Assessing An Indian Government: The New York Times’ And The Washington Post’s Editorials On India, 1998-2000
by Ramesh N. Rao, PhD
Were the New York Times and the Washington Post biased against the Indian People’s Party (BJP) led coalition government in India, and is this evident in the editorials of the New York Times and the Washington Post published during the first three years of the BJP-led government (1998-2000)? The editorials are analyzed using textual analysis and within the framework of the “Orientalist mode of discourse”. Analysis of two of the topics covered by the editorials shows that the Washington Post was more balanced, less biased, and more circumspect in its editorials on India, whereas the New York Times‘ editorials were shrilly accusatory, authoritarian, and biased. Both newspapers presented some faulty and incorrect information in the editorials.
“You’re saying it’s not one of those quick fixes for a fledgling democracy.
Not only that. I believe that in the Middle Ages you had sacred cows – you couldn’t say anything nasty about the pope. Unfortunately, the free press has become the popes of the world today. They’re above criticism. You can’t criticize them. You can’t suggest that the Washington Post or the New York Times makes mistakes. Western journalists behave a certain way when they arrive in the Third World. They come there thinking that they’re poor, underpaid journalists, but they ride on the back of Western power. And they demand to see the prime minister right away.
And non-Western journalists don’t behave the same way?
If someone comes to Washington, D.C., and says, “I represent the Times of India and I demand to see the president,” can you imagine what would happen to him? It’s not a level playing field. If you want to talk about a free press, create a level playing field.
That might say something about the strength of the free press in our country. These reporters feel that they have a great responsibility to their country and to the world.
Of course, the free press is one of the reasons why liberal democratic societies are doing very well, and indeed they are an essential component of the success of Western society. Let me emphasize that. If you try to control information, then you’re finished. All I’m saying is that these guys are not popes or priests and they’re human beings like all of us, and should be expected to be treated like that” (Salon.com, March 25, 2002).
Selective attention, selective perception, and selective retention are part of human cognitive processes, and what the Singaporean ambassador to the United Nations was indicating to his interviewer was that the New York Times and the Washington Post could be as fallible as any ordinary human being in their perception of reality. That there is bias in the reporting of news in the mainstream media in the U.S. has been known all along. Newspapers not only report “facts” but they also construct reality (Ashley & Olson, 1998). As Edelman notes, “Those involved in making, reporting, and editing news… have an incentive to shape it so as to attract audiences and, sometimes, to encourage particular interpretations through its content and form” (Edelman, 1988).
Recently, Indian-American readers of American newspapers and viewers of CNN and other television news channels have observed an anti-Indian bias in the coverage of news from India and about the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In this essay, I will analyze the 43 editorials that appeared in the two newspapers between the years 1998-2000. Those years were chosen because Indians, for the first time in fifty years of independence, elected a political party that had as its electoral plank a pro-Hindu agenda. Even though the BJP did not get a majority in the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, it was able to head a coalition government made up of more than 15 regional political parties.
An essay by Malhotra (Malhotra, 2002) focused on the perceived anti-India bias in CNN news coverage of the heightened tensions between India and Pakistan during December 2001-January 2002. The essay seemed to give voice to what many people had been expressing in private and on Internet discussion lists before. More than 29,000 readers logged on to read that particular essay, and a petition to CNN drafted by a reader of the essay elicited 55,000 signatures. CNN could not ignore the massive response, and CNN executives met with representatives of the Indian community in Atlanta in February 2002 to discuss the petition and the Indian viewers’ complaints.
While CNN is a major player in the news business, it is not as yet as powerful as some of the traditional opinion makers and influential media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, newspapers that are read daily and carefully by those who make and influence policy. The New York Times‘ and Washington Post‘s coverage of India-related affairs therefore can be more critical to Washington’s policy makers than CNN’s reporting. However, there are fewer readers of the newspaper than there are viewers of CNN. Thus, whatever bias there is in the reporting and analyses of India events in the two newspapers is little noticed by Indian-Americans and Indians.
In this paper, I am going to analyze the editorials appearing in the two newspapers between January 1998 and December 2000 to find out if the editorial writers followed the rules for writing effective editorials, or if their agenda for India skewed their perception of India and India-related events.
How Indian-Americans Perceive Slant
A report in an Indian-American newspaper, the News India Times (Parekh, 2000), criticizes the New York Times for highlighting India’s poverty while purportedly reporting about the new Indian television game show, Kaun banega Crorepati, and compares the Times‘ reporting on that issue with that of the Washington Post. Parekh, writing about the Times‘ coverage, says: “It is not objectionable to write about poverty in India. It exists. It is a problem. It is one of the great, unfulfilled promises of Independent India. In this instance, however, writing about the hit TV show through India’s slums was unnecessary”.
The United States is now home to more than one and a half million Indian-Americans, and there is a heightened awareness both here and in India about how India is described and characterized for American readers/viewers. Much of the commenting and writing about American media coverage of India is patchy, and/or focused on one particular news item, or the coverage of one series of events. The only journal article reporting a content analysis of media coverage of India-related issues is the textual analysis of news coverage of Asian Indians between 1906 and 1923 (Shah, 1999).
India is home to a billion people, is a nuclear power, and is confronting some volatile issues on a variety of fronts – political, economic, religious, and social. India is the largest democracy in the world and contains the most diverse of peoples who speak a myriad languages, follow different religions, and represent different cultures. As such, reporting about India requires experience, expertise, and maturity. There has been some good reporting by Western correspondents as well as some hostile, let alone objective reporting. For example, Barbara Crossette of the New York Times who was New Delhi bureau chief from August 1988 to July 1991 (Gopikrishna, 2000) wrote very critical pieces on Indian customs and mores. Moreover, Crossette’s replacement, John Burns could not seem to escape shedding the blinkers Crossette wore, and his reporting too was criticized as biased and uninformed (Dhume, 1998). Dhume, writing about Burns says, “Any publication, even one as respected as the Times, can be forgiven the occasional slip-up. But mistakes on this scale reveal a deeper malaise. Simply put, Mr. Burns does not have a grasp of elementary Indian history and politics”.
However, other commentators have said that the reporters for the prestigious newspaper are less to blame than the overly sensitive readers from the Indian Diaspora (Varadaraja, 1999).
How does bias occur?
While most journalists pride themselves on objective presentation of news and views, media presentations can be as skewed as the observations of lay people. Many studies have noted the agenda-setting function of the media. Media bias is not a phenomenon that is restricted to any one country or society or a particular newspaper or television producer. There is bias in the American media and there is bias in the India media; and surely there is bias in Indian-American media (Rao, 1997).
Much of the past research has focused on doing a content analysis of newspapers to record “how much” reporting occurs about a particular region in a particular newspaper or a particular set of newspapers, and what kinds of “news” flows from the West to the rest of the world and vice versa. The problem was first addressed on a large scale by the MacBride Commission which submitted its report to UNESCO (International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, 1980). In addition, there were a number of studies and analyses of the news media in the 1970s and 1980s and the problem of news flow (Kim & Barnett, 1996).
As Gans (1983) notes those studies were reactions to the rise of television news to national prominence, and the “disjunction of social science and journalistic world views around a series of major political events and crises”. These studies were mostly about the media operations within the country. He suggested that scholars should examine the journalistic enterprise from outside the news organizations, as well as do a “conceptual and ideological stock-taking”. Finally, he says, “the first task awaiting news researchers is a revival of qualitative content analysis, to understand what various news media say, show, assume, and value about a range of major issues and institutions in U.S. life” (p. 181).
“When was the last time you clipped an editorial from a newspaper and saved it so you could reread it again and again?” ask the authors of a book on great editorials (Sloan et al., 1992). While most newspaper readers may ignore editorials, policy wonks, opinion makers, political leaders, as well as fellow editorialists read editorials carefully.
Editorials have been defined in a number of ways, and the two most important characteristics that emerge from those definitions are: 1) An editorial is a statement of or by a newspaper staff member in an authority position, and that it deals in some manner with opinion. It is said that people read editorials not to read someone’s opinion as much as to read how effectively it is presented: that is, its ability to influence a reader’s opinion or behavior. More recently, it has been suggested that editorials be judged by their capacity to explain or interpret. The Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing is given to editorials that exhibit “clearness of style, moral purpose, sound reasoning and power to influence public opinion in what the writer conceives to be the right direction”.
The Society of Professional Journalists leaves it to the judges to decide what is a good editorial, and the National Conference of Editorial Writers believe that the chief duty of editorial writers is to “provide the information and guidance toward sound judgments that are essential to the functioning of a democracy,” and that therefore editorial writers should “present facts honestly and fully… draw fair conclusions from the stated facts… (and) have the courage of well-founded convictions”. Sloan et al therefore conclude that editorials should be judged for effectiveness, artistry, thematic significance, and truth.
A significant issue in my analysis of the editorials appearing in the two newspapers is indeed “truth”. But truth and veracity are broad concepts. Sloan et al submit that, “the concept of truth is broad and is not limited to objectively verifiable knowledge. It may include, along with factual truth, accuracy of interpretation and explanation, and moral rightness. Although one may claim that some truth is subjective, the concept plays a key, perhaps the key role in editorial quality. Clearly, editorials based on falsity are of no merit” (p. 14).
There should be little doubt that the editors of the New York Times and the Washington Post dare not publish anything they know is false. But truth is not merely the reporting of a particular “fact” but the richness and veracity of “truth” can be assessed by the menu of “facts” chosen to make the case, and how they are presented in which particular context.
Chang (1989) says the role of the elite press has long been recognized as an essential component in U.S. foreign policy making process. Chang’s study shows that coverage of U.S. China policy in the New York Times and the Washington Post in the decade of the 1950s, 1960s, and the 1970s reflected the dynamics of Sino-American relations over time, and that there was a positive correlation between editorial content (front page news and editorials) of the two newspapers and government policy. The more the government favored U.S.-China relations, the more the newspapers preferred better relations between the two countries, and that policy makers appeared to have an impact on how the two newspapers approached the China policy issue, and not vice versa.
According to a study by Hynds (1990), the New York Times consistently took stands in editorials and used argumentative writing as opposed to simply giving information. Bias and subjectivity increases as one seeks to persuade more, and it is in this light the present analysis is done.
Editorials on India-related issues appearing in the two newspapers were searched using the keyword search option available on the two newspapers’ web sites. Those editorials dealing with both Pakistan and India or India and other South Asian countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan) were included in the analysis, while those dealing exclusively with other South Asian countries were ignored. The search revealed 21 editorials in the New York Times, and 22 editorials in the Washington Post.
Coincidentally, the New York Times published seven editorials each during 1998, 1999, and 2000. The Washington Post published 12 editorials in 1998, nine in 1999, and only one in 2000.
In terms of analyzing this content, searching for “false information” would mostly be a futile exercise. Instead, what we need to look for in evaluating the effectiveness and the truth claims of editorials is to “ascertain the specific ways certain aspects of issues are highlighted and given prominence through techniques such as linguistic emphasis, treatment, intensity, and striking imagery, while other aspects are downplayed, delegitimized, or ignored” (Shah, 1999).
Yet another theoretical framework that will enable one to evaluate the quality of editorials is the framework of “orientalist discourse”. According to Inden (1990), orientalist discourse by “hegemonic agents” (those writers and institutions who dominate public discussions about others, “not simply in a constraining or coercive sense, but also in the sense that they have been accorded positions of leadership”, p. 36) is a kind of universalizing discourse produced in complex polities by persons and institutions who claim to speak with authority. What more “authority” can an institution claim than the New York Times which proclaims that it disseminates all the news fit to print, and the Washington Post whose regular and avid readers include almost all of America’s political elite?
Inden says that hegemonic agents not only seem successful in speaking for their own special interests but also for others, including workers, the masses, middle America, the taxpayer, or any other group because these groups themselves are complicit in the process of such discourse production. They are complicit in the sense that they tend to accept the premises of such discourse. Inden says that whether in nineteenth century Europe or present day America such hegemonic agents have offered “some metaphor-plated essence – rationality, the individual, the free market, the welfare state” which presents itself as a form of knowledge that is both different from, and superior to, the knowledge that the Others (e.g., Orientals) have of themselves.
Inden says that any genuine critique of Orientalism (in the present case, study of India or commentaries on India) does not just revolve around the question of prejudice or bias, or of a lack of objectivity or empathy but should penetrate “the emotional minefield surrounding scholarship on Others” (p. 38). Inden also draws our attention to the analyst’s attempts to order the world of the observed, the world of the Other, the Hindu. He says these analyses tend to be “monistic, to concentrate on one sort of ’cause’ or ‘factor’ to the exclusion of others. Which is to say that they are also almost invariably reductionist. This insight of Inden into Indological discourse should also enable us to re-read the texts fashioned by the editorial writers of the New York Times and the Washington Post.
As to hegemonic texts, Inden says that they “appear to speak for, and to, not only the interests of the rulers but also those of the ruled…. The hegemonic text is an instrument not simply for browbeating those who demur but also for exercising a positive intellectual and moral leadership…. We need not assume that a hegemonic text is primarily designed or has the effect of maintaining the dominance of one class over another. Hegemonic texts are just as often as not used by fractions of the ruled against one another and are often taken as positions by the ruled among themselves around which to rally” (p. 43) (italics mine).
The editorials were about five topics:
1. India’s new “Hindu nationalist” government.
2. The issue of Kashmir, and India’s conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir.
3. Nuclear weapons, and the Indian government’s action of testing nuclear weapons.
4. Hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane by Muslim terrorists.
5. Bill Clinton’s visit to India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Editorials on only the first two topics will be analyzed in this paper. The issues are so complex that analyzing editorial opinion on all five topics in this paper would be impossible given space constraints.
India’s “Hindu nationalist” Government
The Washington Post begins its commentary (March 14, 1998) on this issue by attempting a balanced and fair presentation of what was at stake following the latest elections in India. It commends the Indian faith in democracy while worrying that democratic governance in India has been under stress because of frequent elections, and that Indians were facing the prospect of a fourth government in two years. It does not explicitly mention that the battle for the Indian hearts and votes had been waged by the two major parties, the Congress (I) led by Sonia Gandhi, and the BJP led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It terms the BJP a “rising Hindu-nationalist party” but does not explain what it means by “Hindu-nationalist”. It commends the Italian-born widow of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi for having involved herself in a “vigorous and successful campaign to rescue the Congress Party from the consequences of its fatigue, ineptness and corruption” without telling the readers that one of the main accused in a huge corruption scandal involving the purchase of arms from a Swedish manufacturer was none other than Sonia Gandhi’s dead husband, Rajiv Gandhi. The editors say that the Indian masses are “dynasty-starved”, implying that the poor, unlettered, rural masses in India are still living in a feudal society where kings, princes and potentates were revered and obeyed, and that the Nehru dynasty (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and hopefully in 1998 Sonia Gandhi) had played and was continuing to play that role in a secular, democratic, and sovereign republic. The editorial worries about a BJP government by asking, “Would it sharpen Hindu-Muslim tensions? Make Indian foreign policy more nationalistic and openly nuclear? Stray off the path of market reform?” By raising these questions about the BJP and by subtly lauding the efforts of Sonia Gandhi, the Post’s editors seem to indicate their choice for Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party to form the next Indian government even though they knew that the BJP had won more seats (182) without having obtained a majority of the 545 seats in parliament but it had also formed an electoral alliance before the elections. It was thus waiting for the alliance partners to accede to forming a coalition government. The Congress Party had won 141 seats, and it had not tied up with any other party before the elections. The President of India had therefore asked the BJP to prove that it could get the support and commitment of its alliance partners, and indeed the BJP was able to form a government on March 28, 1998 with the help of about 16 other political parties.
But the Washington Post was more objective and circumspect than the New York Times which, very soon after the election results were out, published an editorial with this ominous headline: “New Peril in India” (March 04, 1998). The New York Times made no bones about its distaste for the BJP, saying that previously, in 1996, even though the BJP, which had gained the most seats but not a majority, had been asked to form a government for it could not get enough support from other parties to lead a coalition government. The editors comment: “But it failed to attract enough parliamentary support to form a viable government because nearly every rival group refused to sign on to the party’s noxious brew of Hindu chauvinism (italics mine)”. The editorial goes on to say that Vajpayee, the prospective Prime Minister, “has not gone so far as to repeal the party’s pledge to dismantle India’s longstanding protections for the country’s Muslim minority…. Mr. Vajpayee’s intentions might not be enough to rein in the militant Hindu chauvinists with their vision of India as a Hindu state”. The editorial ends with a call to the President of India to pick a party or coalition “most likely to stay in power long enough to tackle the country’s immense social and economic problems”. The New York Times‘ editorial comes closest to the style of “orientalist discourse” that Inden refers to. The editorial does not describe or define what Hindu chauvinism is, fails to context Hindu chauvinism (whatever that is) in the world of post-colonial India where the sub-continent’s Muslims sought to live in a separate, Islamic republic and got Pakistan in 1947. However, a large percentage of Muslims who voted for a separate Islamic republic preferred to live in secular India where their leaders began to claim special rights including a separate Muslim civil law which would govern Muslims’ lives regarding women’s rights, property rights, and marriage and divorce laws. The New York Times fails to reveal this when it accuses the BJP of having “not gone so far as to repeal the party’s pledge to dismantle India’s longstanding protections for the country’s Muslim minority”. The BJP has long sought to have what is termed in India as a Uniform Civil Code that would make all citizens of the country – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Christian – equal in the eyes of one set of laws. Not only does the New York Times fail to note this, but the editors demonize the BJP for seeking what is right not just for Indians, but for citizens in any modern, democratic country. The U.S. does not have separate laws for Muslims and Christians and Jews or Hindus about how many wives an American can marry, how they can divorce, and how or whether divorcees share their property and have custody over their children. The editors also fail to mention the overturn of an Indian Supreme Court judgment on these matters by the government headed by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. The case refers to Shah Bano, a Muslim woman, repudiated by her husband, who went to court to force him to pay alimony, which Islamic law forbids. The Supreme Court of India upheld her claim on the basis of equality before the law, but under Muslim pressure, Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government voted a law overruling the verdict and reaffirming the Islamic rules on divorce (Elst, 2001).
The editorial also warns that, “Vajpayee’s intentions might not be enough to rein in the militant Hindu chauvinists with their vision of India as a Hindu state”. Unfortunately, here too the editors not only fail to context their assertion but also come close to spreading a lie. The BJP is a political party which has its roots in the Hindu organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose founder was influenced by a man named Veer Savarkar who argued that only those people who thought of India as both their motherland and their holy land would keep the country together. This idea, before India was partitioned, had in turn had its genesis in the Muslim claim for a separate nation. India was partitioned into a Hindu-majority but secular country and a Muslim-majority Islamic republic. Most of the at least fifteen percent of Hindus who lived in Muslim-majority Pakistan have been driven out, and therefore the Hindu population in Pakistan is less than one percent today, whereas India is a country with the second largest Muslim population in the world, after Indonesia! However, India has had in turn to deal with a restive Muslim minority that is constantly asked to identify itself with a trans-national Islamic identity, the Muslim ummah. The RSS continues to therefore urge Indian Muslims to claim allegiance to India and India only. But for Muslims, their country of residence could be their motherland but not their holy land, which to all Muslims are Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. The BJP has never had as part of its political plank a demand that Muslims declare India as their holy land, and the RSS has never sought to convert India into a theological Hindu state. In fact, there can never be a Hindu theocracy because Hinduism is itself a combination of religions. This is because there is no one church, no one book, no one prophet that disseminate/d the precepts of this “religion” which Hindus claim to be “Sanatana Dharma” (eternal religion or philosophy). Some Hindus, however, draw the boundaries of Hinduism so narrowly on the basis of caste and ritual purity that relatively few would qualify to be called Hindus. The RSS and the BJP have, from their beginnings, eschewed such narrow Hinduism. Essentially, Hinduism “rests on the particular revelation(s) on which the (particular) Hindu tradition believes itself to be grounded” (Klostermaier, 1989, p. 16). Another scholar on Hinduism describes it as: “a rolling conference of conceptual spaces, all of them facing all, and all of them requiring all…. A lay Hindu… is a living contradiction, unsynthetic and logically incomplete to any and all. ‘Synthetic unity’ has never existed in Hinduism, neither in conceptual space nor in lived time” (Yadav, 1980).
The editors of the New York Times therefore not only don’t know their Hinduism, but they also falsely accuse the BJP of an agenda that it has never had. The editors seek to exercise an authority over topics on which they are poorly informed, and they appear to speak for, and to, the interests of Indians. Their hegemonic text is an instrument not simply for browbeating those who demur but also for exercising what they consider, in this case, a positive intellectual and moral leadership: they claim to speak for secular, democratic ideals. However, by misrepresenting the agenda of the BJP and the nature of Hinduism, and in seeking to order the world of modern Indians, the editors of the New York Times emerge as the composers of hegemonic texts.
The editors of the Washington Post exercise more objectivity, balance, and fairness. In their next editorial on the “Hindu nationalist” BJP government (“Passage for India”, April 24, 1999), which was pulled down by one of its coalition partners with the help of the chicanery of the Congress Party, they say that “Rule by a party organized around a religious tradition is not something new under the sun. But Hindu nationalism is an experiment for India, which has been governed for 45 of its 51 years of independence by a determinedly secular Congress Party. In important ways the elected Hindu regime deflated its critics’ darker expectations. The Hindu side showed respect for the country’s secular habit”. While one may quibble about the editors’ understanding of the nature of Hinduism, and whether indeed its evaluation of the BJP as a “Hindu” party is valid1 , the tone of the editorial is not shrill. Of the 22 editorials published by the Washington Post in the three-year period, only these two editorials focus on the “Hindu” nature of the BJP and its agendas.
The New York Times published three more editorials on the matter (“India’s Hindu Government”, March 19, 1998), “A New Trial for India” (April 20, 1999), and “Mr. Vajpayee’s India” (October 8, 1999). The editors (March 19, 1998) say, commenting about the prospect of a BJP-led coalition government: “The weak margin may turn out to be a blessing, because party leaders lack the votes to carry out their inflammatory anti-Muslim agenda. Their Government will be judged on whether it eases the country’s poverty and preserves national unity”. They then go on to claim that, “There is reason to hope that the Hindu nationalist party, called Bharatiya Janata2 (sic), will respect the country’s secular traditions. Its leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has dropped the party’s pledge to impose a uniform civil code repugnant to the Muslim minority. The party also plans to keep the special status of India’s only Muslim state and to refrain from building a Hindu temple at the site of a mosque destroyed by Hindu mobs five years ago. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Vajpayee will be able to quiet zealots in Parliament or curb anti-Muslim violence.”
As noted above, the editors don’t see the irony of advocating special status to a minority group in India. Nowhere in the world would a majority accede to the kind of privileges that Muslims have demanded and been given in India. The editors advocate something for India that they would dare not in the U.S.
Finally, the editors remark that the BJP “plans to keep the special status of India’s only Muslim state” not telling its readers that the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir has a Muslim majority only in the Kashmir valley and not overall in the state, and that the state was ruled by a Hindu king who acceded to join the Indian Union in 1948 when Pakistan sent Muslim terrorists to overthrow the king and make the whole region part of Pakistan.
As to the question of building a temple on the site of the razed mosque in the town of Ayodhya, the editors do not note that the case had been dumped in the lap of the Indian courts and that all parties had agreed to abide by the courts’ verdict (Elst, 2001).
The editors say that they do not know if Mr. Vajpayee would be able to “quiet zealots” and “curb anti-Muslim violence”. Long time observers of India note that zealotry and anti-Muslim violence is not a Hindu majority characteristic but is the outcome of centuries long conflict between Hindus and Muslims, and that the majority of religious riots in independent India have been started by Muslims though the Muslims end up suffering more casualty because they are in a minority (Elst, 1993). Varshney, director of the Center for South Asia, University of Michigan, says, “The framework within which Indian journalists and academics function – right since Nehru’s days – does often lead to this intellectual failure. Nehru used to say that majority communalism was India’s biggest enemy, not minority communalism. While that may still be true, Nehru failed to see that at some point the two could be seriously interlinked – one could instigate the other and vice versa. Nehru’s arguments came apart in the (19)80s but his intellectual legacy continues. Both forms of communalism – minority and majority – must be condemned” (Bhushan, 2002).
In the editorial on the nature of the BJP-led government, the New York Times comments (April 20, 1999) on the fall of the first BJP-led government just thirteen months after it assumed office. The editors say that Mr. Vajpayee sent the country “down a self-destructive path of testing nuclear weapons” but the Prime Minister deserved credit for “pushing back the militants in his own coalition and denouncing the violent attacks on Christians carried out by Hindu fanatics in the last year”. We see here the “authoritative” voice of the editors of the New York Times, defining for its readers, what they considered were the most important events and issues that the BJP-led government in India faced and dealt with in the thirteen months it was in office.
Finally, on October 8, 1999, the editors once again use language and present positions that are indicative of orientalist discourse. While commending the Prime Minister Vajpayee for his confident handling of the conflict with Pakistan, the editors say that Mr. Vajpayee had promised to “revive negotiations with Pakistan, speed economic liberalization and refrain from steps hostile to Muslims and other minorities”. The agenda of Mr. Vajpayee’s BJP and the party’s coalition partners (the National Democratic Alliance or the NDA), which won the elections in October 1999, did not include the construction of a temple to the Hindu God Rama in Ayodhya, the seeking of a Uniform Civil Code, nor the abrogation of Article 356 that gives special status to the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir. Only the construction of a temple to Rama in Ayodhya could be considered a step hostile to Muslims (especially the extremist Muslim leaders who have pushed an agenda of continued conflict with Hindus in India), but neither the abrogation of Article 356 nor the adoption of a Uniform Civil Code can be characterized as steps hostile to Muslims, though once again, extremist Muslim leaders would do everything in their might to defeat such a move by any Indian government, let alone the BJP-led NDA government. The editors proclaim that Mr. Vajpayee has promised “not to institute the party’s most virulent anti-Muslim measures” without saying what it was that Mr. Vajpayee had promised and why it could be considered “virulent anti-Muslim measures”. Implicit in that statement and in the position of the New York Times is that the BJP is an anti-Muslim party. Ignored in the editorial was the fact that it was a coalition government headed by the BJP that had agreed with its partners’ demands to keep in abeyance those measures that would ensure equal justice to India’s citizens, and equal status to all of India’s states.
The issue of Kashmir, and India’s conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir
Kashmir was once described as the “world’s most dangerous flashpoint,” by former President Bill Clinton (CNN, July 13, 2001), and the Kashmir region has been claimed by both India and Pakistan, and parts of it is occupied by China (Jagmohan, 1992). The modern state of Jammu and Kashmir included, beside the Jammu region, Ladakh, Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Punial, and Yasin. The tiny state of Chitral, located towards the Northwestern side of Gilgit, used to pay tribute to the Kashmiri ruler. It was due to the efforts of Maharaja Gulab Singh (the founder of Dogra Hindu dynasty in Kashmir) that the State took its present shape and form in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Kashmir was a Hindu country/region until 1339 C.E.; the Muslim period stretched from about 1561 till about 1819 when the Sikhs gained control over the region. Sikh rule spanned from 1819 to 1846, and the Dogra period from 1846 to 1947. Modern Kashmir has been claimed by both Pakistan and India, and after the partition of Indian and Pakistan in 1947, Kashmir which was then ruled by Hari Singh, joined the Indian Union. Ruled by a Dogra king, the population in the Kashmir Valley (not the whole of Kashmir and Jammu) was predominantly Muslim, and it is even more so now with the ethnic cleansing from the Valley of about 300,000 Kashmiri Hindu pandits. This, in very brief, is the status of Kashmir (Rao, 2000).
Since India and Pakistan are both nuclear states now, and one of the countries occupying parts of the Kashmir region is China, a regional nuclear power seeking to challenge the sole super power status of the U.S., any conflict over Kashmir is going to have reverberations all over the world. How the American newspapers report and comment about these matters is therefore important. It has been claimed that journalists take cues from the official policy of their home government when reporting on international events (Kim, 2000) and that U.S. foreign policymakers influence the content of newspaper editorials. So, within the framework of hegemony and orientalist discourse, and in the context of coverage of international news, how did the editorial writers of the New York Times and the Washington Post assess the Kashmir issue?
The New York Times published the following eight editorials on Kashmir and the Washington Post published five. The New York Times sets the stage for a discussion on Kashmir with its first editorial, “The Kashmir Tinderbox”. The editors absolve the British of all the harm they committed in India and to Indians with a cursory, “the conflict over Kashmir began with Britain’s hasty retreat from empire”. No editorial can provide all the information on a topic, let alone something so complex as the Kashmir issue, but it is the choice of words by the “authoritative voice” summarizing events that indict or absolve people. The editors absolve the British of the tremendous harm they inflicted on India not just during the two hundred years of colonial rule (though officially India came under the British Crown only in 1858) but when they allowed the dismemberment of India by playing the Muslims against Hindus. Worse yet, the British played a dangerous game even after India gained independence. A new book reveals that there was diplomatic and political pressure brought to bear on India to take the issue of Pakistani military aggression in 1947-48 to the United Nations, and the Indian military operations were sought to be undermined by the British Commanders-in-Chief who were apparently taking their orders more from the British High Commissioners rather than the political leadership of independent India (Dasgupta, 2002).
In 1947, when Pakistani tribesmen invaded Kashmir, Britain decided to adopt a pro-Pakistan tilt: not because of any merit in the case but strictly in pursuit of British global interests in the belief that this was essential for her Middle Eastern policy. Unfortunately for India, the British minister in charge of executing this policy, Noel Baker, had few scruples in exceeding his instructions (Dasgupta, January 07, 2002).
Even the U.N. Resolution on plebiscite was apparently speeded up to ensure it went through before General Bucher would hand over to General Cariappa, the first Indian C-in-C of the Indian Army, in January 1949. Attempts had continued throughout to resolve the Kashmir issue that would be favorable to Pakistan and Western interests. India was expected to make all the concessions. The infamous Sandys-Harriman proposals for partition of the Kashmir Valley in an effort to placate Pakistan (a military ally) by exploiting India’s weakness soon after the Sino-Indian war in 1962 also stand out as a grim reminder of the role that the U.S. and Britain has played in undermining India’s interests. That the New York Times fails to note any of this, even briefly, is a reaffirmation of the finding that American foreign policy makers influence media opinion writers overwhelmingly.
When India’s Prime Minister Nehru stood his ground the result was denial of military weapon systems from the U.S. to defend India against communist China in 1962. Five years later the military leadership of the U.S. refused to agree to any nuclear security guarantees to India because of the American military alliance with Pakistan. According to the Pakistanis, the U.S. had agreed not to question Pakistan’s nuclear program in return for Pakistan’s acceptance in becoming the “front-line state” against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. As an Indian defense expert puts it:
Trying to evolve a ‘solution’ to the Kashmir issue, including ‘track 2’ activities, had reached the levels of an industry during most of the 1990s in the U.S. This only reduced after India tested nuclear weapons in 1998. But we should remind ourselves that every one of the approximately nine formulations by Western experts required only India to make all concessions. The question therefore arises: how should we approach the future? Kashmir is described as the ‘core’ issue for Pakistan. But so is it for India, though for different reasons but with far greater justification and legitimacy. The conflict between Pakistan and India is fundamentally an ideological one and Kashmir only represents the tragic consequence of that conflict between the idea that every human being is equal (and hence the democratic principle and practice) and the contrary idea that only one sect of religion defines the equation between human beings (Singh, 2002).
The New York Times‘ editors insist that Jammu and Kashmir is India’s only Muslim state, without telling readers what they mean by it, and in which regions of the state there is a Muslim majority. The editors describe the Islamic fundamentalists who have terrorized the people of Kashmir as “guerrillas seeking independence”, and in the most egregious sleight of hand, the editors fail to note that anywhere from 300,000 to 400,000 Hindu residents of the State have been driven out by these so-called “guerrillas seeking independence” in an act of ethnic cleansing that, had it happened to be Muslims driven out of India, would have drawn the ire and the opprobrium of the editors.
Once again, providing the “authoritative” and “objective” voice of the hegemonist, the editors opine that, “the first priority would be to end violence and begin disarming Kashmiri rebels and Indian forces while Pakistan withdraws its support for the insurrection. Kashmir should itself move toward more autonomy, if not outright independence”. The editors equate Islamic fundamentalist terrorists with the Indian army when they advise that both should be disarmed. They also blithely urge independence for a region that is legally a part of a sovereign nation.
In the other editorials on the subject the editors merely repeat what they have stated in the editorial of June 28, 1998. There are small changes in terminology: Jammu and Kashmir as India’s “only Muslim state” becomes “the Muslim-dominated state of Kashmir” (May 27, 1999 and June 22, 1999), and the editors cannot but acknowledge India’s wisdom, patience, and pragmatism when they say that in response to Pakistan and Afghanistan based Islamic terrorists entering India and occupying strategic mountain-top positions in Kashmir that India “has so far shown commendable restraint” (June 22, 1999). That the editors don’t condemn Pakistani action is indicative of their pro-Pakistan bias. They write: “But Pakistan badly miscalculated if it was hoping to draw the world’s attention to Kashmir by sending in several hundred guerrilla fighters this spring”. That is the extent of their displeasure against Pakistan that sent its own armed forces masquerading as “guerrillas” and “militants” into the Indian-held section of Kashmir. The attack against India was masterminded by General Musharraf who is at present America’s chief ally against terrorism. General Musharraf is now the New York Times‘ most-admired and interviewed army general3.
Finally, in an editorial on November 24, 2000 titled “A Path to Peace in Kashmir” the editors acknowledge that the Hindu king of Kashmir opted to join India, and that India’s latest announcement of a cease-fire was welcome, and that the Kashmir problem should be resolved peacefully. That they fail to note even to the end the occupation of one third of the Kashmir region by Pakistan is indicative of the paper’s position on the legitimacy of the South Asian Muslims’ demand for separate homelands based on religious identity. The irony is that the editors reserve the harshest criticism to Hindus who seek to have in their own homeland, India, and uniform civil laws applicable to people of all faiths.
In opposition to the New York Times‘ flawed and patronizing tone on the Kashmir issue, the Washington Post yet again emerges as the more balanced and cautious newspaper. In its defining editorial (August 3, 1998) on the Kashmir problem, the editors opine: “Kashmir is the predominantly Muslim state divided in the war that followed the British partition of India 50 years ago. From the partition emerged mostly Hindu but determinedly secular India and a South Asian Muslim homeland, Pakistan. In the war, the local prince, ignoring the United Nations’ call for a plebiscite, on his own accord acceded to India. Part of Kashmir ended up under Pakistan and part under India. The latter (and larger) part constitutes the core of the problem.”
Ignoring the fact that the editors get the sequence of events and some facts wrong4 it should be noted that the tone is decidedly non-partisan. They attempt to describe rather than to opine, and their approach to the problem is cautious. They point out that, “Kashmiris demand self-determination. To get it, they are pursuing an armed insurgency with Pakistan’s support”. The editors don’t mince words when they assert that the armed insurgency is supported by Pakistan, and they don’t succumb to the equivocation that the New York Times does in inserting the Pakistan claim that Pakistan is merely providing moral support to the militants.
The editors, while urging India to heed to the democratic aspirations of the Kashmiri people, see fit to mention a very important Indian argument: “It (India) will relax its grip only if its democratic nature is properly appealed to and if its founding secular principle is acknowledged in a new political dispensation”. They also point out that “India can be narrowly nationalistic but it also is capable of rising above such feelings. But the context must be right. Propaganda thrusts and glib formulas are worth nothing. Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris must address their shared dilemma”. Compare this with the New York Times asserting that Kashmir must become autonomous if not independent, and that the Indian army should be disarmed in Kashmir.
In another editorial, the Post’s editors (February 20, 1999), commenting on the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to the Pakistani city of Lahore by bus, say about Kashmir: “It is necessary to note that all previous approaches to the problem have failed”. They do not, again, push India to do something nor do they claim to know the end game. It is not a matter of the editorial opinion being pro-Pakistan or pro-India as much as it seeks to let the players on the ground decide how best to approach the problem. Finally, in another relevant editorial (June 28, 1999), the editors worry about the escalating conflict in the Kargil region of Kashmir between Pakistan and India. They close their long editorial (774 words) by saying that “If the Kargil crisis is calmed there must come a serious address to the Kashmir question. Pakistan needs to stop blowing on the fires of armed revolt in India-held Kashmir; this is basic. But India has its own responsibilities.” This editorial too indicates not only the caution that the editors take in their attempts to understand the problem but in their attempts to “find” solutions. There is a clear divergence in the style and substance of editorializing on South Asian matters between the editors of the New York Times and the editors of the Washington Post.
India is the world’s largest democracy, and a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious nation. It is a nuclear power, a vibrant but flawed democracy whose people have not opted for military or dictatorial rule like many of their neighbors, and it is a Hindu majority country where Hinduism is defined not as a religion but a way of life that encompasses many religions, and where Muslims and Christians seeking to proselytize Hindus live in an uneasy relationship within the secular framework of the Indian Constitution. Among India’s neighbors is Pakistan, a country that was created for “South Asian” Muslims, and which has waged two major wars against India – in 1965 and 1971 – and two minor wars – in 1948 and 1999.
There are now nearly two million people of Indian origin in the United States, and they maintain very close contact with their “home” country. As Indian-Americans begin to make their presence felt in the U.S., they have begun to notice how the American media presents them and their concerns to the rest of Americans. The U.S. has had a very close military and strategic relationship with Pakistan, India’s nemesis, for the past 50 years as Pakistan agreed to the role of a front-line state against the Soviet Union, America’s nemesis. Pakistan proclaimed itself an Islamic Republic, and has been ruled by military generals for more than two-thirds of its 50 years as an independent nation. India meanwhile has determinedly remained a democracy, with free and almost always fair elections, a vibrant press, and a vigilant judiciary.
How do the elite newspapers of the U.S. present India to their readers? What editorial stances do these elite newspapers take on serious issues facing India? In this study, we analyzed editorials appearing in the New York Times and the Washington Post between 1998 and 2000. The framework for this analysis was textual analysis focusing on “orientalist mode of discourse” and “hegemonic discourse”. The years 1998-2000 were chosen because, for the first time after India gained independence, a political party with connections to Hindu organizations took office. From an analysis of two of the five topics that the editorials commented upon, we found that the Washington Post‘s editors were more descriptive, more circumspect, and more balanced in their views, and avoided advising the Indian people or Indian government. While there were some factual errors in their commentary, they were not used in a detrimental way to present India’s options in resolving problems.
The editors of the New York Times, however, hewed closely to the “orientalist mode of discourse” by seeking to present themselves as authorities on Indian issues. Orientalist discourse by “hegemonic agents” is a kind of universalizing discourse produced in complex polities by persons and institutions who/which claim to speak with authority. The editors of the New York Times seemed to have assumed “authority” on Indian matters. They sought to speak not only for their own special interests but also for others, in this case, India’s Muslims and minorities, India’s secular and progressive people, and the American public whom they implicitly present as a collective that is interested in keeping India secular and away from “Hindu nationalists”. Just like the writers of nineteenth century Europe, present day American hegemonic agents like the editors of the New York Times offer “some metaphor-plated essence”, in this instance secularism, protection of minorities, and self-determination for Kashmiris. The editorial writers of the New York Times consistently took stands in editorials and used argumentative writing as opposed to simply giving information. Bias and subjectivity increases as one seeks to persuade more. And true to the nature of such discourse, their analyses tended to be “monistic”, and concentrated on one sort of “cause” or “factor” to the exclusion of others to explain Hindu nationalism, threat to minorities, and so on.
Inden notes that, “Indological texts… place their strange and seemingly inexplicable descriptive contents in surrounding comments that have the effect of re-presenting them as distorted portrayals of reality. Inden argues that these then transform “the thoughts and actions of… Indians into a distortion of reality.” While the texts of nineteenth century focused on topics like caste, ritual, worship, etc., the editors of the Times seek to describe India’s political, religious, and social reality. Their choice of descriptors and events and their “surrounding comments” are meant not as much as to throw light on matters as much as to decide and resolve matters. The editorial writers of the New York Times emerge as a decidedly biased, anti-BJP, pro-Muslim group in the South Asian context. The editorial writers of the Washington Post in turn emerge as balanced, circumspect, and thoughtful commentators on matters pertaining to India.
1. The BJP membership is not restricted to Hindus. There are Muslims, Christians and Sikhs among not just the party rank and file, but also among its leaders. Compared to the Congress Party the percentage of Muslims and Christians in the BJP may be less, but that does not make the BJP a “Hindu only” party.
2. It is the BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), and not Bharatiya Janata (Indian people)!
3. General Musharraf overthrew the legitimate government of Pakistan headed by Nawaz Sharif in 1999.
4. It was not the Maharaja who did not heed to the U.N. call for a plebiscite. The Maharaja was waiting to decide what to do when he was overwhelmed by an attack by Pakistani led forces. Prime Minister Nehru had to rush Indian troops by airplanes to prevent the fall of Srinagar, the capital of the Hindu King. The plebiscite was urged by the U.N. when Nehru took the matter of Kashmir to the U.N., which in turn he did so because the British had plans of urging the U.N. to order a plebiscite under a more restrictive U.N. clause. The U.N. resolution has not been carried out to this day because the Indian side insists that the plebiscite can be carried out only when the Pakistani forces withdraw from one-third of Kashmir which they have occupied.
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Ramesh N. Rao is associate professor of communication in the Language and Literature Division at Truman State University. The research reported in this article was made possible by a grant from the Infinity Foundation, Princeton, New Jersey. Address correspondence to Ramesh Rao, Language & Literature Division, Truman State University, Kirksville, MO 63501, USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org