News is the first draft of history. With the outbreak of Covid-19, almost every major nation is in lockdown and practising social distancing. In this emptiness of social interaction, the only source of news is television, newspapers or digital media, besides the overwhelming social media messages. Bolted inside my home almost every day I have opened myself to the very popular BBC World, CNN, The Economist, New York Times, Washington Post, The LA Times, The Atlantic, Time and New Yorker for news about the world and the nation I was born in.
The news editors, newscasters and news reporters have been relentlessly providing the minute-by-minute and hour-by-hour updates about the number of inflicted and the rising number of dead. The world is in unchartered territory. And in this challenging period, the Western media’s reporting about India remains plagued with a thoroughly negative bias. The focus is more on the misplaced efforts and failures of the national and state governments of India rather than a more balanced coverage of how the single largest democracy in the history of the world is confronting possibly the greatest crisis of their lives.
Not surprisingly the Western media ignored the stories of compassion of the 1.3 billion Indians at this juncture of history. The millions of stories of Indians who are going out every day at the risk of contracting the virus are not the concern of the Western media. It is habitual for the Western media and their fellow travellers to discount anything positive about India.
For anyone familiar with news coverage of India would recognise that this is not new. The editors of Western media publications have been at it for the past two centuries. Their inheritors — the modern-day news networks that dominate the global airwaves — have followed suit. The first war of India’s independence in 1857 was misreported as a mutiny and continues to be referred to as “The Great Indian Mutiny”. On 20 September 1857, the Union Jack was unfurled on the Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Delhi and it was replaced by the tricolour 90 years later on 16 August 1947 (not 15th).
After the political and economic conquest by Hukumat-i-Britannia effort was made for the social conquest of India in those ninety years. The hearts and minds of Indians were subjected to a Senior Cambridge educational policy with its roots in the infamous Thomas Macaulay doctrine — to create a class of Hukumat-i-Britannia’s subjects that were thoroughly Anglicised Indians and blatantly favoured a Western viewpoint that sustained the British Empire and the India Office in London.
To protect the benevolent image of British Empire (though it was a militarybacked dreadful dictatorship), the news about India’s second war of independence — the Ghadr Party — and the third and final war of independence, the Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, were totally erased from news media of the time. The multifaceted Indian independence struggle was reduced to the image of a one man-led non-violent movement.
For those brave Indians who followed the ancient military doctrine of India to wage a war against the British Empire were rubbished and forgotten as quickly as possible. Subsequently, their arduous struggles were simply painted out first from the newspapers and then our nation’s history books. Not only were their contributions erased, but extraordinary efforts were also made to distort their characters in the media with both editorial material and stupid cartoons.
Today almost no one in the present generation has heard about the amazing triumphs of Indian revolutionaries such as Ajit Singh, Bhikaji Cama, Chidambaram Pillai, Gulab Kaur, Gurdit Singh, Har Dayal, M.N. Roy, Mahendra Pratap Singh, Maulvi Barkatullah, Pandurang Khankhoje, Rash Behari Bose, Shyamji Krishna Varma, S.R. Rana, or the revolutionary life of one of the most brilliant students of England’s school and university system — Aurobindo Ghosh. Journalists and historians of that period wiped out thousands of such names as if they never existed.
The fact is that they were considered the most dangerous radicals by the Hukumat-iBritannia during India’s freedom struggle. Much ahead of their time, some of these remarkable Indians were leaders of the forward-looking, non-sectarian movements that stood for national unity, economic equity and gender parity in an India free of British control. All kinds of draconian laws were enforced to arrest these movements. In the post-independence era, India bashing by Western media continued unabated.
The five Prime Ministers of India who were elected more than once by the people of the nation or even served multiple times — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi — have had their share of prejudiced reporting by Western journalists. Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister (1947-1964) and one of the finest leaders of the world in the last century, was castigated by the Western media for his Non-Aligned Movement, the Panchsheel Doctrine, socialist economics and for liberating Goa from the Portuguese.
His daughter Indira Gandhi endlessly faced the Western media’s ire during the two decades of her public life from 1964-1984. The exceptional orator and poet, Vajpayee was condemned for conducting the nuclear tests in 1998 by the US and British media who somehow forgot that their own nations developed the atomic bomb, tested it hundreds of times and also engineered the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even the mild-mannered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2004-2014) who ably managed the 2008 economic crisis was not spared and a prominent American magazine dubbed him as the “underachiever”. Since 2014 the Western media and their acolytes’ heavy-duty effort to discredit Narendra Modi and his elected government is a work in progress. Beyond politics, the imperialistic-minded editors in Britain scoffed at Kapil Dev for lifting the Cricket World Cup at Lords in London in June 1983 and quickly termed it a fluke.
A prominent British magazine, which has been repeatedly asking its readers not to vote for Modi and his party, on that occasion reported that though the Indian cricket team had won the cup there was not a single good cricket field in Delhi’s schools. Even now the Western media habitually distorts the Indian tricolour and map and disputes every achievement relating to Indians. It’s been pointed out and rightly so that there is an incestuous self-referential conversation among the like-minded editorial staffers, historians and their followers that leads to an analogous perspective on most issues “Indian”.
This causes them to easily misinterpret India, fanatically oppose the alternative view and stick to a somewhat racist narrative. In print and broadcast their continuous negative reporting about our open democracy is in direct contrast to the balanced and positive news stories about totalitarian and despotic governments. The Western media’s unfair reporting undermines the global standing and diplomatic efforts of our nation.
On the world stage, for example, it is unwarranted if not outright ridiculous that a small nation like Britain retains a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and India with its physical size, multicultural population of 1.3 billion, the land of Lord Buddha, Lord Mahavira and Mahatma Gandhi and thousands of years of peaceful history has, been denied that privilege. Consequently, the UNSC has lost its meaning and mission. For most of the past two thousand years, India has been the largest economy of the world and even now it is among the top economies on Earth besides having favourable demographics and world-class intellect. We, as a nation, have been free since 1947 and have a free press.
Why do Indians need appreciation and applause from the Western media? Why do the views of an ill-informed journalist or a Western governmentbacked news broadcaster matter to Indians? Perhaps with the coronavirus pandemic, human civilisation has just turned a corner. And with this crisis, the Western domination of world media and news reporting for the last two centuries is drifting towards its logical end.
The good news is that in the coming years, the world will be increasingly reading and listening to the non-Western media perspective, especially from India where one-seventh of humanity lives and breathes in democratic space. The Indian versions of international news, global events, and world history are now waiting at the door and on digital devices for the residents of the planet. The voice of India on world stage is here to stay.
Bhuvan Lall is the author of ‘The Man India Missed The Most: Subhas Chandra Bose’ and ‘The Great Indian Genius: Har Dayal