Chakravartty / Translating Television Terror in India & New Media / May 2002
Translating Terror in India Paula Chakravartty University of California, San Diego
India’s ambiguous position in relation to U.S. hegemony is reflected in the Indian media’s response to the 9-11 attacks and the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Historically, not only has India been one of the most vocal third world critics of U.S. economic and political influence, it has also played a strategic military and economic role among the world’s democracies. India’s conflicted role on the global stage has perhaps never been quite as clear as now, with the United States waging a war on the borders of South Asia in a fragile partnership with the military rulers of Islamic Pakistan. Today, India sits astride one of the most explosive political and economic targets of U.S. retaliation for the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and must confront a new reality in its foreign policy as it prepares for greater political and economic involvement in a region ravaged by war. In this context, the Indian media sought to make sense of the events that had transpired in the days and weeks following September 11, framing the attacks in a set of locally resonant narratives about terror, Islam, U.S. foreign policy, and the looming military response.1 The immediate coverage, as in the United States, was on the grim details of the attack and its disastrous consequences. Non-English-language channels rapidly dubbed American coverage while English-language television broadcast direct clips from CNN, CNBC, BBC, and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox cable news repackaged through Star TV. The following analysis is limited to the English-language media, which targets influential elite audiences in the largest metropolitan areas of the country.
Islam and Hindu Fundamentalism The following press release, issued at 9:00 P.M. on 11 September by a U.S. organization linked to the ruling Indian political party, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), exemplifies the instant connection made by the Indian political right between Islam and terror: TELEVISION & NEW MEDIA Vol. 3 No. 2, May 2002 205–212 © 2002 Sage Publications
Television & New Media / May 2002 What India has been witnessing for over a decade, the United States has experienced the fury of Islamic terrorism only now on its own soil. The target of the Islamic terrorism is not just a country or a community but the entire civilized society. Today, the entire civilized world is united to fight peaceful coexistence of the nations and societies. We take this opportunity to urge GOI [government of India] to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the fierce outrage of the international community against global terrorism.2
Once American sources began to assert that the attacks could be linked to Islamic groups with bases in Afghanistan, much of the Indian Englishlanguage media rushed to frame the devastating tragedy in New York in terms of the ongoing domestic campaigns against “terrorists” in India. On 12 September, alongside pictures of the airplanes exploding into the twin towers with lead stories documenting the attacks, national Englishlanguage dailies such as the Indian Express featured cover stories with headlines such as “Terror Strikes India; Airfields on Alert, Vigil Up on Border” (Sawant 2001). Similar to the right-wing Israeli government, the Indian BJP administration moved quickly in its attempt to equate terrorism in America with “Islamic” terrorism in India, particularly in reference to the volatile issue of Kashmir. The BJP has long promoted an ideological campaign to reimagine a Hindu nation that neatly fits Samuel Huntington’s framework of civilizational religions bounded by borders, in contrast to a borderless and predatory Islam. For advocates of this vision, the attacks on September 11 firmly reinforce the global politics linking Islam to terrorism, thus justifying the BJP’s own chauvinism against the large Muslim minority in India and adding weight to the moral authority of the Indian side of the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan. Within 24 hours of the Word Trade Center attacks, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gave a televised address (on Doordarshan, the Indian state-owned network) to the nation asserting India’s support of any U.S. military action. He asked Indians “to be part of this global war on terrorism. . . . Terrorism respects no logic, as India which has had to pay a horrific price for it knows only too well.3 The specific reference here is to an ongoing dispute with neighboring Pakistan over the territorial sovereignty of Kashmir, a region that has experienced heightened political conflict garnering recent global attention because of possible nuclear ramifications. In many ways, the Indian administration’s “unconditional and unambiguous support” for the war against terrorism is directly related to its own perceived internal and external threats from Islamic “militants.” Since September 11, there has been a great deal of attention placed on “antiAmerican” sentiments expressed by India’s approximately 100 million Muslims, who represent the country’s largest minority. Whereas earlier the
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pro-BJP media tended to zero in on the supposed “pro-Pakistan/ anti-India” feelings within the Muslim community, since September 11 influential conservative Muslim clerics such as New Delhi’s Shahi Imam are portrayed as representatives of a “fanatic” disloyal community within. Ironically, anti-Americanism in this context is being deployed by many reactionary voices in the media to justify the arrest of Islamic clerics on grounds of disloyalty and sedition (Puri 2001). One issue that complicates the Hindu chauvinist equation of Islam with terror in the Indian media is racial backlash in the United States—including two cases of murder—toward Americans of South Asian origin. Almost every major English-language newspaper featured stories by nonresident Indians living in the United States coping with the aftermath of the attacks. The Indian media were thus forced to confront racism in the United States that affected Americans of South Asian descent irrespective of religion. Many writers and experts on hate crimes against South Asians pointed out that hundreds of people of South Asian origin had died in the World Trade Center attacks. These articles and editorials encouraged the U.S. administration to protect “all affected minorities” (Arresting hate crimes 2001). This was in marked contrast to the BJP government’s strategy of issuing statements of concern about Sikh and Hindu communities, conspicuously leaving out the fate of Muslims of Indian origin who live in the United States.4 Overall, the Indian government and its Hindu fundamentalist supporters have tried to frame the American crisis as an opportunity to target a common enemy of civilization, and most television coverage reinforced the government’s position along with the more conservative newspapers. A 13 September editorial from the New Delhi–based conservative paper the Pioneer stated, “Since Islamic terrorists have supporters and training camps in many countries, and the governments of some of these—Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example—have been providing them with covert or other assistance, there is need for a coalition of nations to strike them.”5 Experts and journalists have flooded the print and electronic media speculating about the connection between the terrorists who attacked the United States and the so-called “freedom fighters” or jehadis responsible for attacks in Kashmir and other Indian cities and the hijacking of flight IC-814 on 31 December 1999. A telling newspaper headline reads “Mumbai to New York, the Road Passed through Kandahar” (Dey 2001). Nevertheless, India’s diverse print media have been far from monolithic in their support of this belligerent vision of Islam and terror. Most papers have provided a historical context for the attacks in America, drawing on the paradoxical history of the United States and its political and military support of the most conservative forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, writers have drawn parallels between the rise of conservative fundamentalist regimes throughout Asia and the Middle
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East, including the rise of the BJP in India (Radhakrishnan 2001). Series of articles and editorials from the Times of India, the Hindu, the Indian Express, Frontline magazine, Outlook magazine, and others have vehemently criticized the government’s strategic “war-mongering” against Islamic “terrorists” and condemned the administration’s escalation of an already volatile situation. These articles have pressed Indian television programs to represent views from moderate and liberal Indian Muslims and have warned of the dangers of allowing the debate to shift between two poles of religious fundamentalism. These writers have also called for a measured response to the tragedy in the United States, one that would not penalize innocent civilians in a poor nation such as Afghanistan. In conjunction with a large peace and justice movement, progressive journalists, intellectuals, and academics have mounted a consistent challenge to the BJP’s vision of Islam and terror in newspapers and magazines. Some of the articles such as Arundhati Roy’s powerful “Algebra of Infinite Justice,” published in Outlook on 8 October, have become widely circulated texts promoting an anti-war position in newspapers and web sites around the world.6 Although clearly a much broader debate exists in Indian media culture over the relationship between terror and Islam than here in the United States, there is no doubt that the dominant discourse reproduces the American narrative of a war against “civilization” reformulated through a Hindu fundamentalist framework. As will be seen in the next section, the American government’s eventual alliance with Pakistan in its bombing campaign in Afghanistan severely strains this narrative of a common Islamic enemy.
Debating Democracy and Terrorism In contrast to coverage of the attack in the United States, the Indian media’s coverage of the war in Afghanistan has been framed in binary terms of democracy versus terrorism. However, this should not be interpreted as pure mimicry of CNN news values. In this case, India as a democracy is seen as contesting America’s strategic alliance with its undemocratic neighbor, Pakistan. The United States responded politically and militarily to the events of September 11 by closely allying itself with Pakistan, and the Indian government’s initial outpouring of support was instantly replaced with accusations of betrayal. Not only was the United States betraying its “natural” non-Islamic ally in the “war against civilization,” it was also choosing to support a military dictatorship over a market-friendly, democratic government that had offered airspace, intelligence, and even military support. The U.S. decision to lift sanctions against Pakistan in exchange for General Pervez Musharraf’s cooperation in the war against the Taliban led India’s
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most popular weekly magazine, India Today, to state that “America can’t see its true friend in the fog of war” (The natural ally 2001). The Indian government’s precarious relationship with Washington visà-vis Pakistan has given the Indian print and electronic media much more room to uniformly criticize American foreign policy and power in the arena of international relations. In contrast to the civilizational discourse against Islam, on this issue we see an aggressive critique of American “bullying” in matters of foreign policy from both the Left and, perhaps more surprisingly, the Hindu Right. The right-wing critique of U.S. empire—that the United States follows rules against terrorism only as it applies to American interests—tends to prevail in the domestic electronic media and much of the print media.7 Following the logic of the debate over India’s nuclear tests in 1998, the dominant media discourse promotes Indian military nationalism, challenging the global hegemonic power of the American military. This critique of American foreign policy and power became resonant once again when 38 people were killed by a car bomb in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir province, on 1 October of this year. The Indian government demanded that the United States include the organization allegedly responsible for the bomb—a group linked by the Indian administration to Pakistan—on the official “list” of terrorist organizations. Prime Minister Vajpayee issued a statement to President George W. Bush “telling him there was a limit to India’s patience” (Puri 2001). Following the United States’ own course of action in combating terror, Indian news programs and magazines provocatively asked “Should India Attack?”8 The point of contention for the Indian Right has been America’s flawed response to terrorism defined by its own “narrow self-interest” and “double standards.” They argue that the international community’s disinterest in terrorism in India—be it the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, Sikh’s fighting for Khalistan, the ongoing violent insurrections in the northeast provinces and Bihar, or most significantly the violence in Kashmir—translates to the sanction of military attack only when the West, specifically the United States, is the target of violence (Aiyar 2001). Outside of television, the Indian administration’s nationalist military calculus has been strongly challenged as an “unseemly grab for a role in the battle against terrorism” (Bidwai 2001). Journalists have sharply criticized both American and Indian television coverage of the war in Afghanistan in the more open spaces of print and, to a lesser degree, web-based media. In response to the Indian administration’s attempts to use its democratic antiMuslim record to negotiate with Washington, critics in the print media have pointed out that “the courtship of superpower patronage . . . is not a risk-free enterprise” (Muralidharan 2001). In a variety of newspapers, magazines, and web sites, as well as in leftist periodicals such as Frontline and
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popular academic journals such as Economic and Political Weekly, writers point out that while the dominant media are quick to remind the Indian public that the “Taliban is a creation of Pakistan,” they “suppress the fact that bin Laden is himself the creation of the US. His al-Qaeda was fathered and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency as part of America’s holy war against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (Bidwai 2001). Although these writers echo their conservative counterparts in exposing American double standards in international relations, they also spell out America’s pivotal role in escalating regional tensions through its support of the Mujahadeen. A Frontline cover story soon after the bombing campaign in Afghanistan began reminded readers of the following: “That the Americansponsored jihad in Afghanistan was executed at the same time that terrorist campaign in Kashmir was conceived is no coincidence. One was the corollary of the other. History is not easily reversed” (Muralidharan 2001). In contrast to the distant recollection in American political culture of the U.S. government’s role in Afghanistan during the cold war, historical memory of America’s strategic intervention in the region is much more tangible in India. The Indian media is far from silent about the consequences of American meddling in the region and the subsequent escalation of military tensions with Pakistan, as well as what this has meant for the overwhelming majority of Indian citizens living on the edges of poverty. Once again in the print media in particular, the coverage has included the response to the war by India’s vast array of social and political movements that continue to challenge the government’s economic, social, and foreign policy. The dominant conservative media in India seized upon the threat of militant Islam to link the plight of the victims of the World Trade Center to the fear of the so-called Hindu majority. Clearly outnumbered by voices representing this more conservative, nationalist perspective, proponents of an alternative reading of events in the media speak to a large and likely sympathetic public in India’s economically and socially fractured democracy. For example, as the Indian government negotiates its strategic role with the United States in the post-Taliban scenario, it is clearly in the uncomfortable position of balancing nationalism, neo-liberalism, and pro-Americanism. In the midst of this fragile balancing act, the reality of an American war against the impoverished Afghan people inevitably raises unsettling contradictions for the Indian public. In response, critics in the Indian media use these contradictions to pose questions about the relationship between poverty and terrorism and about the legitimacy of the only superpower to make and enforce the rules of global governance.
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Notes 1. There is a vast body of literature on the Brazilian and Indian mass media. For two current works that provide a helpful overview of the current contexts, see Jeffrey (2000) and Straubhaar (2001). 2. See http://www.ofbjp.org/stmpt/pr-091101.html. 3. This quotation is from an overview of Indian media coverage of the World Trade Center attacks in the on-line edition of the Guardian. See http://www. guardian.co.uk/wtccrash/story/. 4. There were several examples of the Indian government’ s attempts at distancing itself from Indian Muslims. One example was an e-mail that was sent by the Indian embassy to Indian residents of the United States encouraging women to wear “bindis” so that “Americans” would know to distinguish Hindus from Muslims. Another example can be found in the Sikh Mediawatch and Taskforce’s response to Prime Minister Vajpayee’ s request to President Bush to intervene on behalf of Indian Sikhs facing backlash in the United States. In an email press release distributed in mid-September, the group writes: While the Sikh community in the U.S. appreciates Prime Minister Vajpayee’s help, we are alarmed at the prime minister s startling omission of any mention of the potential risk to Muslims in the United States. There are more than a 100 million Muslims in India, nearly seven times the 14 million Sikhs in India. It is puzzling therefore that the prime minister should express his concern for the safety of Sikhs to President Bush and make no mention of the Muslim community. For more information, write to [email protected]
5. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/wtccrash/story/. 6. This article was reprinted in the Guardian as well as many other non-American national dailies. It has been widely circulated on the world wide web. The original essay can be found at the Outlook web site, from the 8 October issue: http://www. outlookindia.com. 7. It would be useful to compare news coverage of U.S. foreign policy and its military retaliation by global conglomerates such as Murdoch’s Star TV, CNN, and CNBC with domestically produced news, both on the public networks and on private cable channels. 8. See stories in India Today since the 1 October attack in Srinagar. For example, see the cover story at http://www.indiatoday.com/itoday/20011029/indesx.shtml.
References Aiyar, M. S. 2001. Lighting Bush Fires: Whose War against Terrorism Is It Anyway? The Indian Express, 2 October. Available from http://www.indian-express.com/ ie20011002.
Television & New Media / May 2002 Arresting Hate Crimes in America. 2001. The Hindu, 15 September. Available from http://www.hinduonnet.com. Bidwai, P. 2001. Commentary. Frontline 18 (20). Available from http://www. flonnet.com/fl1820/18201110.htm. Dey, J. 2001. Mumbai to New York, the Road Passed through Kandahar. The Indian Express (Delhi), 24 September. Available from http://www.indian-express.com/ ie20011001/. Jeffrey, R. 2000. India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the IndianLanguage Press 1977-1999. New York: St. Martin’s. Muralidharan, S. 2001. India and the War. Frontline 18 (21). Available from http:// www. flonnet.com/fl1821/18211190.htm. The Natural Ally. 2001. India Today, 29 October. Available from http://www. indiatoday.com/itoday/20011029/index.shtml. Puri, B. 2001. India, Kashmir and War against Terrorism. Economic and Political Weekly, 27 October. Radhakrishnan, P. 2001. The Taliban Tangle. The Hindu, 14 September. Available from http://www.hinduonnet.com. Sawant, G. 2001. Terror Strikes India. The Indian Express (New Delhi), 12 September. Available from http://www.indian-express.com/ie20010212/. Straubhaar, J. 2001. Brazil: The Role of the State in World Television. In Media and Globalization: Why the State Matters, edited by Nancy Morris and Silvio Waisbord, 133-54. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.