Title: A stereotyped view
Author: Francois Gautier
Publication: The Hindustan Times
Date: May 11, 1999

(Francois Gautier on foreign reporting of India)

FOREIGN JOURNALISTS (and photographers) covering India are generally interested in
three kinds of India:

(a) The macabre and the negative: the widows of Benares, the caste
system as practised in Bihar, Mother Teresa's place for the dying,
kidneys traffic in Tamil Nadu, the slums of Calcutta, bride burning,
etc. These subjects have their own truth and there does exist in India
terrible slums, unacceptable exploitation of caste, dying people left
unattended, or bride burning. But by harping only on these topics, the
foreign press always presents a very negative image of India. Foreign
writers have also tended to exploit that vein: Dominique Lapierre in
his "City of Joy'', which still is a world-wide best-seller and has
been made into a film, has done incalculable damage to India, as it
takes a little part of India - the Calcutta slums - and gives the
impression to the western reader, who generally is totally ignorant of
the realities of India, that it constitutes the whole.

(b) The folklore and the superfluous: Maharajas, of whom westerners
are avid, although they are totally irrelevant to modern India, the
palaces of Rajasthan, cherished by such magazines as Vogue which
regularly sends their photographers and lanky models, who have no idea
of India festival: Pushkar, the camel fair, kumbh-melas, dance
performances in Khajuraho... all these have their own beauties, but
they represent only a small part of this great and vast country.

(c) The politically correct: There must be at least three hundred
foreign correspondents posted in Delhi, which should vouch for a
variety of opinion. But if you give them a subject to write about -
any subject - say Ayodhya, the RSS, fanatic Hindus, secularism, or
Sonia Gandhi, you will get 298 articles which will say more or less
the same thing, even if it is with different styles, different
illustrations and various degrees of professionalism. This is not to
say that there are no sincere western journalists who write serious
stories which do homage to India's greatness and immense culture, but
they are usually the exception. And at the end, the result is more or
less the same: a downgrading of India, a constant harping on "Hindu
fundamentalism'', or the "fanatical khaki-clad RSS members'' of the
burning of Christians in India'', conveniently forgetting to mention
that Christians have found refuge in this country for 2000 years and
have often taken advantage of this great Hindu tolerance.

These three kinds of reporting about India have been going on for
fifty years and very few Indians have dared - or bothered - to
complain. But the interesting question is: Why this always harping on
the negative, the folklore, or the politically correct? Why this
uniformity of views and un-originality in the selection of subjects,
in a country which is so ancient, whose civilisation is so diverse so
profound, so fascinating, that there are thousands of extraordinary
topics, which could be exploited?

It seems to me there are two important factors, which are at play in
every foreign correspondent's functioning. First, a foreign
correspondent before even being posted in Delhi, has already fixed
ideas about India: prejudices, cliches, negative "a-prioris'', etc.
This is not to say that it is wilfully done; it is just something
which we pick up unconsciously from the concepts on India floating in
the West: Tintin's stereotyped India - the good Maharajas and the bad
fakirs; Kipling's jungle child ready to embrace the good of the
Christian civilisation, or else it is poverty, dirt and the squalor of
India which is always over-emphasised in the West and which scares
many of us, used to a clean disinfected (and soulless) world.

More subtly, even, we western journalists are influenced by what is
said about India in the 'serious' books of distinguished indologists,
who have got it all wrong: the supposed invasion of India by the
Aryans (which, say more and more archaeologists and linguists, never
happened); the great achievements of the Moghul culture (which mostly
borrowed from Hindu genius); the fanaticism of Hindu social and
political movements (which were born in the early twenties after
nearly thirteen centuries of horrendous persecutions by Muslim
invaders and shameless European colonisation); the importance of being
"secular'' in Modern India. These "wise' historians have unfortunately
a very strong hold on the image of India abroad and they give all the
wrong ideas to foreign newspaper editors, who in turn expect a certain
(Hindu fundamentalism) angle from the stories of their correspondents.

The second factor is simple: India is a vast and complicated country,
often contradictory, full of paradoxes, with many castes, religions,
ethnic groups, political parties. It is thus extremely baffling to the
mind of the foreign correspondent freshly arrived from the United
States, for example, where everything is black and white, good or bad
(the evil Milosevic as painted by Newsweek and the good saintly OTAN).
Thus, naturally, the foreign correspondent will turn for advice and
information to his counterpart; the Indian journalist, who is
frequently witty, brilliant and well informed. And here lies the crax
of the matter, because Indian journalists are often the worst enemies
of their own country - they are more secular than the secular, more
anti-India than its worst adversaries and often play in the hands of
India's foes.

Another important factor which enhances the uniformity of views
amongst foreign correspondents, is that New Delhi has become a very
superficial and arrogant city, geographically cut-off from the rest of
India (does Delhi have any idea of what is happening in the South?);
and there, the foreign correspondents always hear the same stories,
whether in the Embassy cocktail parties, or at journalists' parties.
We have then come a full circle: we thought that the western press was
negative about India, out of a personal bias, but we have found that
it is influenced by the Indian press; we thought that the Indian press
was negative about its own country, because of some dark, sceptical,
self-destructive streak in itself, but we found out that it was a
tendency generated by the Congress, which in turn was manipulated by
its British masters. And thus, we have come a full circle; all along,
the snake was biting its own tail!

Fortunately, since a few years, there is a change in the Indian Press.
Magazines have started showing an effort to look at India in a
different manner, to strike a distinct note from the usual
self-denigration. This is a positive sign - and there are more the
popularity of songs like Vande Mataram, which expressed India's true
aspiration and were literally relegated to play second fiddle by the
Congress.

We have got to change the image of India amongst industrialised
nations. Who in the West wants to do business with a country with a
backward image and associated with slums, Mother Teresa and
bureaucratic inefficiency? The Western press is not playing its true
role of information. But that should not be a problem - look at China:
less than thirty years ago it was considered in the West as the "Red
Devil'', a feudal country, totally closed to the world. But then in
1971 Nixon went there and suddenly it became acceptable to do business
in China; and today it possesses in the West an image of a
fast-forward, modern nation (although it killed a million Tibetans,
gave Pakistan its nuclear technology and still claims part of Indian
territory). Many of us are trying to change India's image abroad:
France for instance has seen the creation of an Indo-French forum
under the guidance of Karan Singh and French ambassador Claude
Blanchemaison to promote India's interests there and attract French
businessmen. But unless the Nehruvian legacy of bureaucracy and
centralisation is discarded, unless India starts looking at herself
differently, unless its people have a little more pride in being
Indian, there is very little we can do.

(The author is correspondent in South Asia for Le Figaro, France's
largest circulated newspaper).

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