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A tale of two very different stories

August 02, 2012

Something remarkable is happening with the mainstream Western press: It’s starting to produce stories on India’s underside.

This is striking because in recent years, Western media narratives on India have mostly revolved around economic success, flourishing democracy (“the world’s largest”), and Bollywood.

The turning point seems to have been an incident in Assam several weeks back, when, with cameras rolling, a mob of marauding men assaulted and stripped a young woman on a Guwahati street. This deplorable act has generated extensive coverage in America and the UK, and has triggered a steady stream of stories about the dreadful status of women in India. A well-researched piece in the Guardian, headlined “Why is India So Bad for Women?” catalogues a litany of horrifying examples — women gang-raped at a police station, stripped and shaved by villagers, beheaded by their fathers — few of which have previously received any coverage in the West.

Of course, any casual visitor to India will quickly recognise the struggles faced by women in the country (according to the United Nations, India has more gender inequality than Pakistan). I was in New Delhi on March 8, 2011 — ironically, International Women’s Day — when a 21-year-old female university student was shot, in broad daylight, by a probable stalker. The attacker got away easily, and the woman lay bleeding until a solitary policeman placed her in a rickshaw and brought her to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Indian media reports described the case as a failure of New Delhi law enforcement. I wonder, though, if efforts to come to the victim’s aid and to apprehend the attacker would have been more robust and immediate had the victim been male.

This represents the dark side of India — the one that isn’t “shining,” and the one that Western media coverage largely eschews. It’s dominated by appalling levels of poverty (admittedly, several Western outlets have reported Oxford University’s finding that there is more poverty in eight Indian states than in all of sub-Saharan Africa combined) and corruption.

And then there’s the violence. The latest flare-up of ethnic strife in Assam’s Kokrajhar region (covered by few Western outlets besides the BBC and New York Times) is a recent example, yet there is also frequent religious and caste-based violence, not to mention unrest sparked by the roughly 100 insurgent groups operating in northeastern India alone, and by the country’s Maoist rebellion.

Of course, these are the same types of problems afflicting Pakistan, and they figure prominently in Western media depictions of that country. So why does the Western press so often highlight these issues in Pakistan, yet so rarely in India? One possibility is that they are, broadly speaking, less widespread and acute in India. After all, New Delhi, unlike Islamabad, makes genuine efforts to provide for the general population — generous shares of national budgets are dedicated to social services and human development, and efforts to educate the masses have enjoyed a measure of success. Additionally, India is not burdened by a legacy of military rule — or of state-sponsored support for militancy.

Another reason why India is portrayed more positively in the Western media is that it enjoys a better image abroad — thanks to both a Bollywood-fueled global cultural narrative (also known as soft power) and an extensive diaspora, which features prominent public personalities (from Deepak Chopra and Fareed Zakaria to Nikki Haley and Rajiv Shah) and boasts powerful lobby groups in key Western capitals.

How about Pakistani media treatment of India? The Pakistani press certainly doesn’t ignore India’s unsavory side. However, it is guilty of another important omission: It rarely captures the sentiments of the rising numbers of Indians who neither regard Pakistan as a threat (notwithstanding continued fears of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil) nor harbor a desire to attack their western neighbor. By hewing to this strategy, Pakistani reportage undoubtedly strengthens the Pakistan-under-threat line long peddled by elements in the security establishment. Yet in fact, even while many Indians remain hostile to Pakistan, their fears about Pakistan, as I’ve written previously, are increasingly getting eclipsed by growing alarm about China. When I speak with Indian security experts about future war scenarios, they all want to talk about China, not Pakistan.

So it’s important for the Western media to provide a balanced picture of India. Yet it’s also essential for the Pakistani media to do so. By highlighting India’s softening perceptions of Pakistan, the Pakistani media can help reduce domestic paranoia about India, thereby improving the already-encouraging climate for Pakistan-India détente (and yes, I acknowledge that Indian media coverage of Pakistan is far from flawless, and that it could also help improve bilateral relations with more balanced reportage — both points deserving of separate posts).

Is this all too much to ask for? Probably so. But it’s still well worth a try.


The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.