Persecution in India: It matters only if it’s about Muslims

Nice to know the New York Times cares so much about religious freedom in India — at least for Muslims.

“For Nation’s Persecuted Muslim Minority, Caution Follows Hindu Party’s Victory,” warns a headline in an 1,100-plus-word story on that nation’s elections Friday. And the newspaper wastes no time in sympathizing, with these as the third and fourth paragraphs:

Discrimination against Muslims in India is so rampant that many barely muster outrage when telling of the withdrawn apartment offers, rejected job applications and turned-down loans that are part of living in the country for them. As a group, Muslims have fallen badly behind Hindus in recent decades in education, employment and economic status, with persistent discrimination a key reason. Muslims are more likely to live in villages without schools or medical facilities and less likely to qualify for bank loans.

Now, after a landslide electoral triumph Friday by the Bharatiya Janata Party of Hindu nationalists, some Muslims here said they were worried that their place in India could become even more tenuous.

The article then quotes an amazing nine sources: journalists, small businessmen, even a professor in London. They remind us of modern India’s violent birth in 1947, when most Muslims were split off into Pakistan. They tell about housing discrimination, with some Hindus even complaining that Muslim neighbors would lower property values.

The sources tell about 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, who died in riots in 2002 in Gujarat, Modi’s home state in India. (However, Modi was personally cleared of any participation.) And a member of the “liberal intelligentsia,” as the Times calls him, fears that Modi is a “threat to India’s secularism.”

All that is certainly newsworthy stuff when 15 percent of all Indians belong to the world’s second-largest religion. Helping nearly 190 million people feel safer is a good idea. But what about the safety of Indian Christians and other religious minorities?

Sure, they may amount to less than 28 million Indians, but they’re members of the world’s largest religion — which, of course, is the majority of the Times’ American readers. Yet a search of recent Times stories, especially connected with the election, shows no such concern for them.

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What does it mean to be transgendered in India?

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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

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No sex please, we’re Indian


Rape and religion returned to the front pages of India’s newspapers this week after a judge in Delhi stated premarital sex was sinful.

The Hindu reported:

Pre-marital sex is “immoral” and against the “tenets of every religion”, a Delhi court has said while holding that every act of sexual intercourse between two adults on the promise of marriage does not become rape. Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat also held that a woman, especially grown up, educated and office-going, who has sexual intercourse on the assurance of marriage does so “at her own peril”.

According to The Times of India, Judge Bhat, who presides over a court set up last year in response to the nationally publicized gang rape and murder wrote:

When a grown up woman subjects herself to sexual intercourse with a friend or colleague on the latter’s promise that he would marry her, she does so at her own peril. She must be taken to understand the consequences of her act and must know that there is no guarantee that the boy would fulfil his promise. He may or may not do so. She must understand that she is engaging in an act which not only is immoral but also against the tenets of every religion. No religion in the world allows pre-marital sex.

The BBC picked up this story as well. It added this explanation for Western audiences in its story “Indian judge says pre-marital sex ‘against religion’”:

Pre-marital sex remains a cultural taboo in India. Last year, a court in Delhi said live-in relationships were immoral and an “infamous product of Western culture”.

But the BBC goes no further in offering context or an explanation (it appears to be a re-write of an AFP story, which may be a mitigating factor). Even though the lede and headline of the BBC story makes explicit reference to religion, this angle is not developed. This criticism does not fall only on the BBC, the Indian press has also shied away from developing the religious angle to this story and has been content to publish only the judge’s obiter ditca.

The press has not remained silent in discussing Judge Bhat’s remarks — but the conversation has been channeled into discussions of gender and women’s rights.

Why the reticence? In a series of GetReligion posts, TMatt has addressed whether the Indian press avoids reporting on the religion and caste angles to a story. In a 2010 post entitled “Life and death (and faith) in India,” he wrote:

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

The Indian press as well as the BBC and the wire service reports on Judge Bhat’s decision are continuing this trend of avoiding religion in reporting. An in depth article from the Wall Street Journal last November entitled “Indian Rape Law Offers Desperate Last Resort” sticks to culture only.

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WPost hints at religious ghosts in India’s rape crisis

Several years ago, during a tour to promote The Media Project book called “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” I took part in an excellent forum about religion and the news at a media institute in Bangalore, India. Here’s how I described that scene in a 2010 post that ran with the headline, “Life and death (and faith) in India.”

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

I thought about that scene again while reading yet another Washington Post report about India’s ongoing protests linked to rape and, to be specific, the lukewarm efforts by the nation’s powers that be to deal with the crisis.

What does this have to do with religion?

A year ago, during a conference on religion and the news in Kiev, I showed friends of mine who work in the mainstream press in India several examples of American coverage of the infamous incident in which a young woman died after being gang raped on a bus. They were all struck by the fact that the stories consistently avoided issues of race, religion and, of course, caste.

The bottom line: For better and for worst, India is one of the most intensely religious cultures on earth and there are few moral and cultural issues in modern India that do not involve religion in one way or another.

Is it easy to describe the role that religion plays? More often than not, the answer is “no.” Culture and religion and race and caste are all tumbled together in daily life in India.

Thus, I would like to stress that this latest rape crisis story in the Post is better than most in that it at least mentions two of the major religious themes linked to this issue — even if it doesn’t specifically explain or even mention the religious specifics. For example, there is this:

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Time takes sides in India’s sex wars

Time magazine reports India’s Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s colonial era “sodomy laws”, ruling there is no “right” under the constitution to same-sex carnal relations. The court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code could be repealed but only by the legislature not judicial fiat.

Time is not too happy about this. The magazine’s editorial voice can be heard through out “Homosexuality is Criminal Again as India’s Top Court Reinstates Ban”.  The lede states:

In a surprise move, India’s top court on Wednesday reversed a landmark judgment by a lower court decriminalizing homosexuality in the country. The court said that the law regarding homosexuality could only be changed by the government. “The legislature must consider deleting this provision (Section 377) from law as per the recommendations of the attorney general,” Justice GS Singhvi, the head of the two-judge Supreme Court bench said in Wednesday’s ruling.

In 2009, the Delhi High Court had overturned an archaic colonial law (section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) that made gay sex an offense punishable by up to life imprisonment. Wednesday’s decision shocked many because while anticipation was high not many expected India’s top court, which in the past upheld many progressive rights judgments often going against the government and popular discourse, to revoke such a forward looking judgment.

“Archaic” is also used in the subheading of the story to describe the law. The commentary in the second sentence of this paragraph is not quite accurate. The Attorney General of India had argued in favor of overturning the law — there is a hint of this in the quote from the court’s ruling, but nothing further.

The Hindu, one of India’s leading daily newspapers, noted the attorney general called the sodomy law a British import.

Mr. Vahanvati had said “the introduction of Section 377 in the IPC was not a reflection of existing Indian values and traditions, rather it was imposed upon Indian society by the colonisers due to their moral values. The Indian society prevalent before the enactment of the IPC had a much greater tolerance for homosexuality than its British counterpart, which at this time under the influence of Victorian morality and values in regard to family and the procreative nature of sex.”

Time makes its views clear in this paragraph.

While activists vow to challenge the ruling, the decision to decriminalize homosexuality is now in the hands of New Delhi. And while the good news is that the government has recently changed its position on the issue, arguing for it in the court pointing out that the anti-gay law in the country was archaic and that Indian society has grown more tolerant towards homosexuality, the bad news is that the country is heading for general polls in a few months and a much embattled coalition government is striving hard to retain power. It is thus highly unlikely that gay rights will take center stage in Indian Parliament any time soon.

“Good news”? That does cross the line dividing news and commentary.

There is also a lack of balance. Time quotes the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a “veteran LGBT activist” and other “[s]tunned LGBT activists”, but offers no voices in support of the decision, or an explanation of the legal principles offered by the court in its decision.

What then is going on in this story? Was there a breakdown in Time’s back office that permitted an ill-written story barely distinguishable from a press release making it through the editorial process?

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India and rape: Spotting some tricky ghosts

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In about 99 percent of the mainstream news reports you will ever read about India and religion, there will be a reference that reads something like the following, from a Washington Post story that I have been meaning to get to for a week or so. This is part of the wave of coverage — totally justifiable, methinks — about rape and women’s rights in that land.

The crucial language, as is the norm, comes right at the end of the feature-style lede that frames this hellish drama:

BANWASA, India – The teenage girl was overpowered by four men at a railway crossing near this village and bundled into a car. For five days she was kept, imprisoned and naked, in a windowless outhouse on nearby farmland and raped repeatedly.

Despite its brutality, the September incident merited just a few lines in a domestic news-agency story about a string of such crimes in the northern state of Haryana. It was headlined simply: “Four more rape cases.”

Thousands of Indians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the rape of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi. But in rural areas just a few hours’ drive from India’s capital, where police and activists say rapes are common and increasing, such incidents draw scarcely any attention, let alone outrage.

In India’s modernizing but still deeply traditional society, social and women’s rights activists say rapes occur with virtual impunity, and women who betray flickers of independent thought and challenge the male-dominated status quo are especially vulnerable.

The key words are found in that passing reference to India being a “deeply traditional society.”

What, precisely, does that mean? What are these traditions? Might they have something to do with religion?

I have several friends who work in the mainstream press in India and, in conversations with them over the years about American media coverage of their land, they have expressed amazement at the degree to which U.S. journalists are afraid to talk about the elephant in the living room in these stories — the caste system.

Is it more common for police and other officials to look the other way when crimes are committed against members of the lower castes? Of course it is. In India, ignoring the role of the caste system would be akin to ignoring the role of gravity in physics. Yet many journalists are afraid to venture into that maze of, yes, religion and tradition. It’s safer to simply call India a “deeply traditional society” — wink, wink — and then move on.

However, this story caught my attention because, after the usual “traditional society” language, the team at the Post foreign desk delivered some crucial details that added depth and reality to the news.

For example, consider this transition passage:

The regularity of rapes and the resentment of women who question traditional roles are just two examples of this country’s vast gender inequality and wobbly rule of law — among the factors economists say are keeping India from its goal of being a global power. According to government statistics, the number of rapes reported nationwide rose 50 percent between 2001 and 2011, when police registered 23,582 cases. Over the same period in Haryana, a state of 25 million people, the figure rose nearly 85 percent, to 733. Police and activists say part of the increase might be attributable to more reporting, but they also insist that incidents are rising.

In October, a senior Haryana police officer interviewed by an Indian magazine blamed the increase on girls and women who are “easily influenced” and wear Western clothes. Police interviewed after the New Delhi case were more circumspect, vaguely blaming socioeconomic factors.

Some right-wing Hindu nationalists have tried to blame rapes on the influx of Western values or portray them as an urban phenomenon. But in rural India, the status of women is so low — and a family’s honor their exclusive burden — that such crimes often go unrecorded. When police do take up rape cases, rural communities tend to rally around the accused and ostracize the accusers.

As I read this story, I wondered if the Post would dare to GO THERE, citing the ultimate example of sexism and the low status of women in this unbelievably complex land.

Imagine my surprise when I read the following:

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