Reporting on “History Battles”

BY VAMSEE JULURI| IN Media Practice | 10/03/2018
A Reuter’s report reveals the bias, clichés, and laziness that crop up on the subject of Hindus and India’s ‘first inhabitants’.
VAMSEE JULURI explains

 

In the last few days, a report for Reuters India by Rupam Jain and Tom Lassiter has become the subject of several news reports in the Indian media.

The article, entitled “By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India,” reports the discovery of documents showing that the Narendra Modi government has appointed a committee of scholars to prove that “Hindus are descended from India’s first inhabitants,” and that fact is somehow worrying to the country’s Muslim minority who believe that “the government wants to make them second class citizens.”

Before we analyze this story, it may be worth noting that this claim was refuted in a report in the Times of India the very next day (March 7, 2018) after the original story appeared in Reuters.

The report quotes Culture minister Mahesh Sharma and is headlined “Panel on culture not bid to rewrite history.” The committee appointed by his ministry (the subject of the Reuters report) was asked to submit a report to the government on various issues like the origin of Sanskrit but was independent of any charge to rewrite textbooks.

HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar is quoted as saying he is unaware of the existence of this committee or its findings. Reuters has not published any updates or references to this new report as of the time of my writing this article.

As someone who has been involved deeply in the debate about how history (human, natural, Indian) is taught in schools and colleges and depicted more broadly in popular culture (please see my earlier articles in The Hoot - and Huffington Post), I would like to explore in this article the extremely clichéd, lazy, distorted, unsubstantiated, and propaganda-like levels that reportage on this issue has been floundering about in.

I would also like to draw the attention of members of the BJP government (hoping they read important media watchdog sites like The Hoot and not merely duck behind constituent-pleasing abusive epithets like “presstitutes”) to the importance of having a sane, sound, and articulate communications policy with the media and the public, including their constituents who expect a better approach from them to education and curriculum issues than hollow statements.

 

Riots, religion, and the GIF parade

The first thing that strikes a reader about the Reuters story is its extremely sensationalistic presentation. The thumbnail gifs for the link to the article on Twitter flash a series of images that include: a giant Hanuman statue with glowing eyes at night, a close-up of a Hindu sadhu, a wall covered with Hindu calendar deities, a cyclist going past a row of marching RSS volunteers, Prime Minister Modi exiting from an Air India aircraft, and a bonfire on a street with a mob watching in the distance.

Inside the report, there are other photographs, including two that suggest that Muslims are in danger in India: a top-view photo of a Muslim child reading the Quran in a madrassa, and a striking view from behind their backs of a Muslim elder and his grandchildren of an ominous dark cloud over the sea.

As anyone familiar with the conventions of suspense or horror cinema knows, this sort of point of view for the camera is intended to magnify danger or at least vulnerability. “What a sea of troubles Muslims face because of Hindus rewriting history!” is the message that the poignant photo at the end implies (interestingly, there is also a photo of a Hindu priest reading the Gita, but here the camera somewhat looks up at him from the front, foregrounding the book in a dominating manner as if to reify his alleged priestly, bookish “supremacism,” the key claim that the story is attempting to make).

To their credit, the rest of the images do not necessarily demonize Hinduism, with the exception of one gratuitous and deeply-strained dig at the Ramayana in the caption for a photograph of a giant Hanuman statue at the top of the report. The caption tells us that Hanuman appears in the Ramayana, a text which “informs many Indians’ sense of gender roles,” a claim somewhat complicated, if not contradicted, by the fact that Hanuman is a symbol of male celibacy and most Indians males are, well, not.

I should also point out that if the looming Delhi Hanuman and its alleged gender hegemony is the best the authors or editors could think of in order to convey Hindu supremacism in Modi’s India, they should know that they picked a wrong example. This particular Hanuman statue is one that been threatened with removal by the court, and an informed Hindu reader already associates this picture with what many see as a continuing bias in the Indian state against Hindu places of worship, religious symbols, festivals and traditions .

 

Presumption of expertise

I began with a close reading of the visuals in the story because they represent a continuing tradition in international news reports on India of painting a monochromatic picture of a “saffron danger” to the minorities, and an aversion to any kind of professional labour by way of substantiating one’s claims with evidence, reason, and in-depth study.

For a story that leads with what almost sounds like a self-congratulatory claim of investigative journalistic accomplishment (that details of the existence of this Hindu nationalist culture and history committee are being “reported for the first time”), it is telling that the authors do not offer a single document they have supposedly reviewed for scrutiny by their readers.

Are these minutes confidential? What are the names of the committee members? We are not told. We are essentially asked to take the word of the two reporters (and their support staff) that they have reviewed the minutes of the meetings and interviewed some of the committee members and have satisfactorily concluded that the Hindu nationalist government wants to “shape the national identity to match their religious views.” (I requested the authors and Reuters India to share links to the documents they reviewed on their Twitter timeline but did not get a response).

The competence of reporters (and editors presumably) to distinguish between scholarly investigation, debate, and paradigmatic changes in academia on the one hand, and dictatorial fundamentalists washing aside science for primitive, unscientific, “beliefs” on the other, is of central importance when covering issues like this.

While I cannot say whether I agree or disagree with the recommendations of the committee itself as their reports have not been shared by anyone involved so far, what is striking is the sheer lack of reflexivity and learning on the part of some of those reporting on this topic.

One of the key claims made in the report is that the committee and the government by extension are trying to concoct a history based on Hindu religious texts. They offer some quotes from the minister which sound quite characteristic of how non-academicians talk about some of these issues; that “Hindu scriptures are factual accounts” and that “if the Koran and Bible are considered part of history, what is wrong in accepting Hindu religious texts as part of history” and so on.

The first of these comments is arguably an expression of belief. The second one seems to be more about equity rather than Hindu supremacy. All the same, these are expressions I would not subscribe to for their lack of nuance, and will leave it to the minister and the committee to tell us more if they wish to.

The key question, though, that we must ask about this report, is its uninformed privileging of what we might call the Nehru-Thapar-Tharoor (people cited in the story) view of Indian history as scientifically accurate and challenges to it, including the most important charge against it of its denial of Hindu indigeneity to India (the Aryan invasion/migration thesis), as little more than a political project of the RSS based on their religious beliefs aimed at denying Muslims an equal place under the Indian sun.

Given the seemingly simplistic and academically uninformed quotes used in the article, one might believe that the committee’s task is indeed one of somehow trying to “prove” religious beliefs held by Hindus.

However, what the report seems completely unaware of is the fact the so-called “tapestry” theory of Indian identity (that Hindus are descended from Central Asian invaders or migrants and their culture was no more or less colonial in nature than later religious-imperial forces), however pleasing it may sound, is not based on archeological evidence either but merely on a (quasi-religious, pseudo-scientific and Eurocentric) reading of Hindu sacred texts - although it is the “Hindu nationalists” alone who are accused of basing history on a reading of religious texts!

The Aryan invasion/migration theory, and indeed the core of the supposedly scientific and secular history that scholars like those quoted in this report are trying to avoid any questioning of under the guise of protecting Indian multiculturalism, has at its core a completely unscientific claim rooted in 19th century European Christian mythological beliefs about creation, human “races,” and world history.

The connections between this theory, which regrettably continues to be taught as fact to hapless school children in India (and bandied about naively in official Indian government websites), and the specific theological beliefs and imperatives of colonial Protestant “scholars” have been critiqued with mastery and erudition by scholars like Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee in their brilliant The Nay Science and by S.N. Balagangadhara in his masterful The Heathen in his Blindness.  

Without addressing their important critiques and findings, it only seems like what even well-read writers like Shashi Tharoor and others are clinging to with their equivocations and fantasies of an “Aryan”/Muslim/European triptych’’ of migrations or invasions into India is not truth at all but an old colonizer's myth.

The absence of genetic evidence of a large scale invasion or migration of foreigners into the Indian population around the time of the supposed Aryan invasion/migration that brought Hinduism to India has also been noted by the most reasonable of popular historians like Sanjeev Sanyal in his widely-read book Land of Seven Rivers .

One might still wish to argue about the geographic origins of Sanskrit, or where the Vedas were composed, and so on, but the fact is that perpetuating the colonial legacy of denying Hindu indigeneity is not an acceptable way at all for ensuring that Hindus and Muslims all share equal rights and respect in India, and, if I may add, for professional journalists and journalistic institutions to win back the respect of their readers from the fabled WhatsApp forwards that fill everyone’s screens these days.

 

Broadening the debate

It is commendable that journalists are taking an interest in how a postcolonial nation that has undergone profound political change as seen in the elections of 2014 and more recent regional elections views itself, and the story of its past as left behind by its previous rulers.

What would be even more commendable is if in the future reporters also looked around to represent scholars with expertise in these issues. A long-standing tradition of bias is also evident in the Reuters piece in terms of the selection of experts and sources.

On one side, the piece quotes writers and professional historians like Shashi Tharoor and Romila Thapar as experts, and on the other, it remains mostly confined to RSS and BJP leaders and politicians. This is a sign of bias and propaganda, rather than an honest attempt at investigating an important public issue.

At the very least, a reference to the supposedly “mythical” Saraswati river would have warranted a quote from a scholar like Michel Danino, who has written an important book on the subject.

Finally, the BJP government also needs to grow up and stop playing politics about important academic issues which impact not only the credibility of its efforts but also the emotional well-being of millions of school-children being fed poisonous lies about their supposedly barbaric Hindu ancestors in Indian schools year after year (and if the textbooks promote these blatant lies about Hindus, informal word-of-mouth myths and misrepresentations about Muslims seem to do the rounds callously in schools and playgrounds as well, as the recent book Mothering a Muslim tells us).

There is a well-educated, balanced, and inclusive set of professionals, public intellectuals, and young bloggers in the BJP’s constituency that expects the same kind of professionalism from the government in cultural and educational matters as they see in their own lives and workplaces.

It is quite clear that their faith in the government to address this issue, and do so competently, is shrinking. As if to compensate (or to throw a dog a bone, to put it less politely), the government (or party) seems to make occasional gestures such as setting up committees to look into history.I do not know whether this particular committee is merely gestural or not since none of us have any further information on it beyond the skewed Reuters story, but the signs so far show that everybody is trapped in an unfortunate deadlock of competing political interests; a party attempting to show its base some signs of action on this front (and then retreating into needlessly embarrassed denials at the slightest challenge from the academic status quo), and a monolithic journalistic worldview with its favoured intellectuals twisting facts into ever more convoluted narratives to avoid facing up to reality.

 

Vamsee Juluri PhD is Professor of Media Studies, University of San Francisco
Author of Becoming a Global Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television (Peter Lang, 2003), The Mythologist:A Novel (Penguin India, 2010), Bollywood Nation: India through its Cinema (Penguin India, 2013), Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence (Westland, 2015), The Guru Within (Westland, forthcoming) and Saraswati's Intelligence: Part 1 of The Kishkindha Chronicles(Westland, 2017).
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