27th March 2002
India is a country of wonderful people — warm, hospitable, tolerant. Its intellectual elite — in New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Bangalore — are good friends to have: fun-loving and always cordial with westerners.
Intellectually, the journalists and writers of this country are often witty, brilliant, speak good English, and write even better. In fact, quite a few of them — Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Upamanyu Chatterjee and others — have become households names in the English literary world and have brought a good name to India. Roy has even shown us that one can be a successful writer and also work for a social cause — even going to the extent of going to jail for that.
Yet, there is something that I have never understood. Although most of India’s intellectual elite is Hindu, the great majority of them are Hindu haters — and it even seems sometimes that they are ashamed to be Hindus.
They always come out with the same clichés on Hindutva, the saffron brigade, the Hindu ‘fundamentalists,’ and if you listen to them you get the impression that India is in the hands of dangerous Hindu fundamentalists and that the Christian and Muslim minorities of India are being cruelly persecuted.
Recently, Courier International, a very prestigious French magazine, which is read by diplomats and politicians, published a special issue on ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ with a cover photo of RSS members doing their lathi drill. The ignorant westerner who read it must have had the impression that India indeed is in the grip of fascist, Nazi-like Hindu groups and that civil liberties are curtailed here. When the editor-in-chief of that magazine was contacted, he pointed out that all the pieces had been translated from articles written in the Indian press by Indian journalists.
If I did not know India, I would tend also to believe what I read about India in the western press: a nation torn by caste discrimination, poverty, corruption, Hindu extremism and natural calamities. But after living more than 30 years in this country, my experience is totally different: Hindus are probably the most tolerant people in the world — they accept that God manifests Himself under different forms, at different times, according to the needs and mentality of each epoch: Krishna, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha…
Thus they always allowed throughout the centuries religious minorities who were victimised in their own countries to settle in India and to prosper and practice their religion: the Syrian Christians, in fact the first Christian community in the world; the Jews, who have been persecuted all over the world (including in my own country, France), but were left in peace in India; the Armenians; the Parsis; and today the Tibetans…
As a westerner, living in India, apart from the obvious bureaucratic hassles, the slowness of everything and the dirt, being here has also been a dream: I have never been mugged in 33 years, no policeman has ever asked me my papers in the street (see what happens to you if you are dark-skinned and without a tie in the metro in Paris) and I have always been made welcome even in the remotest villages of India.
As a journalist, it is even better: I do not have to ask permission to go out of Delhi and submit the subject and route of the features I propose to do outside the capital; and I do not get kicked out of India, even if I criticise its government — all this contrary to China, which even then remains a more coveted post for a foreign correspondent than India.
It is true that for a western journalist, coming to India can be a baffling experience. The diversity (going from one state to the next is like passing from one country to another); the language is different, so is the food, the habits, the political set-up; the complexity of India’s political life, its heavy subtleties; the incredible religious, social and ethnic diversity…
So what does the new correspondent do, when often he has at heart to do justice to the country he has been asked to report about? He turns to his Indian fellow journalists for enlightenment. Regrettably, the f
irst input he is given by his Indian colleagues is very negative: the black mark of Ayodhya on India’s secular fabric; the heavy hand of the army in Kashmir; the terrible caste abuses in Bihar; or the Taliban-like Bajrang Dal.
And this is why if you read the western reports on India, however good their style is, however well-meaning they are, they all say the same thing with infinite monotony and often nastiness). Again, it is absolutely factual that there are unforgivable things done in India in the name of caste; that the disparity between rich and poor is shocking; that affluent Hindus have very little concern about their less fortunate brethrens, or else have no respect for their environment.
But it is also true that there is so much positive things to be written about India: so many great people, so much tolerance, so much talent, so many fascinating subjects. Nevertheless, western journalists seem only to concentrate on the negative. His is the vicious circle of journalism and India: the negative goes from the Indian journalist to the western journalist… and comes back to India under the form of unfriendly reporting.
The recent Sabarmati burning followed by the rioting in Gujarat showed again the veracity of that phenomenon. Here you had 58 innocent Hindus, the majority of them being women and children, burnt in the most horrible manner, for no other crime but the fact that they want to build a temple dedicated to the most cherished of Hindu Gods, Ram, on a site which has been held sacred by Hindus for thousands of years.
When a Graham Staines is burnt alive, all of India’s English press goes overboard in condemning his killers. But when 58 Graham Staines are murdered, they report it without comment. No doubt, the revenge that followed is equally unpardonable. No doubt, Indian and foreign journalists who rushed to Gujarat, wrote sincerely: after all they saw innocent women, children and men being burnt, killed, raped.
Which decent journalist, who has at heart of reporting truth, would not cry out against such a shame? But then history has shown us that no event should be taken out of context, and that there is in India, among the Hindu majority, a simmering anger against Muslims, who have terribly persecuted the Hindus and yet manage to make it look as if they are the persecuted.
And once again, the western press coverage of the Gujarat rioting comes back to haunt India: Hindus targeting Muslims; fundamentalism against innocence; minority being persecuted by majority… But when will the true India be sincerely portrayed by its own journalists, so that the western press be positively influenced?
(Gautier is the correspondent in India and South Asia of Ouest-France, the biggest circulation French daily [1 million copies], and for LCI, a 24-hour TV news channel. He is also the author of Arise O India and A Western Journalist on India)