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The Rediff Special/ S Gopikrishna
How the American press misrepresents India
H ow does an American journalist become an expert on India?
He opens his mouth wide open and puts his foot straight in.
"Whaddya speak in India? Gaun-dee?" the bespectacled student asked, ready to take notes.
"Excuse me!" I said, not quite understanding the question.
"Like… Isn't the language of India called Gaun-dee?" he repeated, with the air of a teacher rephrasing a question for a dull student.
"Gandhi! Gandhi isn't a language. Gandhi was a leader." I exclaimed.
"Oh really!" he said, with a quizzical look, "so whaddya speak there? Indian or Indonesian?"
Is the above event real?
Well, a budding journalist, majoring in Asian history and journalism from a renowned mid-western university, had the above conversation with me during an "interview" on India not too long ago. Before I discuss the nuggets penned by our American journalist friends about India, let me digress briefly and share with you an anecdote about their genius at substituting fact with fiction.
In the late forties, an enterprising American journalist journeyed to Bangkok to write an "insightful" article about that country of white elephants and spicy curries. His reports brimmed with information about the most exotic happenings conceivable -- of human beings who cohabited and consorted with the apes, underdressed women who lived on a staple diet of rice and curried ants' eggs and fanatically worshipped the royal family of Thailand. The royal family always posed for pictures without the queen mother because -- hold your breath -- she (the queen mother) had a bushy tail!
The news understandably caused a stir among journalists in the US. An army of journalists soon lined up at the Thai embassy for visas and tickets to discovering exotica that would catapult them to fame and a fabulous fortune. The puzzled embassy officials were aghast when they discovered the reasons for the spate in visa applications. They issued a statement to set the record straight -- the queen mother couldn't be seen in public because she had passed away ages ago.
The moral of the anecdote: Anything is right about countries where people aren't white.
Half a century later, have there been significant changes in the quality of reporting? As an example, let us examine the American (ie. North American) newspapers' reporting of facts (elementary facts) about Hinduism.
In 1994, at the onset of the plague in Surat, The Washington Post propounded the following hypothesis: Since rats are the cause of the epidemic, is there a specific reason for not killing the rats? Well, rats are considered to be so holy by Hindus that they would prefer to kill themselves over the rats.
Subsequent enquiries proved that the only grain of truth in this tall tale was that a certain deity called the goddess of rats, is worshipped in a remote temple in Rajasthan. This little fact was expanded, exaggerated and extrapolated into a conclusion that sounds comical, stupid and insulting.
Since nothing succeeds like sensationalism, the other American newspapers followed suit in reporting the incident, garnishing and flavouring the "Hindus worship rats" story till a mountain of Himalayan proportions had been built from the molehill. Despite numerous clarifications and demands for an apology, American newspapers had neither the courtesy nor the decency to issue one.
The venerable New York Times informed us in 1998 (in the course of its discussion of India's nuclear bomb) that the Bhagavad Gita venerates Shiva, the destroyer among the Trinity! Since the Bhagavad Gita is available on the Internet, search the text and discover for yourself how many times the word "Shiva" appears. In the 700 shlokas of the Bhagavad Gita, Shiva is mentioned 700 minus 700 times.
Not to be outdone, The Chicago Tribune declared Krishna to be a "goatherd" in January this year. A goatherd, eh! Given that India and snake-charmers are inseparable in the American imagination, I suppose we should thank ourselves that Krishna wasn't called a "snake-head". (Smugglers bringing Chinese immigrants on those rickety ships that appear periodically on the west coast are called "snake-heads".)
On Christmas Eve last year, The Toronto Star decided, (I suppose), that ten hands would prove a little unwieldy for goddess Durga and "downsized" her hands to a manageable eight -- "eight-armed fierce Hindu goddess Durga" was their description of the goddess.
Instead of heaping ridicule on them, why can't you write letters and correct the record? you ask. If you write a letter to the editors of any of these publications, consider yourself honoured if they condescend to reply, let alone correct the error. Since arrogance and ignorance are inseparable, your letter will probably end up in the shredder instead of the editor's desk. No matter how many letters you send them, you will discover that they are firm believers in the adage -- "Silence is golden."
Well, if you argue that accuracy in reporting on religions is difficult since grasping the finer points of another's faith is all but impossible, let us examine an issue far easier to comprehend: The geography of India. After all, the only "tool" that you need to study and understand the geography of India is an atlas.
Well, if an "experienced" journalist and a supposed South Asia specialist at that, declared to you that the Chinese got within 300 miles of Calcutta in 1962, what would you do?
1. Ask for his mailing address so that you can send him a map of India?
2. Roll your eyes, cluck your tongue and ask him, "Will you ever learn?"
3. Encourage him to explore employment in other professions?
4. Nominate him for a prestigious award recognising journalistic achievement?
It turns out that the correct answer is 4.!
Well, let us examine the following excerpt from a book called War at the top of the world -- Clash for mastery of Asia written by a so-called "expert" on South Asia, a certain Eric Margolis. On page 214, we find the following:
"South Asia's rivers flow down from the Tibetan plateau. The headwaters of India's most important rivers and principal source of the groundwater that nourishes the continent including the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Indus, Chenab, Ravi, Yamuna, Gandak and the Saptakosi, to name a few, rise in Tibet. China has gained a death-grip over India's main supply of water."
Well, when I consulted three different atlases, I found that the headwaters of the Ganga and the Yamuna (Gangotri and the Yamunotri respectively) were in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh. As for the Chenab, it originates in Himachal Pradesh, flows south and then north-west into Kashmir before entering Pakistan. The Gandak originates in central Nepal and flows into India. Since when have Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and central Nepal amalgamated themselves into Tibet?
China gaining a death-grip over India's main supply of water or no, Margolis should certainly work hard at getting out of the death-grip of misinformation.
In a discussion on the Indo-China war on page 132, he reveals to us that the Chinese captured Bomdila, which is 300 miles from Calcutta. Consulting any map would make it very clear that any point 300 (as the crow flies) from Bomdila would leave you somewhere in Assam which in turn is hundreds of miles from Calcutta.
Given that the book is pregnant with factual errors such as the ones discussed, it becomes necessary to ask if Margolis can see straight, let alone think straight.
And how is the book released? To rave reviews.
How is the author of this tome rewarded? Well, he wins the SAJA ( South Asian Journalists Association) Award for his writing on India.
Before I move on, let me highlight just one more nugget that I culled from this remarkable text. On page 205 of the aforementioned book, a discussion on nuclear technology enlightens us to the fact that Tritium is an "element". Given his "discovery", shouldn't we write a joint letter to the nomination committee for the chemistry Nobel Prize requesting that Professor Funda-gol (oops, I meant Margolis) is to be rewarded for his efforts?
Of course, no discussion in this context is quite complete without referring to the exalted empress of erroneous embellishments -- Madame Barbara Crossette. Never averse to overlooking reality when it challenges her preconceived notions, she is the kind of journalist who manages to be "on the spot" in Kashmir, Karnataka and Kerala without getting facts correctly.
Her magnum opus on India, India -- Facing the challenges of the twenty-first century has more holes in it than a slice of Swiss cheese. A couple of the more obvious flaws are given below:
Her paeans of praise to Inder Gujral's performance as information minister before the Emergency -- his (alleged) ushering in of free speech, upholding high quality of reporting and not succumbing to political pressure -- overlook the fact that AIR came to be called "All Indira Radio" during his tenure. Gujral's being proclaimed the beacon of free speech is as pathetic as her allegations about India's "stealing" foreign technology to build bombs. Crossette also tears to bits the Communist Party of India (Marxist) -- which is Moscow supported. Would Comrade Jyoti Basu be amused if accused of clutching Kremlin's skirts?
Most (if not all) American reporters working in India, look up to Crossette as a role-model in view of her power and influence. She has thereby facilitated a perpetual contest amongst American journalists working in/on India for producing gibberish.
Welcome to American reporting on India -- a factory of fiction where the dramatis personae are more convinced of their expertise than anyone else.
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