A National Geographic Magazine cover
Snapshot
  • National Geographic has apologised for racist coverage in the past, but nuanced racist aspersions continue.

Every one seems thrilled by the admission of racism by National Geographic in its coverage of cultures, communities and peoples other than the Western culture. Many Indians have hailed this as a great testimony to the self-evaluating, path-correcting Western tradition. But what we do not understand is that the West never goes for course correction unless and otherwise it can afford the course correction in terms of economics and politics.

Consider the case of slavery abolition in Britain.

In the abolition of British African slave system, the abolitionist propaganda was supported by clear economic reasoning. While charismatic evangelists like William Wilberforce were leading their charge against slave trade in British House of Commons, indentured labour from India on a mass scale was making sure that produce, products and infrastructure could be built much cheaper than through slavery. It was not an accident that James Cropper with East India Company had written a letter to William Wilberforce before the latter started his 'crusade' on slavery - though Wilberforce never spoke much of that economic advantage when he championed the abolition.

Or consider the conservation of bisons in the United States.

Between 1820 and 1889, for almost 70 years, millions of bisons were killed. The reason was not only about food and economic profit but also the policy of subjugating the native Americans. General Sheridan of the United States army was ecstatic about the bison hunters: "These men have done in the last two years, and will do in the next year, more to settle the vexed. Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last 30 years." Then in 1894 a bill was passed making the hunting of buffalo within Yellowstone Park an offence hailed as “the very fist action taken by Washington to protect the American bison”.

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Even the famous American Civil War, Alvin Toffler points out, “was not fought exclusively, as it seemed to many, over the moral issue of slavery or such narrow economic issues as tariffs”. The real clash behind the Civil War was between the old Western feudal-farming system, which could be run only with more and more slave labour and the industrialisation that worked better and more efficiently with free labour.

In other words, when the West acknowledges its crimes against the rest of humanity, the pleasures and profits of those crimes have already become integrated with the structural and functional dimensions of its civilisation that is now dominating the world.

It can seek apology because it can afford to ask now. But where the work is left unfinished as in the case of Hindus, no apology will come forth. So Steven Spielberg would never apologise for the crass depiction of Hindus in his Temple of Doom. The Catholic church will not apologise to Hindus for running the world’s longest inquisition on Indian soil. And the New York Times will continue its subtle nuanced and at times overt cultural-racist attack on Hindus with co-opted academic and media mercenaries acting as the sepoys of General Dyer in Amritsar.

In October 2015, Newslaundry website published an analysis of stories done by NYT on India and pointed out:

The main theme across all the three articles was based on a central argument that was not backed by data. And wherever a study was used to hold the arguments together, an in-depth examination of the study would refute the primary arguments. NYT editorial management may not have their ear to the ground for India-related issues and, therefore, may “outsource” stories to who they consider to be India “experts” without the same rigorous fact-checking as US stories. However, if NYT is serious about covering India, it needs to have the same rigorous standards for India as they do for other issues they cover.
‘Does the New York Times have an India problem?’

It is interesting to note that while there are many comics and movies and pulp fiction to celebrate the frontier advance of cowboys there is almost no popular literature to celebrate the wars of native Americans for their land, culture, spirituality and basic human rights. Even the Civil War and the black rights movements are shown in popular culture with paternalist white man inclusion.

While the West opted out of slavery and racism when it could afford it, India fought against social stagnation when it was subjected to colonialism. Here, there was no economic incentive but pure spiritual-humanist motivation to fight against the evils of social stagnation. Yet in the dominant global media from National Geographic to the New York Times, Hindus are essentialised with the ill-effects of social stagnation.

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At the same time, indentured labourers taken from India into many parts of the world where the British empire spread, is a much lesser studied aspect. Even when studied, the indentured labourers were portrayed as escaping the oppressive caste system back home. Studies have shown that the indentured labourers who toiled in other countries were representative of the caste-proportions back home. Yet, there are studies and novels that would concentrate more on the caste, communal and gender dynamics within the Indian indentured labourer than the abject injustice meted out to them by the empire. From Malaysia and Fiji to Uganda, the Indian descendants of these indentured labourers have been subject to atrocities, discrimination and exploitation despite some communities succeeding economically. This is the price Indians continue to pay for almost two centuries now for ending slavery in Britain. But no magazine, no media, no academic would talk about this aspect that connects social stagnation, racism and imperial Raj.

Here is just a case study of how National Geographic has reported on untouchability showing its anti-Hindu evangelical bias. After a moving, factual account of a Scheduled Community person’s travails, the article then traces the roots of untouchability to Hinduism.

To be born a Hindu in India is to enter the caste system, one of the world’s longest surviving forms of social stratification. Embedded in Indian culture for the past 1,500 years, the caste system follows a basic precept: All men are created unequal. The ranks in Hindu society come from a legend in which the main groupings, or varnas, emerge from a primordial being. From the mouth come the Brahmans—the priests and teachers. From the arms come the Kshatriyas—the rulers and soldiers. From the thighs come the Vaisyas—merchants and traders. From the feet come the Sudras—laborers. Each varna in turn contains hundreds of hereditary castes and subcastes with their own pecking orders. A fifth group describes the people who are achuta, or untouchable. The primordial being does not claim them. Untouchables are outcasts—people considered too impure, too polluted, to rank as worthy beings. Prejudice defines their lives, particularly in the rural areas, where nearly three-quarters of India’s people live. Untouchables are shunned, insulted, banned from temples and higher caste homes, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down. The ancient belief system that created the Untouchables overpowers modern law. While India’s constitution forbids caste discrimination and specifically abolishes Untouchability, Hinduism, the religion of 80 percent of India’s population, governs daily life with its hierarchies and rigid social codes.

The long passage is shown here mainly to show how the article ignores the social and historical factors as well as the strong social emancipation heuristics well in place in Hindu scriptures from the very start. For example, the Purusha Suktha itself does not mention the term ‘Varna’ in this much celebrated and misquoted hymn. Brahadaranya Upanishad which mentions the term Varna actually reverses the importance of Varnas and is more horizontal than vertical in creating the society. Further the narrative of Kavashaka who brings in Saraswati river mitigates against the tendency of social stagnation. Hence to link the present prejudices of untouchability to the Vedic scriptures is prejudiced and bad sociology. But the National Geographic does not care much about non-Christian point of view of other cultures.

Then our narrator moves on to the next level of vilification of Hinduism - Manu Smrithi and a single orthodox Brahmin become representative of all Hindu religion and entire Hindu society:

The Hindu caste system has its own instruction manual. The Laws of Manu, compiled at least 2,000 years ago by Brahman priests, prescribes for each varna what to eat, whom to marry, how to earn money, when to fight, how to keep clean, whom to avoid. “Manu is engraved inside every Hindu,” said Umashankar Tripathy, a Brahman priest I met in Varanasi, the revered pilgrimage city located on the banks of the Ganges River. Tripathy sat cross-legged on a straw mat in the temple where he teaches. He wore the traditional dhoti, a long loincloth with a tunic buttoned over it. His clothes were spotless, his hands as soft as fine leather gloves.

Tripathy says that a Brahmin would not even bow to Gandhi as Gandhi was a Vaisya. However, for National Geographic it did not matter that in the very Kasi where its reporter met Tripathy, Adi Sankara one of the greatest of Hindu seers, touched the feet of an outcast and proclaimed that anyone with knowledge of the self, irrespective of his or her birth should be accepted as one’s guru - a statement that repudiates the concept of birth based caste system.

In fact, Gandhi’s son himself was married to the daughter of Rajaji - a religious South Indian Brahmin who was highly respected in both religious and political circles. In other words the National Geographic reporter simply used a fringe religious leader to project a completely biased view that Hinduism supports untouchability.

It is also true for most Hindus who worship for example Amritanandamayi - a woman saint born in so-called low caste fishermen community in South India. She is revered as a guru by most Hindus whose number can surpass those who even know about the Brahmin priest the National Geographic reporter has chosen to cite here.

The reporter moves on to 'Harishchandra Ghat on the river's edge' where Doms - a scheduled community work on the pyres. However, what he does not tell us is that the very name Harishchandra is that of the ancestor of Sri Rama and a celebrated king. In other words, the so-called untouchables have their own legacy and respectful place in Hinduism - perverted by social conditions today definitely but at every point Hinduism shows that the social stagnation can be fought effectively through Hinduism. A perceptive reporter would have highlighted this. But here the aim is not to report but to negatively stereotype Hinduism.

Then National Geographic writes contemptuously of Hindus thus:

Conscience has occasionally moved upper caste Hindus to fight the concept of Untouchability. Mahatma Gandhi himself led one of the early and most brazen campaigns to eliminate Untouchability.
Emphasis added

In reality, as pointed out earlier, from time immemorial, Hindu society has fought against social stagnation, which in India took the form of untouchability and caste stratification. In Europe too same was the case. Unlike India, which had only four-fold division, Europe had a seven-fold pyramidal structure but religion never cared about it. Only the African slavery, Indian indentured labour along with the enormous capital and resource gain through colonial expansionism obliterated European caste system. In India, seers of Vedic spirituality to Sri Ramanuja, who admitted the so-called untouchables into priesthood and Sri Narayana Guru to Arya Samaj during the colonial times had constantly worked against social stagnation and hence untouchability and caste. Mahatma Gandhi was one in the line of this long list of great sons and daughters of India. Then the article pits Dr B R Amebdkar against Gandhi.

Gandhi’s greatest perceived sin, however, was to undermine a man named Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar — the chief draftsman of the Indian constitution, the architect of India’s affirmative action program, author of a dozen books, founder of the first Untouchable political party, and India’s one true Untouchable hero.

Then the article projects Martin Macwan, as “one of the most visible Untouchable organizers since Ambedkar”. The article describes him as “a member of a cloth-weaving caste” who faced humiliations. That he was with a Jesuit scholarship is mentioned along with an alleged ‘disillusionment’ with the church. Thus his secular credentials are secured for the reader. But he has institutional association with the church. However, the article does not mention that he was part of organisations which have strong Christian presence and/or have links to transnational evangelical organisations. For example, Martin Macwan was also then co-convenor of secular sounding National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR), which in turn has connections with IDSN (International Dalit Solidarity Network) whose UK-based charter DSN-UK's founder-trustee David Haslam associates himself with rabidly anti-Indian and anti-Semitic forces.

The article never speaks about the Sulabh movement a very visible force that breaks the caste barriers and untouchability and empowers the sanitary workers. The Sulab toilets not only breaks the untouchabilty barrier, but also the concept of defiled trades. There are many so-called Brahmins who work in the Sulabh toilets to maintain its hygience - something which was once considered defilement. However the entire article is completely silent on Dr Pathak and his work because that would puncture holes in the narrative that National Geographic is weaving. As we near the end of the article, it is explicit in its hatred for Hinduism. “Until an Untouchable leader like Ambedkar emerges ... the shame of the Untouchable condition will persist,” says the article and then the real intention is expressed: “or until Hinduism ceases playing a central role in politics and law enforcement...”.

If this is not negative stereotyping and racism of another kind then what else is? If this is not biased reporting on the part of National Geographic what else is? But then do not expect National Geographic to give an apology. It can afford to express apology when the church can afford to express apology for Goa inquisition and when British colonialism can afford to express apology for spreading Aryan race theory and for indentured labourers trade it effected through engineered famines. And that is when Hindus cease to be. Then with words ‘mischief managed’ they all can afford to apologise.

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