This column was supported by the Pulitzer Center
In a recent tweet, NPR’s New Delhi producer condemned the entire Hindu religion for India’s problems. She said, “If Indians give up Hinduism, they will also be solving most of their problems what with all the piss drinking and dung worshipping.”
She later deleted the tweet, apologized, and resigned. NPR later said in a message, “NPR regrets the unacceptable tweet by New Delhi producer Furkan Khan. This comment does not reflect the views of NPR journalists and is a violation of our ethical standards. She has publicly apologized for her tweet and has resigned from NPR.”
In a world of social media, criticism came fast. For the far-right Hindu groups it was an opportunity to show the “bias” of the media. But these weren’t the only responses. One prominent English-daily newspaper, DNA, asked whether NPR “could be trusted to cover news in an unbiased manner given such virulent views of its employees.” Other individuals asked for a fair and honest journalistic culture.
A petition to NPR questioned the representation of Hindu nationalism as the predominant theme of coverage, the other being the “peculiarities and exotification of Hindu worship, and Hindu violence against others.” It noted, “NPR does not even attempt to include a diversity of perspectives or counternarratives in any substantial way.”
The issue here isn’t this tweet alone. It is about how Indian society and Hinduism are often represented in the Western media, with little understanding of the context or the political representation of religion.
Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has seen a rise of violence against religious minorities. Several Muslims have been lynched on mere suspicion of eating beef. The Indian media is facing a tough time reporting stories that challenge the ideology of the government. Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who was critical of right-wing groups, was murdered in 2017. As commentators have pointed out, in today’s India, anyone opposed to the Hindu nationalists’ ideas of a sectarian nation is at risk.
But this rise in Hindu nationalism needs to be separated from Hinduism, the religion. The birth of Hindu nationalism goes back to British colonialism and the creation of a sectarian Hindu identity. The Hindu nationalist organization, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, was formed in 1925.
But international reporting is often devoid of this context.
As Murali Balaji, scholar at University of Pennsylvania and editor of Digital Hinduism: Dharma and Discourse in the Age of New Media, has said, “When you focus on Hinduism only within the Indian subcontinent post-1947, it essentially conflates Hinduism with the rise of political Hinduism without giving any sort of context—and not only context, but any sense of just how diverse Hinduism is.”
Without this nuance, stories tend to focus on a religious divide, rather than the political motivation. For example, when the Modi government shut down slaughterhouses, foreign media reported the distress of Muslim butchers. What was missed in the reporting of this story was that not only is India among the world’s top beef-exporting countries, but that the many of the top companies are owned by Hindus—a crucial point in exposing the politics behind the move.
Furthermore, reporting on Muslims as India’s minorities omits some important historical and demographic context. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia, and there is a long history of how these religions have interacted with one another.This history involves conflict, but for the most part, a daily lived interaction.
Secularism is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. In its daily practice, unlike in Western societies, it involves not an absence of religion, but the acceptance of all beliefs. As I have known growing up and reporting in India, many Hindus would visit Sufi shrines as much as Muslims would participate in Hindu religious festivities. In some parts of India, such as the holy city of Varanasi in India’s north, this religious inter-connectedness is obvious in the daily trade, commerce, and activities of religious worship. Without the Muslim weavers, for example, there would be no silk saris to adorn the Gods in the Hindu temples. During Ramadan, the breaking of the fast is a communal event celebrated and often hosted by Hindus.
Scholars have pointed out how modern-day understanding of regions still gets shaped by European views. In the case of India, it would also be a colonial view.
Rini B. Mehta, a professor of comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois, writes that in teaching her course “Introduction to South Asian Literatures and Cultures,” she found student’s understanding even today about ancient India gets shaped with “the way Europeans have viewed things for the past 300 years.”
In the 20th century, Britain’s ruling class had a disdain for Hinduism. Diary records of Winston Churchill’s secretary, John Colville, from February 1945, reveal his contempt for Hindus. Colville’s diary says, “The PM said the Hindus were a foul race … and he wished Bert Harris could send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”
This past is deeply embedded and as Mehta points out, “influences our way of seeing.”
This past also gets reflected in how rarely Hinduism is shown to be a religion with wide diversity. Not only are there many ways to worship, but some Hindu philosophies do not believe in the existence of a God.
The idea of a unitary “Hinduism,” according to scholars, emerged under British colonial rule.The term “Hindoo,” a Persian word, likely referred to people living near the Indus river, known as Sindhu.
As Diane Moore, senior lecturer on religious studies and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Word Religions at Harvard Divinity School, says, “The media ends up reproducing assumptions about religions that are embedded in our culture that are problematic, and they do it often unwittingly.”
At the same time, it is important that journalists understand how problematic this is. Reporting, to a large extent has shaped the perception of Islam as a violent religion. A basic ethic of good journalism—incorporating a diversity of views—would help achieve more balanced coverage. It would help coverage move away from a narrow representation.
In 2018, India was among the list of most dangerous countries for journalists. Tweets such as the one by the NPR producer are used to build the image of “fake” news that is also Hinduphobic. The more this goes on, the more it could lead to fear of threat from the “outside” and cohesion of a Hindu identity.
In the end, it feeds into the nationalist rhetoric that Hindu faith is in danger. While the media and nationalists come from different sides, they end up achieving the same purpose.