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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Is the New York Times Bigoted in its Attitude Towards India?


Is the New York Times Bigoted in its Attitude Towards India?

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 27th October 2011

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

Please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com for more articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar

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I don’t think I would have ever believed it if someone told me 10 years ago that I would be writing an article with this title.  Indeed, at that time I was living in the USA and used to read the New York Times regularly on the web.

But at that time my main concern, living as I was in the US, was with American politics and news, and some world news, often of the Middle-eastern variety.  I was not very much in touch with Indian news and did not particularly seek out news on India by western media outlets.  I was content to know what I could through conversations with family members in India.

But now I live in India, know what is happening in India, and am in touch with my Indian friends living in the land of the free and the home of the brave – and now is when I realize that many of them get their news of what is happening in India through American news outlets like the NYT.

On the face of it, this is very good to know, as the NYT has a great reputation as one of the top newspapers in the world with very strong journalistic traditions and organizational ethics.  That is probably still true for most of the news that comes in the NYT.

But, I am sad to say, the newspaper has a strong anti-India bias.  The strong journalistic traditions, attention to detail and accuracy, and ethics that I had come to expect of the NYT have been sorely lacking in the matter of news and commentary about India.  The newspaper facilitates this mostly by encouraging and promoting op-ed columnists with an India-bashing mentality who write poorly-researched stories that achieve only the purpose of projecting their own bigoted thinking. 

Personally, I could just ignore all this as specious nonsense, but I find that many Indians, without the benefit of personal experience, tend to take all this at face value, trusting in the journalistic excellence of the newspaper and believing that, if the NYT approves a piece, it would have passed certain basic checks.  This is unfortunately untrue, as I will show in the rest of this article.

Let us see some examples of what I have said above.  Taken individually, one can think of each of these pieces as simply an exception of some journalist or writer expressing some extreme viewpoint of his.  But taken together, they show a pattern of concerted India-baiting that is malevolent in the extreme.  You will understand this when I show you some of the examples of the writing from these articles.  No editor in his right mind can ignore such stuff unless it is deliberate.  If a newspaper promotes and celebrates bigoted authors repeatedly, it stands to reason that the newspaper has a bigoted viewpoint and cannot blame it on individual contributors – especially when there is nothing on the other side to balance things!

Sumedh Mungee’s Blog “Why I Left India - Again”

This article came to my attention through a friend who posted it on his facebook page.  It is ostensibly the true story of an Indian who spent 10 years in the US after leaving India for higher studies and then decided to try to make it in India, having been enamoured by the India projected by Thomas Friedman in his writings and books.  Apparently, this person found that he could not tolerate the India he was seeing, particularly, “what he was turning into” and, three years after his move to India, decided to move back.  The implied statement made was that India was turning him into a nasty person, so he decided to go back.


What’s Wrong?

Now, there are many things that are horribly wrong with this article.  There is nothing wrong in the author describing his experiences in India.  What are wrong are the conclusions he comes to, which are sweeping generalizations about Indians.  I do not fault NYT for allowing Mr. Mungee to express his experiences; but when sweeping, bigoted generalizations are printed as though they are gospel, I find it very disturbing indeed.  The net effect on the person who does not know the reality in India is to make him or her carry a very negative, untrue impression of the country and its people.

They Got It From the Maid!

Let’s take some examples.  First, the author says that three months after their return, a friend told him that his two children got sick with amoebiasis – and they thought they got it from their maids – and so our author decided to have a separate set of dinnerware for his maid because he thought it was more hygienic???  Is there even any logic in this? 

First off, how do you get amoebiasis?  Through unclean food or water.  If dishes are not properly washed, you are going to get sick, whether you ate in them or you maid did.  So, if there is a problem, you would do better to see how well your maid is washing the dishes.  Having her eat in different plates is not going to solve the problem. 

The author’s response is actually more indicative of deep-seated caste biases in the author’s mind – the kind that makes you think that people can transmit diseases to you by just being in contact with you – and is symptomatic of the worst social disease in India, namely untouchability.  Clearly, being in the US for 10 years has not really transformed our friend.  But rather than acknowledge that he is a nasty person, what does he do?  He claims that India made him an ogre.

They’re All Liars

The author goes on to say that he refused an emergency loan to his driver of just Rs. 500 because his previous driver scammed him into giving him money for a broken leg of a son who did not even exist.  So one person cheated our friend and he assumes - get this - that “they are all liars.”  What this incident serves to show, more than anything, is the fixed notion in the author’s mind that poor people are essentially dishonest.  He has one bad experience and what does he do?  He stereotypes an entire class of people (numerically the largest economic class in India).  

Also, going by the general information supplied in the article, this chap was probably very very well off in India.  He probably would not mind spending Rs. 5000 on a dinner for two at the Taj.  But he had to think so hard to give his driver Rs. 500 for an emergency loan.  So what if the driver were to cheat him?  What is the loss to him?  What this incident reveals more than anything is the ugliness in the author’s mind.

Shouting at the Poor Hawker

The author further goes on to talk about an incident where he flew into a rage against a poor hawker for blocking his car.  Let me ask him, would he fly into a rage at any person in the US for blocking his car?  Why does he feel he can do this in India?  And what is India’s fault in his behaviour?  Is it just that “everyone else is doing it”?  If that is the excuse, it is a poor one.  Does he not have a brain?  If anything, since the American system forces you to be polite in situations such as these (if you blared your horn at a pedestrian crossing the street, and a cop saw you, he’d probably ticket you), you would expect Mr. Mungee to show more politeness and restraint than his Indian counterparts, but clearly ten years of living in the US has not left any mark on him.

Look Inside You

The problem in this entire story is not India; it is Mr. Mungee.  What he is essentially saying is that because others behave badly in India, his natural tendencies to behave badly, his innate class-based boorishness, and his deep-rooted caste biases, all come to the fore, whereas in the US, such behaviour would not be tolerated.  He has no inner compass to tell him what is right or wrong; his only way to act is based on how others act around him.  His years spent in the US have not taught him, for example, that all people are equal; they have only taught him that he must not speak insultingly to poor Americans or else others may pull him up.  He has never examined why they do things differently in the US; he has just followed behaviours because they are fashionable. In the same way, it is fashionable among many rich people in India to display their caste and class biases, to scream at poor people, and to show no respect for the innate worth of people but only to fawn at their external appurtenances. 

So, of course, he comes to India as a rich person with a high position, and he behaves in the worst possible way, the way that many (not all) rich people behave in India.  He should remember Cassius’ famous admonishment to Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, in not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Why Was This Article Allowed?

I could go on, but I think you see my point.  Any editor with a conscience would see this article as a vituperative rant against India, couched in a “poor me” sort of way, and promptly have said that this kind of smear attack on an entire people is not appropriate for a newspaper of the NYT’s standing, but NYT chose not to.  If I were the NYT’s editor, even if I were to allow the publication of this article, I would have required changes in it that made it clear that it is not that India forces you to be this way.  You can be different and make a difference. 

I do not object to the widespread caste and class based discrimination being portrayed – there is a lot of caste and class discrimination in India, and I don’t have a problem with free speech.  But to have malicious speech, to imply that India forces you to be mean, is wrong.  The fact that NYT publishes such articles without editing or commentary is very disturbing indeed and says something about the newspaper’s intentions.

The Strange Writings of Manu Joseph

Manu Joseph writes regularly for the NYT and the International Herald Tribune.  All of his articles have some common characteristics: they are loaded with sarcasm, are poorly researched, are full of broad generalizations that break down under even the slightest investigation, and are full of invective against India.  Mr. Joseph is unable to see a single good thing in India.  Let me analyze one of his articles here.

Attack on Anna Hazare – an Unbalanced, One-Sided Perspective

Mr. Joseph’s recent article on the current problems faced by the anti-corruption movement headed by Mr. Anna Hazare,


highlights all of these characteristics.

The article has no balance and consistently presents a one-sided view of the issue.  For one, it does not acknowledge the ground-breaking and popular nature of the protest against corruption.  Never have Indians stood up as one to protest against corruption before, and this article neatly ignores all that.
 
It also ignores the well-known truth that any Indian living in India knows – that corruption is forced upon most Indians, especially poor Indians, in every government office by officials demanding bribes for the simplest of things, such as a ration card for needy people to get subsidized food.  Instead, a glib statement such as “India’s favourite hypothesis – that it is India’s politicians who have created a corrupt society, not the other way around” is casually slipped in to be taken as truth by unsuspecting readers.  Indians who live in India are fully aware of how hard the political class works to preserve and increase mechanisms to help them earn money through graft.

Unprofessional Statements

The article is also short on professionalism and makes statements like “One of the most important people who has Mr. Hazare’s ancient ear is Kiran Bedi, a serious woman with short hair combed sideways and clever eyes full of meaning.”  What kind of nonsensical language is this from a journalist?  Which professional writer talks about people, even people he doesn’t like, with completely subjective and pointless statements like “clever eyes full of meaning”?  What does that even mean?  What is the relevance of the “short hair” to the article?  I don’t expect such an article to pass muster at the editor’s desk at the NYT, but clearly they did not care.

No Attention to the Facts Relating to the Principals

If you actually believed what Mr. Joseph has said here, you would conclude that the entire anti-corruption movement was a farce perpetrated upon the people by unprincipled people. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Joseph does not seem to want to acknowledge the real sacrifices Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal, Prashant Bhushan, etc., have made in their careers and how hard they have worked for a better India, for reasons only he knows. 

Just look their names up on wikipedia. For instance, Mr. Kejriwal is one of the prime architects of the right to information (RTI) act, which has done more than anything in the last 30 years to improve transparency in government.  Mrs. Bedi has a track record of achievement and service that most cannot dream of.   They did not become leaders of the anti-corruption movement by accident.  They were chosen by Kejriwal and Anna to be part of the movement because of outstanding records as upstanding citizens.

Overstating the Problems

Let us look at the specific allegations Mr. Joseph talks about. Yes, Kiran Bedi made a mistake. Period. She also made a mistake when she tried to justify it. That does not discredit everything else she has done for the good of society for 40 yrs. 

Bhushan's comments on Kashmir have nothing to do with the anti-corruption movement. Mr. Joseph misleadingly compares Anna's reluctance about a plebiscite in Kashmir to his desire to have a plebiscite on the Jan Lokpal bill. Most Indians, not just Anna, do not want a plebiscite on Kashmir because the entire Hindu population of Kashmir has been driven out by terror and the valley is infiltrated by terrorists. Even the Indian government does not want a plebiscite in Kashmir for the same reason.  The two issues are very different.
 
So, does saying no to a plebiscite in Kashmir and saying yes to a plebiscite on Jan Lokpal make Anna two-faced?  Only if you are concerned only with superficialities and do not want to consider the issues carefully.  But then, for Mr. Joseph, mud-slinging is the objective, not careful analysis.

To mention Swami Agnivesh’s allegations in his article, while acknowledging at the same time that "he hasn't provided any clinching evidence," is simply mischievous and innuendo.  If “he hasn’t provided any clinching evidence,” why should Mr. Joseph mention it?  Because his purpose is not journalism, but mud-slinging.

If Mr. Joseph had tried to say that Team Anna was having some problems, that would be legitimate.  It is true that Team Anna is having some problems, and a genuine and serious discussion on that would be very welcome.  But this is not a genuine and serious discussion - it is based on innuendo and mud-slinging.  Mr. Joseph is on a mission to smear the credibility of Team Anna and destroy them, as his last paragraph clearly shows: “The eventual destruction of the anti-corruption movement would not be such a calamitious development.”

Corruption is Not a Serious Problem???

Also, at the end of his article, Mr. Joseph flippantly states that “Corruption is not the most serious problem in India, as the middle class makes it out to be. For one thing, it has killed fewer Indians than conflicts over religion and associated ideologies.
 
This is a worthless and inaccurate statement.  For one, you do not judge a problem solely by how many people it has killed.  The loss and deterioration of quality of life due to having to deal with corruption on a daily basis are tremendous.
 
Secondly, corruption HAS probably killed more people than religion in India, by denying basic facilities to people, such as clean water, clean air, clean and nutritious food, housing, basic medical care, by the creation of substandard infrastructure in roads, bridges, vehicles, and railways, leading to road and rail accidents.  Countless children have died during childbirth in India because hospitals are so poorly equipped with even the basics.  So many children die in India because of malnourishment, because the funds allocated for them are diverted by corrupt politicians to their pockets.  Hundreds of people die each year because of entirely preventable railway accidents, because the money earmarked for upgradation of railways never reaches the intended use.  I could go on and on.  So, no, Mr. Joseph, corruption IS a very serious problem.  And it kills more people than religion.

Glib Generalizations, Dismissive and Sarcastic Statements

If there is one constant in Mr. Joseph’s articles, it is the use of glib generalizations in the most dismissive and sarcastic way, without any regard for the underlying truths of the matters he writes about.  If this were the first article by Mr. Joseph and the editorial board at the NYT did not know this, they could be forgiven, as you don’t expect them to verify every detail of what their articles contain for veracity. 

But Mr. Joseph has been doing this consistently, and people have written extensively about his bias and inaccuracy.  I point to a very cogent, well-argued article against another of Mr. Joseph’s articles here:


Other Examples from the NYT’s India Ink Website

There are many other examples one can cite.  Some are very subtle in their put-downs, but the put-downs are there nonetheless. 

The Article on Indian Sweets

An example is this article on food, an innocuous topic – what could be controversial in that?


On the surface of this, this is an interesting article about a person who is blending Indian and western sweet-making ideas, and I welcome both the article and the idea that the confectioner thought of.  But here is what bothers me.  

Look at the very first line of this article:
“Indian mithai, or sweets, have never been on the top of my must-eat list: the overly sugary taste of ladoos and burfis, often made with ingredients of suspect quality, do little for me.

Firstly, if a truly representative Indian is writing this, they would not think that the sweets were “overly sugary,” although I am aware from my interaction with my American friends that many Americans might find Indian sweets so.  But this article is supposed to be written by an Indian, and an Indian expert on sweets.  So such comments do not make sense.

But a bigger problem is the last phrase: “often made with ingredients of suspect quality.”  On what basis does Shivani Vora make this statement?  Does she have a shred of evidence to back this up, or is this just a free-for-all session of India-bashing? 

I personally know of many sweet shops in India.  I have lived in Mumbai, Pune, and Bangalore, and have spent time in Chennai and visited Kolkata, and I can vouch both for the taste and quality of the sweets that many of these fine shops make.  I know for a fact that the owners of many of these establishments take pride in the purity of the ingredients they use.  Would Ms. Vora dare to make such statements if there was a genuine fear that these establishments were to take legal action against the NYT for besmirching their fair reputations?
 
It is bad enough that she made a statement like this.  But how did an editor not catch this?  If I were an editor and I saw a baseless statement like this that could expose me to legal action, I would promptly delete it.  What does this say about the attitude of the NYT?

The Mumbai Blackout

Here’s another example: an article on a recent, unexpected, unusual, blackout in Mumbai, caused by a fire in an electrical substation:


For the most part, the article is fine, as it details the problems residents of South Mumbai had when an electrical fire caused a 35 hour blackout in that area, of which the article itself says, “But, unlike in the rest of India, where anybody who can afford a generator has one, many businesses and residents in Mumbai do not keep one at hand. Maharashtra state, where Mumbai is located, ensures the city gets an uninterrupted supply of electricity, even as other parts of the state go without power for long stretches of the day.

Huh??  Where did that leap of logic come from?  You have an infrastructure problem if things break down frequently.  By the author’s own admission, this doesn’t happen.  It hasn’t even happened twice in a row in a short period of time.  How, then, does the author conclude that this incident proves that Mumbai’s infrastructure is inadequate? 

Don’t things every break down in other parts of the world?  In 2003, the entire north-east of the US and Canada suffered a blackout (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003).  Should we infer that the infrastructure of the US “does not match its global ambitions”?

You don’t need to be an expert in Indian affairs to understand that as an editor.  A good editing job should have immediately caught the faulty conclusion and changed it; yet the NYT couldn’t be bothered to correct this.

Conclusion


Taken individually, each of these is an incident that one could conceivably ignore as an oversight by an editor or an overreaction by an author; taken together, it points to a malevolent anti-India attitude, where anyone and anything that projects India and Indians as inadequate, struggling, incompetent, and unethical is encouraged and nothing on the other side of the scale is presented.

So the next time you read a New York Times article on India, beware!  There may be more to it than meets the eye!

3 comments:

  1. India Ink responded to my post by saying:

    And finally, some felt that by printing the essay, the New York Times showed an anti-Indian bias. The newspaper is “encouraging and promoting op-ed columnists with an India-bashing mentality,” one blogger wrote. (For the record, we here at India Ink love India. That’s why we’re here).

    I would like to clarify here why I felt compelled to write what I did in my blog; that will also answer the other question many have been asking: why has this post elicited so many responses?

    The answers to both questions lie in the intent of the article. To make that clear, let me paraphrase the essay Mr. Mungee wrote and then ask of the editors in the NYT if those who “love India” would want to print such an essay:

    “Pureheart, a noble Indian American, having cleansed himself of the sin of being born in India by 11 years of enlightened living in the US of A, decides to give the land of his birth another chance. He tries his best to live as a decent human being, but the atmosphere around him is so vile and vitiated that, try as he might, he cannot rise above the filth of his surroundings, and gradually finds himself getting sucked into the same morass. Unable to bear this deterioration of his pure self, he decides to go back to his newfound, noble home.”

    The moral of the above story that will seem obvious to anyone who doesn’t know much about India, is that it is IMPOSSIBLE for one to be a decent person in India. After all, even Pureheart found himself transformed by the corrosive environment in India, despite his best efforts; so why speak about mortals?

    This is a tale of hopelessness. The problem with the story is not just that it says the atmosphere is singularly vile, but that it is so vile as to be beyond redemption – it is a place where NO DECENT PERSON CAN HOPE TO SURVIVE.

    Can you say that about any country? NO.

    Do you understand now why I think the NYT has an India-bashing agenda? And why more than 350 people took offense?

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have already responded to Mr. Mungee's article in my article above, and also on NYT's India Ink website, but after seeing the 375 or so comments I was prompted to respond again, more to the comments than to the article itself.

    Firstly, what is the central thesis of the writer?

    He saw a lot of bad attitudes in India, and he felt that he, too was beginning to behave in this fashion. He did not like becoming this nasty person, so he left.

    When I was 10, I would sometimes do something that my father or mother would not condone, and when they asked me why I did so, I'd say, "because Raju next door also did the same thing." And then they'd ask me, "Oh, if Raju were to jump off the top of a building, then you would do that, too?"

    I think I learned my lesson at age 10. Mr. Mungee still has not.

    Now, many people who are rushing to defend the author are saying stuff like, "Indians are being hypersensitive - they cannot take criticism of India and Indians."

    They have it wrong. I was among those who criticized the author - but not because I objected to the portrayal of Indians. I know there are a lot of Indians who are very class-conscious, caste-conscious, you name it, and that irritates me, too. I only object to the thesis that because there are such people, you HAVE NO CHOICE but to become like them!

    Grow up! At this age, with all this education, you cannot complain about having a herd mentality. As an ADULT, you have a choice in how you react.

    Some also said, "why do you ask him to change the scenario in India? Treat him as a consumer."

    No one is asking Mr. Mungee to change India. It would be enough if he could be a little less intellectually lazy and just change the way HE deals with the situation – be nice to his chauffeur, maids, not yell at the hawker, etc. - and not just imitate what he sees around him.

    Saying all this is NOT castigating the author, and it is not being hypersensitive.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Love how wonderfully every word is written with proper balance.Joseph Hayon

    ReplyDelete