.

The US is continuing to hawk its self-serving non-proliferation agenda, putting pressure on India to sign the NPT and CTBT unconditionally. There appears to have been a longstanding national consensus in India to not sign these. How on earth can we justify caving in now? How can journalists, in good conscience, in effect collude with foreigners to hurt India’s interests? I am baffled. Maybe Zola lived in a simpler, easier age, when things were clearer.

Zola, the French novelist, published a stinging letter addressed to the president of France, on January 13th, 1898. It was on l'affaire Dreyfus -- the shocking story of an army officer named Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely accused, dishonourably discharged, and sentenced to life at the infamous Devil's Island prison. All, it appears, mostly because he was Jewish. You can find the details on the Web if you can read French.

Dreyfus was accused of spying for the Germans. In the dramatic film on the case, actor Paul Muni playing Dreyfus is court-martialled. He suffers the indignity of being stripped of his epaulettes, having his shako punched through, his sword broken in two, and the buttons on his uniform snipped off in full view of his regiment -- an utter and public humiliation.

L'affaire Dreyfus was certainly a cause celebre -- it was a symbol of the casual and endemic anti-Jewish feeling in Europe; and we all know what it led to later. Zola's letter was a cry of anguish at two things -- the injustice done to one man; and the moral decay that it implied in his beloved France. As he himself said, it was a cry from his soul, "le cri de mon ame."

Zola was fully aware he was exposing himself to defamation charges; he had to go into exile. But years later, he achieved his goal: the corrupt government fell; Dreyfus was fully exonerated, and the real culprit, a Major Esterhazy, was brought to book. But the thing that is truly astonishing about all this is the fact that one man, just by the power of his words, was able to right an historic wrong; this letter is a testament to honour and justice.

So why are there so few Zolas among the Indian chattering classes? When I read Indian columnists, I am forced to divide them into two camps, with very few exceptions. An,d of course, that also brings me to the foreign columnists reporting from India -- the less said about them the better!

I accuse Indian columnists of falling into two categories: the ignorant/lazy and the intellectually colonised. There are a few exceptions I can think of: among them, the late Nikhil Chakraborty, N Vittal, Madhu Kishwar, Praful Bidwai, K Subrahmanyam. These writers, plus a few others, I respect, even if I don't share their perspectives, because they do their homework, think things through, and have something worthwhile to say. For instance, I disagree with many of Bidwai's positions, but surely he demands thoughtful consideration.

I accuse the majority of Indian journalists of abdicating their responsibility, of failing to think. I am amazed at the amount of absolute tripe that masquerades as 'thoughtful commentary' -- frankly, I, no professional journalist myself, can often poke holes in their so-called arguments with little difficulty, simply based on their faulty premises or logic.

I accuse these journalists of being completely innocent of elementary economics, history and rhetoric. Surely a tribute to the pathetic state of the liberal arts curricula in Indian universities. I find that these people latch on to some simple, easily refutable claim, and then rant and rave about it. If they were to spend more than half an hour on writing, and more than ten minutes on research, they would realise the absurdity of it all -- but, of course, they don't have to, as the consuming public lets them get away with it. A frightening thought -- do a people get the journalists they deserve?

This is not a liberal-conservative dichotomy; there are plenty of sinners on both sides of the fence. However, since India's 'liberal-"progressive"-"secular"-Nehruvian-Stalinist' wing seems to be more numerous, and perhaps more holier-than-thou than elsewhere, they probably outnumber the 'conservative-divisive-fundie-communalist-fascist' sinners.

By the way, just a thought, is it possible to ban the word 'secular' for a few years? It is the most meaningless, laughably Orwellian word in the subcontinental lexicon, with the possible exception of "Azad" Kashmir. Must say someone in Pakistan has a sense of humour: "Ghori" and "Ghaznavi", indeed -- even their barbarians are not their own, but Afghan! If they want to name things after foreign monsters, I submit "Attila", "Genghiz", "Vlad the Impaler", "Mussolini", "Idi Amin", "Pol Pot", for consideration. Remember, you heard it here first.

But I digress; to go back to the second type of wretched Indian journalist, this is the terminally brainwashed variety. The type that consumes the pre-digested disinformation pabulum handed out freely by the media barons of the West; the latter of course have their own axes to grind. The type that has absolutely no concept of what self-respect means, or respect for the nation. The type for whom the ultimate in wisdom is Time, Newsweek and The New York Times.

I accuse these journalists of being entirely blind. Because the media empires of the West work hand in hand with their governments -- major American papers, for example, are practically foreign policy propaganda mouthpieces of the US government, as Noam Chomsky has demonstrated convincingly (Manufacturing Consent). While the US media do offer dissent in terms of internal affairs, when it comes to foreign affairs, they, the mercantilist government, and the military-industrial complex are of one mind.

I accuse Indian journalists, furthermore, of destructive criticism. A simple case in point is the recent furore over children shooting others in schools in America. There was much hand-wringing and heart-searching in the US media about the causes of alienation among children, about pervasive gun availability.

But no American writer said, "It is because American culture stinks. Remember, this country was built on a culture of violence. We glorify the bloody, genocidal conquest of the West. We massacred the Native American. We imposed slavery on the black man. We luxuriate in blood sports. We deserve this cycle of violence -- what goes around comes around." They would never say that: there is a certain ingrained respect for their culture.

Imagine, under similar circumstances, what our clueless, brainwashed, purveyor of second-hand-wisdom would have said in India: "Indian culture stinks. It is 5,000 years of Hinduism that causes these problems. If we could only get rid of Hinduism and any vestiges of Indian culture, we would be so much better off! It is unfortunate that a millennium of foreign rule hasn't wiped out all of this. Maybe we could have the Chinese come in and teach us a few new things?"

Okay, I exaggerate a little, but consider the following true-to-life story: an article about Bosnia by some Indian journalist, where he went on and on about "the second Holocaust". I was appalled. I was thinking, "I have news for you. The second Holocaust was in India -- Partition; the single greatest forced migration of people in history: several million killed. Or maybe Cambodia -- 25% of the population butchered -- at least 2 million."

But of course not, this person was dutifully regurgitating the stories recited by Christiane Amanpour et al. He is unaware of context: after all, the former Yugoslavia is where three major ideologies collide. Two of them have been fighting each other ever since the Crusades or so, roughly the 12th century CE. Add Marxism to this mess, and things get worse. It is a blood vendetta, and it will never end. It is unwise to get involved.

I wonder if that journalist is aware of the fact that the First World War was triggered by a Serb assassinating one of the Hapsburg Empire’s scions. To put it bluntly, it’s the Europeans’ headache -- let them deal with it. And all things considered, how many died in Bosnia-Serbia-Croatia? At most 100,000. But in our semi-educated journalist's mind, dead white people looms much larger than dead Asians: Macaulay's incubus lives on.

All this not to imply that one should simply ignore the Western media -- far from it. Use them for the facts and figures and analysis, but, for heaven's sake, don't just accept them as the gospel truth -- think! Use your judgement to understand the undercurrents and the vested interests. "All the news that is fit to print" isn't printed--there is self-censorship, bias, and slanting.

Finally, I accuse the foreign journalists covering India of prejudice and condescension. For instance, The New York Times used to have correspondents in India of the calibre of A M Rosenthal -- even-handed commentators. But in the last few years, their correspondents have been exemplified by Barbara Crossette, who, for reasons best known to her, simply hates India, and misses no opportunity to trash the country.

Just to give one recent and glaring example of cravenness on the part of the self-proclaimed paragons of freedom of the press, I was astonished to see blatant self-censorship on the STAR TV network to protect the tender feelings of the Chinese. While Tibetans immolate themselves in the quest for freedom, the STAR movie critic could not bring himself to say a word about the film Kundun, a portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

The movie guy was giving a run-down on the top 10 films in the UK, and for each of them, he gave a short introduction and showed a few seconds’ worth of clips -- even that terminally overexposed Titanic (enough, already!). But when it came to Kundun, the 7th most popular film in the UK that week, he just mentioned the name and soldiered right on. No clips, no stills, no short spiel, nothing! And these are the people lecturing us Third World types about Freedom of the Press -- the chutzpah is nothing short of stunning.

Where, among the foreign correspondents, are the Mark Tullys and the Francois Gautiers, who have taken the trouble to understand India and even develop a certain sympathy for it? Recently, the foreign media coverage in the 1998 election was strikingly biased. The white folks evidently really hoped Sonia Gandhi would win.

Perhaps foreigners believe that out of inclination -- she being a white and a devout Catholic -- and out of necessity -- the spectre of Quattrochi, Bofors and Swiss bank accounts -- Madame Gandhi would be amenable to the blandishments of the West. Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright have also made veiled, nostalgic references to a "predictable" Indian government of the past. Strobe Talbott visits La Gandhi. Are we seeing an American-inspired "bloodless coup" in the making?

I accuse the foreign media of ignoring the patently obvious fact that the BJP are much the same as the Republican Party in the US: a right-of-centre group with certain extremist, jingoistic, protectionist sentiments. Instead, they carp on this 'Hindu nationalist' theme, as though being either Hindu or nationalist or both were some great crime -- worse than being an American jingoist?

I have noticed this tendency on the part of the American media before. In the 1996 US presidential election, there was a candidate named Pat Buchanan, a scary, xenophobic, ultra-right-wing, fire-and-brimstone type. In the 1996 Russian presidential election, there was a candidate named Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a scary, xenophobic, ultra-right-wing, fire-and-brimstone type.

To the impartial observer, Buchanan and Zhirinovsky were Tweedledum and Tweedledee, both lunatic-fringers. But guess what, to the US media, Buchanan was a "conservative", while Zhirinovsky was a "dangerous ultra-nationalist"! Double-speak lives! Hypocrisy reigns! Nationalism is only good for Americans, clearly.

There is the ongoing debate in India about opening up the media fully. I wonder. On the one hand, that would invite a flood of slanted foreign views, and I am frankly concerned about national security -- the media does have power. For example, did anyone notice how, almost overnight, Saddam Hussein went from "our friend in the Middle East" during the Iran-Iraq war to "the most evil human being who ever lived" in the eyes of the US public?

On the other hand, with home-grown journalists of the calibre I described above, maybe this is as good as it gets. I think the Indian consumer needs to revolt against shoddy swadeshi journalism just as much as against shoddy swadeshi consumer goods. The consumer deserves better.

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