Rajanpreet Kaur: International News Headlines Played Into Indian Propaganda

The choices that media outlets make with regard to framing political moments in India have real, tangible consequences.

Rajanpreet Kaur
February 5, 2021 | 3.5 min. read

In November, tens of thousands of farmers in India rallied to the country’s capital to protest three farming laws Prime Minister Modi’s government passed to strengthen agriculture in India. While the farmers’ protest has remained peaceful since November, the Indian government’s response to it has not.

Last week, Sikhs and Punjabis around the world watched the violence unfold as a mass tractor rally planned to coincide with India’s Republic Day ended with protestors facing tear gas, lathi charging, internet suspensions, and other forms of violence from the government.

Even more concerning for a diaspora that has yearned to bring attention to the movement was how U.S. and international news outlets, including the New York Times, covered Tuesday’s violence.

New York Times: “As Angry Farmers Take to New Delhi’s Streets, Protests Turn Violent”

Associated Press: “Angry farmers storm India’s Red Fort in challenge to Modi”

Reuters: “Indian farm protesters battle police to plant flags at historic Red Fort”

Headlines matter. When a government like India, which has a long history of purposefully mischaracterizing Sikhs and other minority groups as terrorists or extremists, relies on media reporting as one arm of its propaganda machine, international news organizations have a greater responsibility to report the facts and lean away from characterizations that only play into an existing government narrative.

Many of us in the diaspora have heard about the horrors of 1984 from our parents’ and grandparents’ generations; others of those generations witnessed it themselves first-hand. State-sponsored violence led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Sikhs in India--and the exact number is still disputed today because, at the time, the Indian government blocked international reporters from covering the atrocities and shut off the radio (then a regular way to report the news). Much of the reporting that did happen, however, leaned into the government’s narrative of painting Sikhs as the root cause of violence.

Now, there are multiple streams of communication that have allowed protestors on the ground in Delhi to share information with each other, and with the world. As a result, we in the diaspora are able to keep up with the farmers’ protests and identify biased reporting in real-time.

On Tuesday, initial reporting of the tractor rally in multiple U.S. and international news outlets placed an undue emphasis on how “angry” protestors were and focused specifically on the sporadic instances of violence--while failing to acknowledge how peaceful and unifying the movement has been since it started, or how protestors were met with violence by the Indian police and military when they first reached Delhi in November. On Instagram, thousands of people left comments calling attention to the New York Times’ one-sided portrayal of this deeply complex issue. (By the next day, the New York Times had updated their piece to include both points.)

In misrepresenting the farmers, this initial reporting strengthened the narrative that the government has pushed since November: that the protestors are aggressive at best and traitors or extremists at worst.

Unfortunately, this kind of framing plays directly into other bad faith, anti-democratic actions by the government, including the shallow justification of internet blackouts around protest sites “in the interest of public safety.” While protestors found themselves limited in their freedom of expression, meanwhile, calls to “shoot” them trended for hours on Twitter in India--extremely problematic language, given that nationalist leaders have also previously called for violence against the farmers. This ugliness only disappeared from the Trending section after public outcry and BuzzFeed News requesting comment for a story.

Both of these anecdotes underscore a central point: the choices that media outlets make with regard to framing political moments have real, tangible consequences.

The world is more connected than ever before. The diaspora has the ability to raise awareness of protestors sleeping on the cold highways of Delhi to protect their livelihoods, and bring attention to the growing list of human and civil rights abuses the Indian government is exacting in response. The Indian government may influence reporting in Indian news outlets as part of its propaganda machine, but we in the diaspora are privileged to be able to write to ours and urge reporting that does not contribute to the Indian government’s narrative.

Moving forward, it is critically important that we continue to write, share, and amplify information that is accurate and reflects the complexity of this issue. Where we see reporting that is not complete, we can and should reach out to reporters and editors asking them to pursue the story once again.

My hope is that years from now when we are teaching the next generation our history, we can say that the world was watching and it stepped up to hold India accountable. 

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Rajanpreet Kaur is the Senior Communications and Media Manager at the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the United States. She is a graduate of Rutgers University, where she dedicated a senior thesis to examining the development of Sikh identity in response to two turning points in history: 1984 and September 11. Through her role at the Sikh Coalition, she engages U.S. reporters at the local and national levels to pursue accurate reporting of the Sikh faith, community, and traditions. You can find Rajanpreet on Twitter at @rajanpreetkp.


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