Today in Hinduphobia February 15 2021: My Interview on Doordarshan India on Propaganda and Racism in Western Media Coverage of India
I had the pleasure of speaking on Doordarshan last week on propaganda and Western news coverage of India (my part starts at the 9 minute mark in the video above). I am sharing below my notes for those who are interested. Please note that some of my observations below, including my fond recollection of my volunteer work as a student for the United Farm Workers (UFW), were cut out of the final version of the interview when it aired.
QUESTION 1 — RIHANNA… GRETA THUNBERG… MIA KHALIFA… MEENA HARRIS… LILLY SINGH… SUSAN SARANDON… RUPI KAUR… RIHANNA TWEETED AND THEN REST — AS IF ON CUE — BEGAN TWEETING ABOUT IT.. WHY IS IT HAPPENING?.. ARE THEY PLAIN IGNORANT?.. OR ARE THEY PAWNS IN A LARGER GAME?.. AND WHO’S DRIVING IT?.. COULD IT BE STATE, NON-STATE ACTORS OR N.G.Os?..
Let’s look at the big picture first. These celebrity tweets whether well-intentioned or otherwise are surrounded by several other incidents that we should take seriously too. Right here in California, a statue of Mahatma Gandhi was viciously cut to bits last week, and not one Gandhian scholar or activist has condemned it as far as I know. There are several universities in California using Gandhi’s name to promote their programs, and they have not spoken up. And if you look at incidents in India, they have the same pattern. A symbol of modern, democratic India like the flag came under siege on Republic Day. Hundreds of policemen were violently attacked. And even that is not all. Just a few days before that, in my ancestral state of Andhra Pradesh, someone cut off the head of a vigraham of Sri Rama himself and threw it in a lake. There have been hundreds of incidents of desecration of temples, and dozens of violent attacks on Hindu priests and sadhus. Now who are the people who most uphold the sanctity of these sacred traditions in India? Is it not the people of the villages, the farmers, their elders, their children? Has any celebrity tweeted about this vicious warfare on the culture of these farmers, their holy men, their lives? (Pause) The big picture is simply this: the social media celebrity circus is simply one face of a resurgent Right Wing monotheistic intolerance against indigenous pluralisms. It also marks a wholesale capture by such forces of what used to be idealistic liberal or progressive talking points, and even progressive-branded celebrities to go with it. If Western media are saying “Farmers” today without respect for details and facts, it seems little different from the time they were saying Freedom and Democracy when they actually took their whole war machine to go and bomb Iraq in 2003. And naturally, when people with such a dirty track record of lies and wars against other countries and civilizations chant slogans without a shred of truth or conscience, they will be challenged.
QUESTION 2 — THERE IS AN INHERENT BIAS IN THE FOREIGN NEWS COVERAGE OF INDIA.. IT HAS TAKEN ON A SINISTER DIMENSION IN THE PROPAGANDA AGAINST INDIA OVER FARMERS’ PROTEST.. BUT — FOR A CHANGE — NEW DELHI HAS BEEN QUICK TO SAY — QUOTE — “BEFORE RUSHING TO COMMENT ON SUCH MATTERS, WE WOULD URGE THAT THE FACTS BE ASCERTAINED, AND A PROPER UNDERSTANDING OF THE ISSUES AT HAND BE UNDERTAKEN.. THE TEMPTATION OF SENSATIONALIST SOCIAL MEDIA HASHTAGS AND COMMENTS, ESPECIALLY WHEN RESORTED TO BY CELEBRITIES AND OTHERS, IS NEITHER ACCURATE NOR RESPONSIBLE”.. SO MEDIA CAN BUILD A PERCEPTION, PROPAGATE A MYTH OR NARRATIVE, OR PEDDLE AN AGENDA..
The Ministry of External Affairs was right to issue a statement. This is long overdue and will help start a debate that can hopefully take us towards facts instead of just competing slogans and media hysteria. Let me remind viewers in India at this point of one very dismal ground reality as far as India’s presence in the American mind goes. There may a bit of everyday goodwill for Indians because of Gandhi, Yoga, doctors, teachers and so on, but the understanding of India and its politics they have is very firmly stuck at the propaganda they began reading in March 2002. There is no Indian news platform of any scale or size that challenges the one-sided story Americans get from a handful of Raj-era type white-righteous experts and their colonized brown Gunga Din collaborators. This is the reality. It has been going on for a long time, and even with CAA, when these experts were outright lying that CAA was going to strip Indian Muslims of citizenship — even as Sikhs and Hindus were being massacred in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we saw their lies get away largely unchallenged. So the MEA’s statement this time is welcome, reasonable and a good first step.
But at the same time, I want to add a few nuances to the picture too. There is a real risk given the nature of social media that all the weaponized celebrity tweeting will be met by some loose social media drama from outraged patriots and nothing more. (Edited part follows: One, I want to emphasize that someone like Greta Thunberg is a symbol for many young people, even in India. Such people will not be sympathetic to criticism of Greta if it is personal and sexist; or even if the criticism dismisses the issues she has stood for in the past. Two, many young people even in Indian schools and colleges today may not actually find the idea of activism and social change a taboo because that is what they are taught. The document tweeted by Greta in itself might seem very routine in the activist world. For example, when I was in college I had the honor of marching in support of affirmative action, and also had the honor of organizing a big event for the UFW, the famous farm workers union started by the great Gandhian leader Cesar Chavez. There are many good people in activism, and many important concerns being fought for by activists. So the issue to focus on now frankly is not so much the kagaz itself which they seem to have dikha diyaad, but the questionable foreign political and financial links surrounding it. That, the authorities are right to investigate. But I do urge the government’s supporters to not demonize anyone.) Just focus on the facts.
QUESTION 3 — THERE ARE CERTAIN CONCERNS ABOUT BIG TECH… WEAPONISATION OF SOCIAL MEDIA… HOW DOES NEW MEDIA FIT INTO BROADER CONCERNS ABOUT THE HISTORY OF PROPAGANDA?.. WHAT DOES YOUR OWN RESEARCH INTO HINDUPHOBIA IN THE MEDIA SAY ABOUT IT?..
My field of media studies is also at somewhat of a crossroads. There is a lot of concern about surveillance, loss of privacy, and of course, the rise of “fake news.” Now in the US both sides accuse the other of fake news. Former President Trump said that of CNN and other big media. Democrats, media and academic institutions accuse his supporters of spreading it. The problem is that here too the conversation hasn’t been fully honest. The propaganda of one side is easy to talk about and dismiss, but the propaganda embedded in the other has become normalized.
For example, there is a new documentary called The Social Dilemma. It is made by a public interest group out of Silicon Valley and warns us about how social media is altering behavior, causing mental distress, polarization, and so on. It’s a good start, but one can see the clear bias in it.
The way the social media giants are unilaterally deciding what news is fake and imposing warning screens or bans, and the way they are anointing only some organizations as “fact-checkers” is something every citizen should be worried about in the world today.
Now, coming to my own research. I have been studying the codes used by western media for representing India very closely for many years, and I use the term Hinduphobia for these codes because that is the historic phenomenon we need to name. Media biases against other religions in South Asia have already been called out as Islamophobia for example. I want to clarify one more thing: there’s a common misperception in both Left and Right social media that Hinduphobia isn’t real, or that it’s a recent coinage. For example Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece Meena Harris was asked on twitter recently about Hinduphobia and she shrugged it off saying she’s a Hindu and the rest is fascism or something. But the fact is that the term Hinduphobia has been used by journalists, students, and even the great Sardar Patel. It was used as early as 1883 and I think it is a very relevant idea for Hindus and indeed all Indians to explore for themselves in order to resist propaganda and violence.
I recently published an overview of the tools of Hinduphobia analysis that I hope will be of use to researchers who want to go beyond the usual social media name-calling and shouting. I will add a link to my chapter and other articles on my Twitter bio if your viewers wish to read more.
But the main points I want to highlight here are really that if you study media discourse on India objectively, you will find a ton of evidence for bias, misreporting, racist stereotyping, and most of all, even outright war-like demonization and dehumanization. (Not covered in interview: Some key examples of each of these: I have studied how New York Times reports on terrorist attacks and religious violence in South Asia, and there’s a huge bias in how they label victims and aggressors. Another example: most of the tropes that dominate Western media discourses on India, both in news and also in publishing, cinema and now what is called OTT in India, these are classic religious-racist tropes that were in play during European colonialism still being rehashed. They avoid using outright racist language (so they will admit that “South Asians” or “Browns” face racism from Whites in America, for example), but they will defend their bigotry steadfastly when it comes to their staunch hatred for indigenous polytheistic cultures and peoples. They demonize Saris. Bindis. Just everyday Hindu and even Indian culture as signs of Hindu extremism.
Now these tactics are not just stereotypes but something even more dangerous. The phrase “cow piss religion” that has been normalized in even journalism and academia. Even after the JeM terrorist who killed 40 Indians in Pulwama used it, these important public figures continue to use the phrase. Every trope they have normalized is a weapon from the arsenal of a two thousand year war on indigenous pluralist traditions, and digital media has become an easy launch pad for them. The irony is that the so-called opponents of racism and bigotry in the West have made racism un-cool in America and even silenced a powerful man like Donald Trump for it but some of them have made racism against Indians not just tolerable, but actually sound cool! Which is what explains once again the celebrity-Greta-Rihanna intervention at this time disdain for the realities of a billion people — made cool through power of sellebrity .)
QUESTION 4 — IF SOCIAL MEDIA IS HERE TO STAY, HOW SHOULD A COUNTRY SUCH AS INDIA HANDLE COMMUNICATION AND EDUCATION DIFFERENTLY?..
India needs to get its act together very quickly on this. WhatsApp forwards and befitting reply on Twitter don’t count. We need two things:
One, India needs to really start paying attention to the issue of information and even education sovereignty; if your children are being taught about history, politics, and even their identity by foreign corporations like Disney, Amazon, Netflix and so on, we are well on our way to becoming a colony once again. I am not calling for censorship but I think in a sovereign country, access to a nation’s consumers should be a privilege earned by foreign companies. It is only in colonialism that foreign companies feel entitled to grab a market without showing the consumers or their gods and traditions a bit of respect.
Two, we need a proper global media platform run by professionals. The time is right for it. I saw a mood like this in America once before too, just after the WMD lies about Iraq got exposed. Young people in America welcomed Al Jazeera news because they felt they had been lied to by their own media. They wanted a new perspective from the world.
Right now, let us understand that it is not just Indians who are feeling concerned about the growing power of big media corporations and their psy-ops. People everywhere are looking for deep honesty. That’s why in America they are looking towards someone like former Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard who has a small but strong support base in the Left and the Right. And she too has faced outright lies and censorship from the corporate media.
People are sick of being lied to in America, just as people are sick of being lied about, in India.
So I think a professional global media initiative from India right now can achieve a lot. Just like how Indian scientists put everything into making a vaccine for Covid, we can also put our best talents into making a vaccine for propaganda, a vaccine against Asatya. Let me end by saying Satyameva Jayate!