Globalisation has prompted many people to speak of the world as a village, wherein ease of connectivity and knowledge of other places and cultures are perhaps at its highest in human history. One would assume that the creation of so many communication channels would lead to debunking of myths and progress in gaining knowledge about other cultures, and about our own. However, what happens when increased interaction takes place without a concomitant increase in knowledge? Old stories are recycled in the telling of new events.
In the case of India, more people than ever before know that most Indians don't go to work on their elephants. Or that the border of Kashmir is contested. However, knowing such facts does not make us knowledgeable about India. Professor Balagangadhara of Ghent University has argued that what Indians and others "know" of the country today is a very old story, a story that has been recycled over generations and embellished endlessly. So much so that it has come to be accepted as the truth about India, both by Indians and others alike. Among other things, this larger narrative claims that India knows of a "caste system" and "rape culture" and their intertwined and horrid manifestations in its society. Since this story is considered the truth about India, any report, statement or movement that goes along the lines of this narrative is deemed to have passed the test of credibility, without actually having jumped through any loops at all.
A recent case concerned reports that a khap panchayat in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh had ordered the rape of two sisters as punishment for their brother's elopement with a woman from a higher caste. Catch News reported that in response to these reports and an Amnesty International petition with more than 1,70,000 signatories as of September 1, the British Parliament had taken cognisance of the matter. The Times of India quoted Nadhim Zahawi, a Conservative MP of the UK foreign affairs select panel as having said; "I am revolted. No culture or religion, no human being with any humanity would condone this." The rest of the report quotes two other parliamentarians from the UK - Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, who said: "I urge Philip Hammond (UK secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs) to make immediate representations to Indian authorities for action to be taken to protect the two sisters." And a spokesperson for the foreign office:"We are committed to work with the Indian government on this important issue."
But what is it that the Parliament of the United Kingdom took cognisance of?
Let us consider the news reports. On August 18, The Times of India reported the story and included a quote by one of the village elders, who did not wish to be named:"First, the panchayat happened in February and it never passed such an inhuman order. But yes, pressure was certainly built up on the family to get the girl restored to her family. Secondly, the man has been in jail for the last couple of months, so his relatives have started making such grave charges against the Jat community." On August 20, the New Indian Express carried a news headline "Rape Those Two Dalit Girls, UP Khap Panchayat Orders Villagers". On August 28, TIME also carried the story, basing its information completely on reports by other media houses. On August 31, a report also appeared in The Star, with a quote from a village council leader in Baghpat, who denied that any such order was given, and that the Baghpat Police had dismissed the case after not finding any evidence. On the same day a report in The Times of India quoted the girls' father:"Our family was not in the village when the khap panchayat took place. I was first told by some villagers that such an order was declared by a khap panchayat and they also told me to withdraw my writ from the Supreme Court."
On September 1, the BBC published a report wherein the facts are denied by all parties involved, with the exception of the two sisters. In the same report, Amnesty India's spokesperson, Gopika Bashi told the BBC that they had based their information completely on the sister's petition to the Supreme Court. "We have not been on the ground, we have not visited the village," she was quoted as saying. In his report BBC journalist Sanjoy Majumder heard the different parties involved and he brought across the uncertainty about what actually happened. At the same time, Majumdar also judged which sources to take seriously and which not: the Jat woman who reportedly ran away with a "lower caste" man claims that they were not having an affair, and that she went with him to the city in search of a job, not in order to elope. About this Majumder observed: "It's difficult to judge whether she's speaking of her own free will but her answers appear a bit rehearsed." It is strange that Majumdar took the liberty of deciding what rehearsed answers sound like and included this in his report, but it is stranger still that the BBC in India (which is, presumably, familiar with social etiquettes of the country it operates in) did not think of also sending a female reporter to speak to the woman, since by the BBC's own admission, India, and Uttar Pradesh in particular, is ridden with patriarchy and Majumdar had to speak to the woman under the supervision of male relatives.
On September 2, The Indian Express quoted Jeetendra Singh, who was identified as the head of the khap panchayat of the district; "If something has to happen, then a collective decision is taken. In recent times there was not even a gathering of the panchayat. Where does the question of a diktat arise? Even if we assume that two representatives came from each village, then there will be more than 500 witnesses to the event. No such gathering has taken place. This is baseless and shocking."
As the reports appeared, it became clear that what actually happened is totally unclear. What were Nadhim Zahawi and Hilary Benn so enthusiastically condemning? Indeed, what are the 5,00,000 signatories to the Amnesty petition (as of September 16) petitioning against? On what did Sanjoy Majumdar base his judgment on that the woman's answers appeared rehearsed? Indeed, on what grounds does Majumdar's decision count as journalism? At present, there is no evidence for the occurrence of the alleged events as they have been reported in the media. There are only contradicting statements of the people involved. No court has ever convicted people on the basis of unproven allegations. Rightfully so. This is an issue that needs to be properly investigated by the authorities, which must be done as in any other criminal case. If the events indeed involve a decision made by a khap panchayat to rape two women, the people involved will be convicted according to the law.
However, the media, Amnesty International, and the British Parliament did not deem niceties such as investigation and proof necessary. The point here is not to lament the distortion of facts by the media. Everywhere, the media are regularly accused of such distortions in reporting. But this is true of reporting on and within all countries in the world. We also know of "trial by media", but this is not what is happening here.
In the case of India, the nature of the distortions is systematic, regardless of the geographical or ideological moorings of a journalist, a publication or a media house. In addition, governments - which are consistently sceptical of shoddy reporting and premature judgments - find it perfectly acceptable to consider such media reports on India as a reliable basis for discerning the truth. Most importantly, the international community (governments included) is unified in the certainty that crimes reported in India are the result of a cultural problem - expressions of Indian culture. What emerges is a narrative of a patriarchal, superstitious, discriminatory culture with pretensions at economic power and global influence.
In her post on a lifestyle website, a certain Vasundara R discusses conflicting reports about the khap decision and makes this statement: "There's a reason why this story RINGS true - it's because this isn't the first we have heard of stories like this coming out of India's hinterland. The story of Sankraud may or may not be true, we don't know that yet, but there have been enough examples in the past to make it believable." It is this logic, put forward so succinctly on iDiva.com, that informs the outrage of Nadhim Zahawi, Hilary Benn and the signatories of the Amnesty petition. In the last few years India's reputation has been badly tarnished: a series of criminal acts, some of which were heart-wrenching cases of brutal rape and murder, have been covered extensively by media all over the world. These have been portrayed as a result of a "cultural" problem of rape, discrimination and violence in India.
However, there is no indication that India and its people suffer from such a "cultural deficiency". Quite to the contrary, all the available studies and indicators show that rape in India is significantly less frequent than in Sweden, Belgium, France, Britain, and many other countries. This, while taking underreporting and other relevant qualifiers into consideration. Even so, the alleged decision by the khap panchayat has outraged many because they see it as a result of India's "rape culture" and the inhumane discrimination practiced by "upper castes". After all, only when it is believed that violence and rape are commonly accepted by a culture would it be deemed plausible to view an alleged sanction of rape by village elders as a deep-rooted cultural problem rather than as a heinous crime. In the words of Nadhim Zahawi:"No culture or religion, no human being with any humanity would condone this." And surely enough, in The Hindu's report of the Supreme Court hearing on the matter, Krishnadas Rajagopal wrote: "The girl's case is considered as a cold-blooded example of the depravity of a caste-ridden society."
This then is the distortion in the reporting about India and in the outrage that follows: the conclusion is pre-determined, propped up by indeterminate facts. What Rajagopal calls "...a cold-blooded example of the depravity of a caste-ridden society" is an alleged crime, currently unproven and contested by everyone involved. But for Rajagopal and his fellow journalists, an allegation does not need to be proven for it to become an example. The death of two cousins in Badaun last year - the "mango tree suicide case", or the "mango tree rape case', as it is referred to by the media - was reported in a similar vein within and outside India. Even reporting about the mistreatment of temple elephants at Guruvayur (an illustration of a superstitious and cruel Hinduism, apparently) trumps the facts, as Prem Panicker argues in his open letter to The Daily Mail. The pattern of the charade is this: All ills and crimes in India, whether factual or fictional, are attributed to Indian culture, its evil social structure, the caste system, and the deep-rooted and all-pervasive patriarchy in Indian society. Then in turn, reports of these events are used as arguments to prove the existence of the evil caste system and all-pervasive patriarchy in India (among other things).
This state of affairs seems to beg for a question: How is it possible that parliamentarians, media persons and "concerned" individuals the world over accept this massive case of circular reasoning? The conclusion of such a circular argument as described above can only be accepted as true, if we accept that its unproven premise is true. With regard to reporting on India, this is what people do. A fictitious idea of India, presupposed as true, forms the basis of the reporting, of the moral outrage, of international petitions and concern over India's "rape culture" and "caste-ridden" society. We have no evidence that this India exists in the world.
However, reporting on the country makes it clear that this India is present in the minds of a majority of people from the West, and of course, in the minds of Westernised Indians. Since the premise - that India is an immoral society based on discrimination and violence - is an integral part of their fictional story and since it is presupposed to be true, they have no need for evidence. Reporters, governments and concerned individuals need not look at the real world for the facts. They simply continue quoting each other as evidence for the image of India they together keep reproducing. Only in this situation is it possible for Amnesty International to amass 5,00,000 signatures for a petition which is not based on even a preliminary enquiry, let alone on a genuine investigation.
This is not to say that there is no possibility that India is a society where discrimination and violence are abundant. Undeniably, there are major problems. Many of these merged as a result of the manner in which the country has been governed. However, unless we rid ourselves of fictions about India, any redressal of its problems is impossible. Instead the creation of more problems is guaranteed.
If India would indeed be a depraved, "caste-ridden", rape-condoning society, then by all means the global community must rise up in indignation and offer helping hands of reform. Before such dust is stirred, however, we would do well to examine this old colonial story that has passed for knowledge. Missing scientific niceties such as proof, consistency and objectivity, it describes an imaginary world that exists in newspapers, libraries, blogs, TV shows, and the minds of certain people, but not in Indian society. However, the consequences of believing and acting on such fictitious "knowledge" are all too real.
(About the writers: Garima Raghuvanshy is a research master's student in religion and culture at Groningen University, The Netherlands.
Marianne Keppens is a researcher at the Research Centre Comparative Science of Cultures, Ghent University, Belgium.
Anil Rao is a student at the faculty of law, Ghent University, Belgium.)