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What ails Western media’s portrayal of India

The problem is that current Western coverage of India is part of deeply entrenched decades, if not centuries, old discourse.

 |  5-minute read |   18-07-2018
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I finally got to see The Post on a flight to the US. This 2017 political, or should I say journalistic thriller, ably directed by Steven Spielberg, tells the heroic saga of how a great American newspaper stood up against the might of the US state and the Nixon White House.

At the heart of the tale is the story of how The Washington Post publisher-owner, Katherine Graham, once considered the most powerful woman in the 20th century, and Ben Bradlee, its executive editor, publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Thus, they live up to the Post slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” still on its masthead.

Gender bender

Graham and Bradlee are brilliantly played by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks respectively. The sub-theme is a gender bender: Graham as a sensitive woman in a man’s world slowly finds the inner strength to stand up for what is right and assert her authority in her own organisation. Bradlee, the spunky and passionate newspaper man, is quite insensitive to his wife, herself a gifted artist, who ends up with her home invaded by reporters and reduced to supplying them food and drink as they work on the biggest breaking story of the year.

It is another matter the subject was already, if not as famously, portrayed in an earlier TV film, The Pentagon Papers (2003), or that the heroism of The Washington Post is in itself somewhat inaccurate and at the expense of The New York Times, which broke the story and began publishing the papers first.

The Pentagon Papers showed how the White House was lying to the American people about the Vietnam War. In pleading their First Amendment rights before the Supreme Court, the two top papers of the nation were struggling to uphold the foundational and fundamental principles of American democracy.

That they won, with a 6-3 ruling in their favour, is the stuff dreams are made of. The film, in a sense, is the prequel to the much bigger Watergate expose that occurred one year later and brought down the Nixon presidency. The heroism of the free press against an authoritarian government had its echoes in India too, in that same decade, as great editors like Arun Shourie of Ramanth Goenka’s Indian Express stood up against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency.

The Post, has an eerie resonance in today’s US when terms such as “truth decay”, “post truth”, not to mention “fake news” and “alternate facts” have entered common parlance. It is ironic, however, that the film celebrates the grittiness of the Graham family, especially how it saved a great American institution, when the family had already sold the paper in 2013 to Jeff Bezos of Amazon for $250 million.

Even under the new ownership, however, great American newspapers continue their skewed “crisis coverage” when it comes to India. Recently, their foreign correspondents have come under fire for egregiously prejudiced and one-sided reporting. So against India’s current ruling dispensation, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they often cast him in the same mould as Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin.

In turn, there’s much teeth-gnashing, if not virtue signalling, when they are mercilessly trolled by right-wing social media warriors. Even when it comes to Indian voices in the Western media, however, the fact remains that the top newspapers seem to only give space to Left-liberal writers.

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Old discourse

The problem is that current Western coverage of India is part of deeply entrenched decades, if not centuries, old discourse. We remain an erotised and exotised “other”, strange, savage, barbarous, and ultimately incomprehensible. To be mocked or condescended to, as in Slumdog Millionaire, a film that won the Oscar sweepstakes, but flopped in India.

We ourselves, those of us who are patronised by Western media houses, play along, with our self-deprecating whiney or overtly self-hating diatribes, bemoaning democracy in danger or peddling some other doom-and-gloom tale.

The most internationally acclaimed of these narratives, Midnight’s Children (1981), was explicitly written as the requiem to India when Mrs Indira Gandhi declared Emergency in 1975. However, like most other India observers, Salman Rushdie, its author, was proven wrong.

Indian democracy, let alone India, did not die. Rushdie had to invent another narrative device, that of Saleem Saini’s adopted son, Aadam, who is exactly three when the novel ends in 1980, thus leaving it to him to tell the story of post-1977 and post-Emergency India.

Dominant narrative

Several years back, when I was a more active reviewer of books, I critiqued May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons (1990) by Elisabeth Bumiller. Then a reporter for The Washington Post and wife of Steven R Weisman, the New York Times bureau chief in India, Bumiller’s boo, from its very title, irritated me.

Sati, bride burning, pre-natal sex-determination, female foeticide, arranged marriages and, of course, Bollywood were part of its shallow and stereotypical wares. It was, predictably, hailed as a boldly illuminating and hard-hitting feminist portrait of Indian womanhood.

Little seems to have really changed since then in the dominant narrative. What has changed, however, quite drastically, is that Indians, once merely meek native informants, now empowered by social media, are actually hitting back, producing counternarratives that are even more visible and powerful. The result? A massive delegitimisation of the dominant. It is not something that is easy to stomach, but hey, the times they are a-changing.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: JEE, NEET twice a year: Who will actually benefit from the decision?

 

Writer

Makarand R Paranjape Makarand R Paranjape @makrandparanspe

The writer is director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The views are personal.

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