Media tilts

Print edition : November 01, 1997
PRAVEEN SWAMI

INDIAN and British media analyses of Queen Elizabeth's visit provided little real insight into the issues underpinning her controversial journey though India.

As the royal journey lurched from crisis to calamity, the British media responded to the debunking of the Raj nostalgia that they had evidently packed in their suitcases with incomprehension and on occasion outrage. Indian writing on the visit acquired a hostile edge after Elizabeth's eventful visit to Amritsar, but contrary to some Western reports, this was by no means its central theme. Key issues were left unexamined, and unfolding events were rarely analysed with any perceptiveness or historical sensitivity.

Part of the Western press' problems lay in the fact that many journalists reporting the visit appeared ill-informed about India. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service Television reports, for example, routinely referred to Communist cadres in Punjab protesting against Elizabeth as "Sikh protesters". BBC reporter Daniel Lak, in similar vein, referred to Bharatanatyam as a "Hindu dance", describing it as a medium through which South Indians had retained their "cultural identity". Unsurprisingly then, the BBC's experts proved unable to explain Indian hostility to events such as Prince Philip's foray into historiography. One correspondent even insinuated that the controversy was engineered by a "disparaging" Indian media, complaining that the welcome given by "the Sikhs" to Elizabeth had been underplayed. Inability to engage themselves with the opinions of anyone, Sikh or otherwise, who might have disputed their experts' opinions meant that the BBC's reporting consisted largely of banal Orientalist platitudes masquerading as fact.

Lack of knowledge of the politics being played out led the British press to focus instead on supposed slights to the royal visitors. The BBC, for reasons it alone will understand, linked media outrage over Prince Philip's remarks with an Indian military band playing "God Save the Queen" at the inauguration of an exhibition in New Delhi rather than a Royal Marines band. That Elizabeth's choosing to travel with a military band to a country Britain had once ruled by force might be part of the problem was not discussed, even as a possibility. Trivial issues such as invitations for British officials to a banquet in New Delhi, and even an altercation between a police official in Chennai and Elizabeth's press secretary John Crawford, provoked commentaries about Indian unreasonability.

Contrary to The Sunday Times reporter Stephen Grey's suggestion that the "British and Indian media fed off each other's controversies," many Indian newspapers reported Elizabeth's visit through coloured glasses. Prime Minister I.K. Gujral's sober and well-considered suggestion in August that Elizabeth stay away from Jallianwala Bagh if her Government was unable to apologise for the massacre in fact attracted derision from most newspapers. Closer to the visit, voices positively enraptured by the royal presence on Indian soil surfaced in the Indian press. The Times of India's Saturday supplement on October 11 even provided information for its readers on the appropriate etiquette in the event of their suddenly encountering the Queen. A writer in The Tribune of Chandigarh, in a breathless essay published on October 14, discovered among other things that "even the holiest shrine of Sikhs, Sri Harmander Sahib, was given the name Golden Temple by the British"!

Only three Indian newspapers, The Hindu, The Indian Express and The Asian Age, reported the visit to Jallianwala Bagh in any detail. The decisive shift in the Indian media perception of the visit was in fact provoked not by the odious politics of the royal visit, but by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's remarks on Kashmir. The Times of India responded by displaying Malcolm Muggeridge's description of Queen Elizabeth as "frumpish and banal" on its masthead, while The Indian Express, which in August attacked Gujral on the Jallianwala Bagh issue, railed against British policy.

Many British newspapers endorsed the attack on Cook. The Sunday Times of London, in an editorial, suggested that Cook learn from the great Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, and not "hawk his conscience around the conference chamber". The left-of-centre The Observer broadly shared this perception. "Far from being a well-oiled machine," the newspaper argued, "our diplomatic service has been revealed as an outpost of outdated thinking, a relic of colonial prejudice."

What passed largely unanalysed through the visit was the complex and conflict-ridden terrain of India's relationship with Britain. If business interests and some politicians in both countries variously allow themselves to be deluded by nostalgia or amnesia, it is evident that the experience of colonialism is neither forgotten nor forgiven in India. This by itself should have been no great surprise in a country where ordinary people made enormous sacrifices in the course of a long-drawn struggle for liberation. Official Britain, the doughty Mark Tully wrote in The Sunday Times, was "seduced by sentimental, sloppy and historically forgetful nostalgia for the Raj in which Britain is swamped," and "misread the generosity India has consistently shown to its former rulers."

British officials were not the only ones. Even if a globalised Indian elite would prefer to pretend that history never happened, millions of ordinary people may have no intention of disowning their heritage.

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