PM Narendra Modi
PM Narendra Modi | Narayan/Bloomberg
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An urban legend goes like this – when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, her son Rajiv Gandhi wanted to know if it had been confirmed by the BBC. Until the BBC broadcast the news, it could be dismissed as a rumour.

That was then. Today, fanboys of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strident nationalism, accuse the venerable BBC of peddling fake news.

The Western gaze on India is acceptable only if it is about yoga and ayurveda, not Kashmir. Curiously, the Indira Gandhi regime often accused the BBC of being an extension of the Cold War ‘foreign hand’ out to undermine India. Today, the Modi ecosystem accuses it of being anti-Hindu.

The government and the BJP want to actively fix this – with both the carrot and the stick. On the one hand, Hindu groups are protesting outside The Washington Post office in the US, and on the other, NSA Ajit Doval is feting foreign journalists and RSS’ Mohan Bhagwat is scheduling meetings with them.

Be it India or China or Russia – you can be sure that when a country accuses the foreign media of biased coverage, it has something it wants to hide. It’s a good barometer of what’s going on inside. That is why restricting access is common practice.


Also read: Foreign media images seem doctored, haven’t tortured anyone in Kashmir: Indian Army chief


Fences & restrictions

Foreign journalists can visit Assam only after taking permission from the Ministry of External Affairs, which consults the Ministry of Home Affairs before issuing a permit. In Jammu and Kashmir, things are no better. A circular from the Ministry of External Affairs says permission has to be sought by foreign journalists eight weeks before the date of visit. From May 2018 to January 2019, only two foreign journalists had got this permission.

That’s not all. Media outlets such as the BBC and Al Jazeera have been trolled on social media for their coverage of Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, with the Modi government jumping to say their footage was fabricated.

The criticism has been echoed even by pro-government TV anchors and social media warriors (some like Shekhar Kapur who have justifiably picked on the BBC’s habit of referring to Jammu and Kashmir as Indian-administered Kashmir).

But India Today did a detailed forensic analysis to show the BBC video was anything but “fake news”. The BBC has also stood by its video (initially reported by Reuters) showing protestors marching on the streets with Article 370 placards and tear gas being used to disperse protests. “A protest the Indian government said did not happen,” @BBCWorld said.


Also read: Should India be offended by BBC, Washington Post, New York Times coverage of Kashmir?


Always on high alert

India’s sensitivity to how the BBC, in particular, sees it, is not new. John Elliott, who has reported on India, from India, for 25 years, told The Print: “India always seems to want international approval and praise, indicating it is not yet fully confident on the world stage. That leads to extreme sensitivity over a negative comment, maybe even more so under Prime Minister Narendra Modi for whom international recognition is a primary aim.”

It doesn’t take much to raise India’s hackles. In 1970, when French maestro Louis Malle’s documentary series Phantom India was shown on the BBC, it resulted in the closure of the BBC’s office in Delhi for two years and the repatriation of its news correspondent Ronald Robson. All because, even though the series was well received by British critics, Indians were upset about Malle’s inclusion in the first programme of ”a few shots of people sleeping on the pavements of Calcutta”. This was the “export of Indian poverty” argument that Nargis Dutt used about Satyajit Ray in 1980, with her now-famous quote: “I don’t believe Mr Satyajit Ray cannot be criticised. He is only a Ray, not the Sun.”

As Sunil Khilnani notes in his book, Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Nargis felt Ray’s movies were popular in the West because “people there want to see India in an abject condition”. She wanted him to show “modern India”, not merely project “Indian poverty abroad”.

Thin-skinned governments

Of late, though, it is India’s fractious politics, which has made Indian governments extremely thin-skinned. This too has a history. Mark Tully, who became BBC’s Delhi bureau chief after it was allowed to return to India in 1972, fell afoul of prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1975 during the Emergency. As he says in this 2018 interview, at the time it was said he had reported that one of the senior-most cabinet ministers had resigned from her government in protest against the Emergency. Then information and broadcasting minister Inder Gujral stood up for him telling Mohammed Yunus (part of Indira Gandhi’s ‘kitchen cabinet’) that he had checked with the monitoring service and there was no evidence of Tully having said so.

Tully says Yunus told Gujral: ”I want you to arrest him, take his trousers down, and give him a beating and then put him in jail. Those were roughly the words I have recorded in the interview and it is also transcribed in a book I wrote with Zareer Masani called Raj to Rajiv. So, I discovered 18 months after the Emergency that I had had a lucky escape.”

In 2002, Time magazine’s Alex Perry had to face questioning over alleged passport irregularities after he wrote the widely quoted cover story on then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, wherein he said Vajpayee “fell asleep in cabinet meetings, was prone to ‘interminable silences’ and enjoyed a nightly whisky”. Although there was talk of Perry being thrown out of India, much like Tully, it didn’t happen. Perry left as Delhi bureau chief much later, in 2006. Now a well-known writer, he declined to comment for this story to ThePrint, calling it “old history”.


Also read: Upscale Srinagar neighbourhood in viral BBC video is the new protest hub on Article 370


Rot within

Nothing is really history in Indian politics, where personalities, issues, and allegations tend to be recycled. The New York Times is routinely accused of an anti-India bias – whether it was the diplomatic immunity of IFS officer Devyani Khobragade then or the Indian government’s abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir now.

As veteran journalist Mannika Chopra points out to ThePrint, Indian politicians have always been wary of the foreign press. “Under Indira Gandhi, it was difficult for foreign correspondents to report on Kashmir or the northeast. Or for visiting reporters to get visas. But the situation has changed. In India today, it would be fair to say the domestic media has, by and large, been won over by the current government, and those who haven’t are wary of speaking out. Independent voices are few. Political journalism has also changed. There are no hard-hitting investigations,” she said.

She points out that it has been left to the foreign press to present a counter-narrative, a dialogue independent of ideological blinkers and pressures. “As for the media within, it is all about being not merely anti-national but also supra-national.”

Elliott jokes that he wished Britain had some of the same sensitivity over international comments on Brexit so ”that we realised how the world sees our descent into constitutional and political chaos”. But perhaps not, given that India’s outrage can span the spectrum—from a BBC interview with a jubilant Jagjit Singh Chauhan in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s death (as noted by scholar Suzanne Franks) to Jade Goody’s racist slurs in 2007 again then Celebrity Big Brother contestant Shilpa Shetty.

In India’s Republic of Easy Offence, the bar for public anger and government censure is quite low.

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

This article has been updated to reflect a change.

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22 Comments Share Your Views

22 COMMENTS

  1. Foreign media is not holly as author thinks, they have their own agenda and many times their own government highly criticize them. Please don’t be mouth peace of foreign agenda in India.
    They are not going to help or care for Indians either but wants money at the cost of citizens. Please check their views and how bias they are. They never care for poor either, but loots.
    Look what they did during independence movement and even today English never admits genocide they committed in India.

  2. The author’s generation grew up on Western propaganda masquerading as knowledge and wisdom. They were literally fed on grain received as aid. It would be terribly impolite for them to not treat any westerner as god almighty, given this background. Younger generations have no such compulsion. Having witnessed outright prejudice and bigotry in western institutions first hand, I know where that sort of reporting comes from. This useless pop psychology about our “sensitivity” is just click-bait. No one gives a rat’s entrails about what they about us. But like anyone else, no one likes being called names. Today we have the numbers and wherewithal to call out their bigotry, and we will. It’s disingenuous to get the government involved in this – all of the expressed outrage has been from people online – even many left-leaning individuals. The government has done and said precious little, and perhaps wisely so.

  3. It is all because of inferiority-superiority complex created over the long period of time. Quoting Rajiv Gandhi or Nehru as example is the beginning of the end of story. Once for Rajiv Gandhi’s great grand father, there was no good iron system available to press his cloths and there was a story that he used to get everything pressed from France (early of part of previous century) because no technology for ironing the cloths existing in India those days and no skillful labour was available. We use to read those in school books with great pride. That is the difference then and now.

  4. I am a Kashmiri Hindu and the issue I am see here with the current situation is where the hell was BBC, NY times, Washington Post etc in 1989 – 90 when Kashmiri Hindus were been killed by these Kashmiri Muslims and Hindu men were asked to leave their homes and wives/daughters behind. Now these Kashmir Muslim talk about atrocities and want the whole world to be sympathy towards them. Western media has always been biases towards Hindu India other why would they always mention India Govt as Hidhu Nationalistic when more than 350 Million Indians (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians) voted for BJP.

  5. Even the vocabulary of the western media is biased. For instance, the term “Hindu nationalist” is a pejorative term that gets applied to Modi while you never hear “Muslim nationalists” or “Christian nationalists” even though it would be much more accurate in those cases. The real problem is that the western media talks to Indian intellectuals who hate Modi and are deeply uncomfortable with Indian culture. Consider how similarly the western media and India’s left wing intellectuals reacted to Modi mediating in a cave. This isn’t a coincidence. The western media is largely listening to how India’s Marxist and left wing elites view India events and Indian culture.

    However, all those who think that we should ignore the western media are making a big mistake. We should actively engage with the western media. We need to forcefully point out that the Indians who write for the western media do not represent India and that they represent largely fringe extremist views. These is a problem that will take years to solve because Indian intellectual centers that can engage with the western media are deeply anti-Indian themselves and it will take a while for a new crop of intellectuals to come up.

  6. This trend has been increasing recentally in India to comment on historical events and historical personalities to make adverse comments on them without deep indepth study or knowledge of the events and the circumstances prevailed in the relevant time period. However, such people neither do good to the country nor to the humanity. By doing this they can appease their godfathers or satisfy their ego only. Without human values only nationalism can not satisfy needs of human beings. Truth prevails ultimately and hiding or distorting the truth by any media foreign or indegenous is a crime against humanity. Who knows the adversely affected party next time may be any one of us !

  7. A bunch of foreign journos bankrolled by their masters to spew hate,bias and insult on India and Indians. Dancing to their tunes are a bunch of Indian journos eating away like termites the spirit of Indians by concoting negative narratives to fill their own power vacuum and coffers..absolutely appalling and third rate! Other than nuisance value this lot of urban naxals have never given anything worth even mentioning!

  8. Marxists and communists like you may have sold your souls to foreigners for a few crumbs they throw at you, but the rest of us have our self respect intact. NYT and BBC might be gospel to you, but to us they are nothing but information war wing of imperial forces.

    • Shekhar ji allowed you to publish this article is a surprise to me. He, being a blind invisible supporter of Modi has taken a great risk of loosing govt favours. Nonetheless you have covered foreign journalists, national scenerio is still worst. Really it’s a very very difficult time for brave journalists, barring those who surrendered to Modi for reasons known to them.

  9. Overall one can agree on the point of view expressed by the author of the article. The reference to the IFS official was certainly not justified in the present case. Diplomatic immunity does not justify and does not allow everything. That said, there is one point that is not addressed by this article is the role of the country’s diplomatic posts abroad to represent him. Often in the main capitals the head of the diplomatic mission does not speak the language of the country where he is posted. Then he does not express himself in the press of the country. The means exist to justify and explain the policy of the country represented. But that is not done. And yet there are in these diplomatic posts advisers in charge of communication. What is the use of these advisers who invest in tourism or trade. These are certainly important activities. But the first role of a diplomatic post and its leader is to take a stand to defend the policy of his country in the audio-visual means of the host country, when it is contested. On this side, the reactivity of China and Russia when their interests are questioned must be studied and taught at the IFS, and not only the proper use of diplomatic immunity !!!!

  10. Did you not know that fake news is hidden behind in a clever way to hide the truth? Today most sources in for the New York Times and BBC are Pakistani interests. They do not bother even to verify the news item. The sources are not questioned. Some in Lutyens Delhi also aid because they do not like Modi and his spectacular win in 2014 and only three months back in 2019…….. shame on the Western Media including their Lutyen sources.

  11. I agree with John Elliott’ views. Our country suffers from inferiority complex. Socialist moron Nehru thought India was world number 1 country and himself as the greatest prime minister the world has ever seen. Our country fails to understand that ours is a mere two penny third class corrupt socialist backward poor country. But our leaders want to project her as a super duper fully developed advanced capitalist industrialised powerful country. There is no shame in accepting what we are. Broken roads, footpaths and open drains are what defines our country and I’m proud of it.

    • Socialist, yes, Moron, no. The respect India received globally was due in part – will not get into measuring it – to the aura of PM Nehru. He made the world realise that there was a lot more to India than poverty and illiteracy and all the other factors he struggled over two decades in office to overcome. History will judge him more kindly than the troll armies.

      • It’s a myth that Nehru struggled to overcome poverty and illiteracy. In fact he perpetuated both, by starting the trend of loss making Public sector units, run with tax payer’s money, thereby ensuring poverty. His monumental blunder in ignoring primary education ensured that even now India is paying a price for it. If there ever is a ranking of Indian Prime Ministers, then Nehru stands right at the bottom, thanks to all the original sins he committed.

          • Enhancing self esteem became delusion in India. More so after 2014.. 5000 years old Plastic surgeon’s accomplishments started appearing in press conferences. Monkey head stitched to human body became the only cross spices surgery known to mankind.

  12. If we want international approval and praise, perhaps things have to be much better on the ground. Difficult to recall the last full throated report in any respected western media outlet that is full of praise and admiration. Not easy being an Indian diplomat abroad, engaging constructively with the media.

    • Ashok ji – it isn’t about approval or praise. It is about the perceptions that are created all over the world by the media. We need to do our best to ensure that our perspective is also heard around the world. In the absence of our perspective, people all over the world will hear only a negative perspective. Let’s at least ensure that we are heard.

      Even those who think that the ground situation needs to be improved are also missing the point. For instance, you hear the 8 million number being mentioned repeatedly. Well that number should be a lot less because it is for the entire state but there are large parts of the state where there are no restrictions. Malala just tweeted that the school children of the entire state haven’t been able to go so school, when in fact this is only true in a few parts. In every situation, no matter how difficult, we need to put our perspective out without any reservations or fear.

  13. BBC to New York Times – Why Indian governments have always been wary of foreign press ? Why not ask why Indians need foreign accounts at all, legal or illegal ? What is more important ? Other than Shastri and Modi how many Indian Prime Ministers have an impeccable personal image as Clean ? Have we heard of Reagan’s, Clintons, Bushes, Thatchers Markels and Abes having foreign account, in India ? This is the first reason Why Indian governments have always been wary of foreign press.
    Unity in diversity has to be maintained before a culture of that is imbibed. There are always vested interests who would not want that even if it means taking help of the foreign press, and to take care of that some steps are necessary. The intellectuals will not talk of the corrupt leaders but run down the country otherwise. Then we have the Gora Sahibs living like lords, with servants and drivers they would not be able to afford at home, claiming to know this country better than all of us and are glorified by the a special class of hangers on.

  14. There has to be zero tolerance for fake news whether it is BBC or New York Times or some other media outlets. More than 90% are from tertiary sources and opinions are contrived to suit particular agendas. It will be ridiculous to say that foreign media correspondents are certified angels.

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