Central & South Asia

Memo to NYT: Be Less Imperial, Be More Honest


October 04, 2013 07:21 EDT

Gardiner Harris reports about riots in India with classic imperial prejudice.

In 1953, The New York Times supported the CIA-led coup that ousted Mossadegh in Iran. More recently it acted as a cheerleader when George W. Bush decided to go to war with Iraq. With Gardiner Harris’ article titled “Campaign for Prime Minister in India Gets Off to Violent Start,” the newspaper is upholding its imperial tradition.

In his very first line, Harris asserts that “consequential elections nearly always start here — with a proclamation and a deadly riot.” It is completely untrue that consequential Indian elections start with a riot, leave aside a deadly one. Besides, Harris is being smug, patronizing and condescending here. He is unwittingly adopting the persona of Joseph Conrad’s “civilized white man” commenting on savage dark-skinned natives.

Playing Fast and Loose With Facts

Harris goes on to make a series of false assertions in the article. First, he implies that riots broke out because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s opposition, chose Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate. Riots between Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar began in the last week of August and blew up by September 9, three days before Modi became the prime ministerial candidate.

Further, Harris disingenuously fails to point out that Modi governs Gujarat, a state that forms the westernmost state of India, while riots occurred in Uttar Pradesh (UP), India’s largest state that is about 500 miles or 800 kilometers away from Gujarat. UP is governed by the Samajwadi Party (SP), the junior ally of the Congress Party that governs India and has been in power for most of the post-independence since 1947. He fails to note that, over the last few months, the number of riots has been increasing both nationally and in UP. Of the 479 riots that have taken place in India this year, 93 have occurred in UP.

Second, Harris claims that the riots escalated after “a fake video of two Hindus being lynched by a Muslim mob” was circulated by a legislator from Modi’s party. This is simply one of the many explanations for the escalation of violence. Investigative agencies and intelligence services are beginning to put the pieces together and the picture that is emerging is markedly different to Harris’ claims. Given the evolving situation, his assertions are unwarranted and irresponsible. 

Third, Harris quotes critics who claim that violence benefits the BJP because it gets the Hindus to vote en bloc. This is again a fallacious claim because Hindus are 80 percent of India’s population; if they voted en bloc, the BJP would always be in power. Instead, it is the Nehru family-led Congress party that has largely been in power. The truth is that caste is the basis of voting in India and Hinduism is far too amorphous a religion to lend itself to bloc voting. Muslims do vote en bloc because they feel insecure as a minority and a poor one at that. 

Fourth, Harris asserts that Indian election campaigns are “often fueled by hate and soaked in blood.” This is false. Indian election campaigns involve more patronage and bribery than intimidation and violence. The dynasties that run India maintain cordial relations with each other because they have to forge coalitions to form governments after elections in an increasingly fragmented society. 

Fifth, Harris does a hatchet job on Modi, calling him a “Hindu chauvinist accused of mass murder” who shies away from western media. Modi’s record in the 2002 Gujarat riots is far from exemplary and many hold him personally liable for the unrest. He certainly does shy away from western media and has yet to grant an interview to Fair Observer — despite the fact that his staff has evinced an interest in scheduling an interview with the journal. 

However, other political parties are no different and their record, whether on riots or on access to the media, is no better than Modi’s. Harris fails to mention that Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, the Italian widow who married Nehru’s grandson and her son, rarely give interviews to either Indian or western media. He also fails to highlight their reputation for corruption and nepotism, or refer to their party’s role in conducting a pogrom of the Sikh community in 1984. Harris also fails to recognize that some of the worst riots have taken place under the Nehru family, which often turns a blind eye to such violence if party loyalists are involved.

The record of the Nehru family is worse than Modi when it comes to riots or the use of state violence. Most recently, the Nehru family-led Congress Party is accused of sanctioning extra-constitutional killings of Naxalites, the communists involved in an insurgency against the Indian state. To many, including the reputed columnist Surjit Bhalla, it seems as if the English-speaking media does not apply the same standards to other Indian politicians that it does to Modi. In fact, Harris is perceived to be so biased that one of the authors was asked by an Indian intelligence official whether Harris and The New York Times are in the pay of the Congress Party.

Ignorant Insinuations

There is another bit of disingenuous reporting by Harris. He insinuates that Modi deliberately fails to provide services to Muslim areas of Maninagar. Then he claims that “a similar partition is now taking place in the villages around Muzaffarnagar,” which, as pointed out earlier, is in UP — a state governed not by Modi but his opponent. Yet, Harris insinuates that Modi is somehow responsible for what is going on.

The truth is that Muslims in India tend to be poor and are likely to live in dilapidated ghettos. The reasons for this phenomenon are complex. Most Muslims in India were low caste Hindus who converted to Islam during the days of Turkish or Mughal rule. The educated Muslim middle-class emigrated to Pakistan in 1947 when India was indeed “partitioned” by the callous stroke of Cecil Radcliffe’s pen, a man who had never visited the country before and who burnt all his papers when he returned to the UK.

This robbed the Muslim community of moderate forward-looking leadership and left it in the hands of mullahs. The Indian state failed to invest in basic education or vocational training and this left Muslims caught in the poverty trap, with growing families and few opportunities of productive employment. The Muslims are particularly poor in UP, India’s largest state, because its economy has been stagnating for over two decades. Holding Modi responsible for the poor state of Muslim neighborhoods in Muzaffarnagar, is like blaming the governor of California for incidents in the south side of Chicago.

Identity Politics in India

Identity politics have long been the staple diet of Indian politics. Soon after independence, the Congress Party forged a Brahmin, Dalit and Muslim coalition by targeting these three communities. The SP won because of bloc voting by the so-called “backward castes,” especially the Yadavs and the Muslims.

Both the Congress and the SP are competing for the Muslim vote and have been competing with each other to win over the mullahs. Both queue up, along with others, before Imam Bukhari, the scion of an old clerical family that goes back to the days of the Mughals, to seek his fatwa commanding Muslims to vote for their respective parties. The Congress sold Muslim women down the river by amending the constitution to deny them alimony. This amendment overruled a Supreme Court decision that could have been a starting point for the emancipation of Muslim women.

Harris is probably unaware that India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses — it beat Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini to the punch. There is a separate civil code for Muslims, under which Muslim men have the right to have four wives and divorce them as and when they please. Furthermore, Saudi money has long been flowing into the country, and into UP in particular, radicalizing the Muslim youth while moderate Muslims are ignored by all political parties.  The Darul Uloom seminary in Deoband, the district next to Muzaffarnagar, has become the fatwa capital of the world. The seminary propagates an extremist form of Islam, issuing medieval-era fatwas that incite violence.

Akhilesh Yadav, the man who governs UP, has appointed hardline Muslims like Azam Khan as ministers. Members of the police in UP have been caught on camera narrating how Khan has been pressuring them to slow down their investigations on Muslim rioters. It is curious that Harris is not holding Yadav responsible for what happened in his state and is blaming Modi instead. This puts into question the very credibility of the New York Times.

Patrician Prejudice

Why do the likes of Harris despise Modi? Prima facie he should be popular in the US. He follows market-friendly policies, has a reputation for efficiency, and is popular with much of the Indian Diaspora. Yet, to the East Coast elite, Modi is strange, unfamiliar and discordant. He represents the India of the small towns that is neither fluent in English, nor conversant with western social mores.

The British ruled India through a comprador class that inherited power when they left. Thanks to both indoctrination and patronage, this class is left-wing and, in an earlier era, favored the Soviets over the Americans. Yet, it gives the appearance of being westernized and has written the Indian narrative for its monolingual American audience.

This bias is compounded by the terrible state of foreign reporting on India. Foreign correspondents fail to reflect the complexity and diversity of India, with its hundreds of languages and multiple scripts. Monolingual foreign correspondents in India are frequently seduced by hospitable English-speaking hosts who pour Scotch into their glasses at five-star hotels or imperial era clubs. Trapped in their bubble more so than the past because of incessant deadlines, fellow expatriates and familiar local elites — people like Harris — are increasingly doing a terrible job. They regurgitate the arguments of the Delhi elite against the likes of Modi, but fail to focus on the sins of the ruling class whether it is nepotism, identity politics or intimidation.

Modi has his flaws and needs to be hauled over the coals because he is running for office. However, he should not be subjected to character assassination based on innuendos and untruth. It is also unacceptable that Harris and his newspaper do not subject India’s ruling family and other political parties to critical inquiry. The New York Times is too often wrong on the facts, smug in its assumptions, and ignorant about India’s past. India deserves better and so do the readers of The New York Times.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. 

Image: Copyright ©    Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved 


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