May 31, 2008
Indian Conservatives Struggle to Build Alternative MediaBy Richard L. Benkin
Amitabh Tripathi is convinced his nation of India is under attack; so he did something few people are willing to do. He abandoned a promising freelance career with India's mainstream media (MSM), so he could he could write openly as a conservative about Indian leftists, Islamists, and government policies that play into their hands.
"You cannot write about the leftists," he told me, "because the Congress [Party] government is dependent on them"; and if you identify the terrorist threat as Islamist, "you are called anti-Muslim and a racist." But, Tripathi said, that is not what worries him the most. "The major threat to Indian sovereignty is government policies that are based on pseudo-secularism and Muslim appeasement." For journalists, that translates into a rigid political correctness that forces them to adhere to the MSM's left-wing bias or look for employment elsewhere.
"After meeting Dr. Daniel Pipes and Dr. Richard Benkin," Tripathi said, "I came to know the gravity of the Islamic threat, what the whole world is facing, and the ignorance people have about the Israel-Palestine struggle. India is entering the most critical period in its history and that the current government and other elites are handing our enemies a victory." Since most of what we hear about the world's largest democracy centers on its new role as an economic giant, its nuclear status, and perhaps its ties with Israel, we might think Tripathi is exaggerating; but there is a great deal that our own MSM does not report.
I was in India for the better part of February this year, when almost every day saw radical action: "road strikes" where separatists and other protesting radicals closed major thoroughfares; a thwarted cyber-terrorist attack by Islamists; communist agitation and demonstrations against India's proposed nuclear deal with the United States; and a military operation by Maoist terrorists against a police station that killed dozens.
Islamic radicals are flexing their muscles, too, building radical madrassas (or Islamic schools) throughout the country, especially in Muslim-dominated villages. Darul Uloom Deoband, the seminary that produced the Taliban's Mullah Omar, is located less than 100 miles from the capital and continues to issue regular fatwas. Muslims are demanding autonomy in several areas; and three Indian states have communist governments. The most entrenched of them, West Bengal, sits less than 15 miles from a barely-patrolled border with China.
So Tripathi started Lokmanch, a Hindi-language web site that features frank criticism of what he and others call the government's "ostrich-like behavior." He also has translated articles on Israel, the US war against Islamist terror and extremism, Barack Obama, and other topics. They provide Indians with information that their media simply does not report. Quietly, Tripathi is attracting more and more Indian journalists, including bona fide members of the MSM. Several of them offered me their candid opinions about the media's leftist bias, the center-left government, and the severity of the Islamist threat facing their country. They work for major newspapers and broadcast channels; English and Hindi-language outlets, purely Indian companies, and some with an international reach. Their concern was genuine; their passion intense.
But because, they told me, they "would surely be sacked" if their editors or colleagues heard those candid opinions, we met in out of the way hotels, coffee shops, and other inconspicuous places. So concerned were they that only some agreed to let me tape our conversations. And all of them-with the exception of Amitabh Tripathi-agreed to speak openly only so long as they remained anonymous. They hoped our interviews would garner support for their cause, especially in the United States. "At the very least," one told me, "perhaps it will help people know just how dangerous things here are."
"India is regarded as a very soft state."
Every journalist echoed the sentiments expressed by this one. "The US and India are two great democracies. We [India] must support the US War on Terror. It is the only thing we should do!" They are frustrated and concerned, however, at India's reticence to do so whole heartedly. The ruling parties "fear a negative response from Muslims [and a loss of votes even though] more people believe India should openly ally itself with the US in the war on terror...the politicians are afraid to be seen as anti-Muslim."
Muslims make up about 20 percent of the Indian population, and their interest groups and organizations are united and vocal. In the media, reports must adhere to a certain formula "because they feel that these kinds of [anti-terror] reports will build up feelings against Muslims." Thus, they attribute things to generic "terrorists, but they are not terrorists. They are Indian Muslim institutions getting money from the Saudis...to create mosques that look like five-star hotels."
In the lead up to this year's Indian budget, Muslim groups rolled out statistics showing their constituents lagging behind in education and income and demanded subsidies and government commitments. No one challenged their assumption that the lag was due to prejudice or that the Indian taxpayers had to shoulder the burden. They simply caved and acceded to most of the demands. Hence, the budget contains large sums for Muslim pilgrimages to Jerusalem's Al Aqsa, but not a penny for stateless Hindu refugees from Islamist terror in Bangladesh. "If you are pro-Hindu, you are called a racist."
India's parliamentary system also complicates things. The ruling Congress Party had to ally itself with Indian Communists (CPIM) to oust the right wing Bhatariya Janata Party (BJP). The CPIM is part of the ruling coalition and holds the balance of power. "If they believe their demands are not being met, they can bring down the government. This is why India still has not ratified the nuclear deal with the US." Many Congress leaders recognize its critical security role and want to sign it, but their communist partners have made the deal's rejection key to their remaining in the coalition. This also helps explain India's puzzling reaction to the recent Maoist takeover in neighboring Nepal. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukharjee hailed the communist victory as a new era in South Asian politics even after the new Nepalese commissars vowed to end "Indian dominance" in Nepal. "He comes from West Bengal...and cannot represent his state without support of communists," which drives Indian foreign policy.
"Israel is our role model; America is our ally."
The wedge issue separating the Old Left elites from today's Indian conservatives is Israel. The MSM reports Israel as the villain in the Middle East and the Palestinians as victims. For the first half century of their existence, India and Israel did not even have diplomatic relations. It was not until the 1990s that common security concerns prompted a thaw; and relations did not really take off until 2003 with a visit by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Previous Indian politics built on the late Jawaharlal Nehru's union with Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito and Egypt's Gamal Nasser to form the non-aligned bloc of nations. The anti-US and anti-Israel course they charted set the basis for the UN's endemic hatred of both nations and dominated Indian policy for decades. That is why, one journalist told me, "there is something of a generation gap between the [established and generally older] editors and publishers" and people today.
Media coverage remains biased, which is why, according to Tripathi, it came as a tremendous surprise to many Indians when they saw evidence that Israelis were the victims of Arab terror. They began wondering at MSM condemnation of actions that were no less self-defense than their own. "We must give people the real picture of Israel-Palestine struggle" as parallel to our own struggle for existence. "The network of madrassas and imams in India, holds that the entire subcontinent was once under Muslim rule and still would be were it not for the British. That is how they look at Israel, as darul Islam"; that is, as a land once under Muslim hegemony and so by rights always under it. They opposed Indian partition in 1947 and the partition of Palestine in 1948, because it would recognize the legitimacy of the non-Muslim state on land they consider their own.
Many Indians "are enraged" by their nation's "soft policy" and have begun holding up Israel as a role model publicly. They also point to Israel's development in areas like agriculture and defense. "Despite adversities, Israel progressed a lot but we Indians were far lagging behind." "Without a doubt," another said, "if Israel did not say to hell with those who wanted it to be soft, it would be gone. And if India does not do the same thing, it will be gone because the official philosophy of the [Muslims] is the same."
A couple days after Tripathi and I parted, I found myself addressing a journalism class at the University of Lucknow in Upper Pradesh province. I spoke about the role of journalists, the war against Islamist terror, and about Bangladeshi Hindus living in India-victims of ethnic cleansing. The students were lively and engaged on a variety of topics, but their eyes really lit up when I mentioned that I am a Zionist and had been to Israel. Their thirst for knowledge and analysis seemed unquenchable; their questions non- stop. "How has such a small country like Israel been able to defeat all of the Arabs and their terrorists?" "How can we [India] be more like Israel?" Even the one student who took a vocal, anti-Israel position addressed admitted to the class that "I have to do more work to check my information."
"Axis of evil and axis of terror in this world are Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran"
"There is not a single democracy between Tel Aviv and New Delhi, and if we keep taking the road of weakness, our enemies could easily defeat us...Our foreign policy is to have friendly relations with our neighbors. But our neighbors are all radical Islamists and dictators." These journalists freely admit that they are not "completely objective, but at least we say so" in contrast to the MSM. They believe that the vast majority of India's 1.1 billion people see things the way they do but that their nation has been hi-jacked by "leftists, weaklings, and corrupt people." For instance, one said, "it's a crime that the communists are still in power. They use intimidation and voter fraud, but Congress lets them because they want to stay in power. If BJP and Congress would come together and force a fair election, the Communists will lose."
Providing Indians with good information, uncensored by a fearful and rigid MSM is what Amitabh Tripathi hopes to accomplish with Lokmanch. "The web site is only the first step," he said. "Small, local papers publish in huge numbers and they are not part of the mainstream media. They are just as frustrated with things as we are. We want to channelize (sic) them to become an alternative media." He estimates it will take "two to three years perhaps" to build a news network and mobilize opinion makers in India. Several small papers already have joined Tripathi's network. We can help by providing them with access to news and opinion and original articles (much as I did with Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury in Bangladesh). And like all such endeavors, this one is struggling to find funds, as well.
Mandhol Kalan is a small village about 50 miles from Delhi where Deoband imams banned television, radio, photography, even singing. One Hindi TV network did a story exposing it, which forced the government to react. But instead of addressing the issue it raised, the Ministry responded by distributing new television sets. Not surprisingly, the Deobandis returned, confiscated the TVs, and re-instituted the ban. But now, the government does not return calls, and networks have not returned to Mandhol Kalan. Thus, just outside the Indian capital is a village that makes Afghanistan look like Las Vegas. Worse, said one of the journalists involved in the original report, the media's silence "allows [the Islamists] to impose their views exclusively and produce more terrorists."