How Western media’s contemporary narrative about India was seeded


The history of the Western media’s reportage on India is concomitant with the history of the British colonisation of India. Before the advent and growth of newspapers as a separate industry and journalism as an independent profession, Europe’s knowledge about India emanated from travelogues, missionary accounts, trading reports, and bureaucratic and military writings. The common theme that stands out in all this gigantic body of literature spread roughly over five hundred years is the sheer amount of detail covering even the size and colours of say, leaves, flowers, barks, shrubs and trees.

This observatory detail naturally extended even to Indians as a people, and the common theme in this zone was a uniform contempt for the manners, customs, and religion of the Hindoos. The contempt had its roots in the innate Christian bigotry against the heathens. This element becomes clearer when we observe their writings about Indian Muslims who then formed the ruling class in large parts of north India. For example, in the accounts of the early Portuguese, Dutch, French and British visitors, we notice a sense of easy familiarity with which they understand the scriptural origins of the festivals, customs and beliefs of Indian Muslims. In direct contrast, we notice how incredibly they struggle to grasp even a basic understanding of the Hindu side, and how they brand it variously as black magic, superstition, and evil. This branding encompasses everything — our sacred literature, temples, sculptures, etiquette, food, dress, charity, education, entertainment, relationships… in short, the entire gamut of Hindu culture and society.

Thus, by the time the British had gobbled up all of India, Europeans had been fattened on a diet of this spurious grade for three hundred years. In other words, a thoroughly warped narrative about India had been set and propagated on a continental scale. But the most breathtaking feature of this narrative is the fact that even the so-called educated Europeans back in their home countries uncritically swallowed this narrative. In fact, on a subliminal plane, it is this battle that Hindus today are subconsciously fighting. The sad part is that they have been unable to grasp the true roots and contours of this battle.

And it is this narrative that formed the basis for the British to justify their oppression of India, to put it mildly. It is not a coincidence that something called “Indology” flourished as a separate academic department across the globe. It is significant to recall that this discipline did not exist before the 19th century. Indeed, in the non-science realms, perhaps only Indology was financed on such a fabulous scale, and the source of that finance was the money heartlessly looted from India itself. Plunder India to “study” India to further plunder and oppress it more effectively. A self-fulfilling formula, a vicious circle that completed itself.

 The Reality of Indology

The substance of this history of European narrative-building about India is clear to us today: Indology has wildly succeeded in its foundational purpose of giving the Hindu civilisation and culture a rotten name. It is also not a coincidence that Indology departments in the West began to die a slow death after the British left. By 1947, there was not much left to loot, plus the cultural destruction and societal emasculation of the Hindus had been pretty much thorough. Colonised and self-loathing Hindus would continue the unfinished business of finishing India off. Indeed, sans the British-induced cultural alienation, it is doubtful whether a class of Hindus — the Communists, would have actively campaigned in favour of the Muslim demand for a separate Islamic homeland. Remember that a whopping majority of these Communists were Brahmins who hailed from the “university educated” section of the Hindu society.

However, there are other dimensions to this.

The biased and colonial narrative about India that was eventually concretised and formalised as Indology is a mixture imbued with these traits: (1) Piratical (2) Mercantile (3) Missionary (4) Military (5) Imperial (6) Racist. Pretty much in that order although there are overlaps. For example, unimpeded imperial success bred confidence to propagate unapologetic racism.

Thus, by the time the British press condescended to report on India, which was now a “subject race,” a long lineage of its preceding generations had already been weaned on the poisoned milk of this colonial narrative. The question is more relevant today, than ever before: when you are unambiguously convinced that someone is inferior, what honesty or integrity will your writing about the subject reflect?

In the benighted case of India, this situation was made even tougher because Indians had no voice, in a manner of speaking. The story of the origins of the printing press illustrates this in a rather grim and intriguing fashion. It begins in the reign of Minto, Governor-General of India from 1807-13, around the same time that Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States (1801-09). In the form of an unusual request from an unlikely source.

The Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Akbar Ali Khan was curious to witness the practical applications of the wonders that science and technology had created in Europe. The British Resident, Captain Sydenham, flattered by the Nizam’s interest, readily agreed to his request. Accordingly, three machines were shipped to Hyderabad: an air pump, a model warship, and a printing press.

But when the British government read Sydenham’s report on these procurements, its immediate response was nervous imperial fury: a dangerous weapon like the printing machine falling into the hands of the Indians would have perilous consequences for the Empire. Above all, it would provoke rebellious tendencies as it had done in Europe. Sydenham had to go to great lengths to reassure his masters that no such thing would happen.

However, once introduced, the change became irreversible. The printing press stayed put, and Indian journalism became its most prominent offshoot. It must be remembered that a majority of our freedom fighters and nationalists were also journalists and editors and had cultivated the habit of regularly writing columns and articles and essays. It was also a regime of tight censorship. Thus, we had a situation where British newspapers — which had wide circulation in India as well — were free to spew racist venom against India to a global audience without consequences but rebuttals and honest portraits of India by Indians were denied an audience.

The same era was also witness to the Modern Indian Renaissance, a golden epoch of recent vintage that has regrettably not been studied with the gravitas it merits. The eminence and tragedy of this phenomenon is seen in a pronounced fashion in the postcolonial narratives about India coming from the West. Indeed, it is incredible to note that among the hundreds of stalwarts that the Modern Indian Renaissance produced, the West has condescended to highlight only one eminent Indian: Mohandas Gandhi. And Nawab Nehru, to an extent. The reason is understandable because only Gandhi conforms to the West’s pet biases about India. Above all, Gandhi is harmless and… safe, and allows Europe to sleep at night with a guiltless conscience. This duplicity becomes more emphatic when we observe the fact that Gandhi was primarily a political figure who dabbled in areas he was thoroughly incompetent and ill-informed to meddle in.

Indeed, Gandhi is the litmus test of the West’s duplicity. Consider literature for example. How many names of eminent Indian litterateurs does an average “educated” American, or European know? Valmiki? Vyasa? Kalidasa? Bhavabhuti? Banabhatta? Or contemporary names like Acharya Chatursen Shastri, Subramania Bharati, Vishwanatha Satyanarayana, Narendra Kohli, SL Bhyrappa? Remember, this sacred land produced such titans by the dozen every two generations or so, continuously for centuries.

Philosophy, apart from literature, is another realm for this litmus test. It begins with the same question: How many Indian philosophers does the “educated” American know? Contrast this with another magnificent perfidy the colonial West has successfully pulled off. In popular narratives, the ancient Graeco-Roman philosophers whom the post-Christian West has owned were all pre-Christian, a fact that has been deliberately obfuscated. Which evokes the related question: Why did the colonial West so willingly embrace these Greeks and Romans but didn’t do the same with our philosophers? The answer: The British-drawn picture of India was that of a conquered country peopled by an inferior race. This logic was extended thus: We have subdued them, so why even bother inquiring about their philosophers, etc? In fact, the reason Hindus were subdued was that their philosophers were false and the kings who followed them invited their own doom. Circular logic could have never asked for a more resolute imperial champion.

And so, when this underlying colonial narrative is taken and extrapolated across all fields including the media for centuries, that gives us a reasonably complete and accurate picture of the “India Story” that the West continues to propagandise.

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

The author is founder and chief editor, The Dharma Dispatch. Views expressed are personal.

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How Western media’s contemporary narrative about India was seeded
How Western media’s contemporary narrative about India was seeded
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