India Today (North American edition)
January 18, 1999

ALTERNATE ACCENT | Tunku Varadarajan

Telling It Like It Is
Desis Crib Despite Fairer Press Coverage of India

We were at a dinner party recently and I was talking to a Typical Desi Whiner: you know, the sort who lives in America, profits from it, yet can rarely find a kind word for the land which gave him new life and bounty.

The target for the Desi Whiner was Celia Dugger, one of The New York Times's two India correspondents. Ms Dugger had just written a long and laudable piece on a feud in a small village near Mathura which had flared up after a boy from one caste eloped with a girl from another. The correspondent had put in a phenomenal amount of work and had done her best to simplify for the American reader the questions of why some castes will not marry others, and why they will go to war if such alliances do occur. It was a classic piece of reportage from India's ugly underbelly, and worthy of an award. But the Whiner did not see it that way. "Hmph," he spluttered. "There they go again, portraying us as backward people who don't even live in the 20th century."

Put simply, Indian expats in America do not like others saying "bad things" about India, even if they are true. According to Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, "Indian readers will always complain about the newspaper coverage of India. They're notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to American criticism of India. It's fine for the desis to sit in Washington or New York and criticise India's political and cultural systems. But if a foreign journalist does it, they'll complain, and crib, and rant."

Sreenivasan is perhaps better placed than most to judge American coverage of India. He runs the South Asian Journalists' Association, and there is not a single article on India published in any American paper, however obscure, that he does not send out by e-mail to his Association's members. "Having followed the coverage of India in the American press for years, I can now say that the range of stories being covered these days is wonderful," he says.

The Whiners, as usual, are wrong. Not only is The New York Times devoting acres of space to India, but The Wall Street Journal too has a front page story on the country on a regular basis. It was India as a business story that provided the initial impetus for increased coverage: once a country is established as as a serious economic player, it becomes a place which others want to read about.

There is another point, of course, which expat Indians conveniently ignore. The coverage of India by the top American newspapers is a damn sight better than the coverage of America by their Indian counterparts. Most Washington correspondents from India feed off platters extended to them by the Indian Embassy. There is very little original research. And they stay doggedly in Washington, venturing perhaps to New York once in a blue moon. When was the last time you read a piece on a small town in Alabama in The Times of India, or The Hindu?

But the Whiners are not interested in that. Instead, they ask indignantly of when we are going to get a break from those bride-burning stories in the American press? The answer is simple: when Indians stop burning brides. In the meantime, American correspondents in India will continue to "tell it as it is", warts and all. Isn't that, after all, what a journalist is supposed to do?

Varadarajan writes for The Times, London, from New York.