Why Western media loves to write India’s obituaries but goes soft on autocratic China

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A few months back, The New York Times had posted an online advertisement for the job of a South Asia Business Correspondent based in New Delhi. One of the requirements sought for the position surprised even those well versed with the character of the American newspaper. For, the NYT very categorically wanted the candidate to be critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his “muscular nationalism”.

Justifying the requirements, the NYT wrote: “India’s future now stands at a crossroads. Mr (Narendra) Modi is advocating a self-sufficient, muscular nationalism centred on the country’s Hindu majority. That vision puts him at odds with the interfaith, multicultural goals of modern India’s founders. The government’s growing efforts to police online speech and media discourse have raised difficult questions about balancing issues of security and privacy with free speech. Technology is both a help and a hindrance.”

Interestingly, the NYT didn’t have any such preconditions for postings in Hong Kong or in mainland China. It never asks only those in favour of pro-democratic protests to apply in Hong Kong, or those opposed to Emperor Xi Jinping to try for a posting in Beijing.

There have been occasions in the past too where one thought the NYT could have acted with more discretion. But never has been the cat out of the bag so openly. This despite the fact that its distrust for the current Indian dispensation is hardly a surprise. So much so that one would invariably find the mention of Prime Minister Modi with the added adjectives before and after, reminding the readers that he was a “Hindu supremacist” leading a majoritarian government! Ironically, China’s Xi or Pakistan’s generals are rarely judged with such puritanical democratic parameters.

But why just cherry-pick the NYT? Others are equally at fault in their projection of India and its governments, especially those not of their likings. Just look at Time magazine’s annual list of ‘100 Most Influential People 2020’. Five Indians who found space were Prime Minister Modi, actor Ayushmann Khurrana, Bilkis Bano (the projected face of the Shaheen Bagh protest), Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and clinical microbiology professor Ravindra Gupta. Interestingly, over 90 percent of Indians would have no clue about Bilkis Bano, who she was. But who cares till the time the Time magazine editors are impressed?

Interestingly, the same Time magazine accused Prime Minister Modi of bringing “into doubt” what the Dalai Lama would often laud India of — “as an example of harmony and stability”. Its editor, Karl Vick, wrote: “Though almost all of India’s Prime Ministers have come from the nearly 80 per cent of the population that is Hindu, only Modi has governed as if no one else matters. First elected on a populist promise of empowerment, his Hindu-­nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party rejected not only elitism but also pluralism, specifically targeting India’s Muslims. The crucible of the pandemic became a pretense for stifling dissent. And the world’s most vibrant democracy fell deeper into shadow.”

Specifically targeting India’s Muslims… stifling dissent… the world’s most vibrant democracy fell deeper into shadow… Damning words, indeed! But based on what? Assumptions! Sheer assumptions! The same magazine, on its cover page printed during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, called Prime Minister Modi “India’s Divider in Chief”!

The Economist is not behind, either. In its 23 January 2020 edition, it reproached Prime Minister Modi for stoking “divisions in the world’s biggest democracy”. It goes on to say that the “electoral nectar for the BJP” has become “political poison for India”. It singles out the Modi government for “flagrantly biased approach to citizenship” and delivering “collective punishment” for the people of the Kashmir Valley.

One can gauge the mind of its editors when soon after a dastardly attack on a CRPF convoy in Pulwama in 2019, the Economist cover headline screamed: ‘Modi’s dangerous moment’; the headline of the lead article inside was a clincher: ‘India and Pakistan should stop playing with fire’. So, here was a magazine exhorting in its highly moralistic tone to the Indians who lost 40 of their bravehearts to a terrorist attack, organised and orchestrated with Pakistani help, to “stop playing with fire”. Really!

The same moralistic, overbearing tone can be found in the articles of The Guardian and the Washington Post, which, like NYT, have become a melting pot of activists like Arundhati Roy and Rana Ayyub who are projected as India experts! Roy can at least claim to be an accidental, one-novel wonder who was plain lucky to get a Booker, especially in presence of vastly superior Jim Crace’s Quarantine and Tim Parks’ Europa. But in which non-dystopian world do we accord an accidental novelist the right to become an expert of the country? As for Ayyub, she isn’t even an accidental novelist. Her claim to fame is a book on the 2002 post-Godhra Gujarat violence whose claims have been rejected by none other than India’s highest court!

Amid all this comes a new book — Ashley Rindsberg’s The Gray Lady Winked — whose “revelations” threaten to puncture the leftover hallowed image of the NYT. Rindsberg writes, “The paper (NYT) that, for over four years, feverishly likened Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler was unabashedly pro-Hitler in the Thirties, serving as a sturdy fount of Dr Goebbels’s propaganda (“reporting,” just as his newspapers did, that Poland invaded Germany on 1 September 1939). The paper that, for 20 years, has made Vladimir Putin out to be a second Stalin was unabashedly pro-Stalin in its coverage of the famine in Ukraine (there wasn’t one, according to the Times) and the show trials (legitimate, according to the Times). And the paper that persistently envisions an imaginary Holocaust in Syria blacked out the real one at the time, having carefully downplayed the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews from 1933.”

The book provides several pieces of evidence to show that the NYT indeed turned history upside down when it accused Poland of starting World War II by invading Germany! It happened, says the author, because the famed reporters of the American newspaper chose to rely on manufactured news supplied by Goebbels’ men! The book also accuses the newspaper of being soft on Hitler, claiming in 1924 that he “was no longer to be feared” and that “he will retire to private life and return to Austria, the country of his birth”.

As we know, history unveiled itself in a much different, violent way. Hitler didn’t return to private life or to Austria, and instead engineered one of the worst genocides in world history that could only be outclassed by the exploits of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin.

But did the NYT downplay Hitler’s Holocaust? Did it ever censure out the name “Jew” while reporting the incident? Rindsberg thinks so. “In the six years of the war, The New York Times printed Holocaust-related stories on its front page exactly six times. Never once in the more than 18,000 Times issues during the war was a Holocaust story a lead article for the day. And, accordingly, never once has The New York Times officially apologised for the way that it covered — or did not cover — the Holocaust,” he writes. And when it did mention the Holocaust, the report was found buried in the corners of the inside pages.

A cursory look would make one believe that the malaise is the result of two factors. One, the Western media still seems to be suffering from the white supremacist syndrome, finding it hard to swallow India’s democratic success story — a country they had predicted would disintegrate in no time and in contrast had put more faith in moth-eaten Pakistan! One just needs to see the kind of obituaries written by Western journalists and commentators soon after Independence and Partition or after the death of Jawaharlal Nehru. The overwhelming discourse was: British gone, what now? After Nehru, who? As if India was the artificial construct brought together by the British, Nehru, et al! India has not just survived, but also thrived. Unfortunately, India baiters have thrived too!

And this brings us to the second factor: That US media outlets have been parked with dirty dollars from China! As per media reports in July this year, citing disclosures made by the US justice department, Chinese state-run newspaper China Daily paid millions of dollars to American publications led by Time magazine, The Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesFinancial TimesForeign Policy, and Los Angeles Times. How can a dog bite the hands that feed it?

So, is it any surprise that the Western media, which chose Hitler and Stalin over others, prefers an autocratic Xi Jinping over a democratically-elected Narendra Modi? It manufactures goodness in the Taliban and sees virtues in Pakistan while writing obituaries on India and its democratically elected government. To its fortune, it just managed to get away with such historic blunders, thanks to its powerful friends, promoters and ideological supporters. Also, the deep Indian coloniality still makes us look Westward for guidance and above all, legitimacy.

In 1965, Nirad C Chaudhuri, in his book Continent of Circe, blamed Indian writers for seeing “their country and society in the way Englishmen and Americans do and write about India in the jargon of the same masters”. More than 40 years later, very little seems to have changed. And till the time we stop giving them undue importance, they will keep demanding servility from us. They are still relics of the past… colonial past. Let’s just treat them like that!

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Why Western media loves to write India’s obituaries but goes soft on autocratic China
Why Western media loves to write India’s obituaries but goes soft on autocratic China
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