Issue 23

Issue XXIII: Editor’s Note

The ‘economy’ is an elusive term. In all its intricacies and grandiosity, this complex webwork that carries flows of money, people, and capital almost resembles a colourful living being. It breathes, expands and sometimes utterly collapses under its own weight. We can try to keep it healthy and enjoy the opulence it provides or we can entagle ourselves in greed and ruin its capacity to give. The world as we witness it today is marred with concerns around our economy on the world stage and at home. The 23rd Issue of Open axis explores the humanity of the economy and attempts to address the concerns of our times. 

There are pertinent conversations to be had about how the ‘othering’ of social groups through language and food, the tense political climate and a rapid tide of digital modernity have affected growth and prices in the country, touching every part of our lives. The world beyond our borders is also going through an eerily turbulent time with war on the European continent and deep political uncertainty in South Asia. As we carry on the nascent memory of the toughest times during the pandemic into a new era, our writers take on the challenge of joining these conversations with grit and insight. 

To begin with, Rutuparna Deshpande writes on the state of socio-political data in the country, investigating the new draft data policy and open government data websites that collect citizen data from everyday operations of government agencies. Furthermore, he explores the facets behind researchers’ distrust of this data, and what the consequences of that may be. 

With the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka, Shree Bhattacharyya does a deep dive into the representation of South Asia by the western media and inspects the neglect, possible biases, and lack of adequate coverage that may be seeping into media attention of South Asia. In line with our constant efforts to cover the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Maahira Jain writes on the current condition of Ukrainian refugees, their treatment by other countries in the west, and jarring similarities to the refugee treatment during other global crises. 

Micheal Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center writes on the soaring oil prices in India, and the relation of this inflation with the growing political instability in South Asia. 

The last month has seen some of the most brutal cases of minority targeting across the country, be it the violence of Ram Navami or the banning of meat shops during Hindu festivals. Maya Sharma from NDTV writes on the current state of communal politics in Karnataka, and how the ruling government is turning a blind eye toward minority hatred. In ‘Hindutva’s Narrowing Scope,’ Akanksha Mishra writes on the ideology behind Hindutva, and how the crux of the ideology is primarily upper-caste and Brahmanical, hiding behind a farce of unity. 

In ‘India’s Beef With Meat,’ Lakshay Sharma delves into the politics of food in India, and how food has transformed from a gesture of love and care, into a vehicle of communal disharmony. At the intersection of food with the economy, Jaidev Pant writes of the factors promoting the economic growth of third-party aggregators in the food delivery industry, and how these may be coming at the cost of restaurant sales and exploitation. 

Fahad Hasin writes on India’s economic prospects in light of the growing majoritarianism in the country. He argues that rather than hampering the economy, proper economic growth could overshadow and further mask the rising religious polarisation.

Amit Shah recently stated that Hindi should become the common language that different states communicate in, replacing English. While the statement has invited considerable criticism from the opposition, there is also a need to critically engage with such a proposal. Biplob Kumar Das writes the about the problems with enforcing Hindi as the sole official language of India. Reya Daya writes on the need for gendered policy making and implementing provisions specific to the needs of girls when it comes to education with regards to the recently implemented Early Warning System.

Unboxing libertarian ideology in right-wing thought, Rutuparna Deshpande writes on the concept of freedom is often stretched beyond its meaning.

We hope our 23rd issue is able to shed some light on the intricacies of the economy, culture, religion, and all its complex intersections.

  • Biplob Kumar Das, Jaidev Pant, Lakshya Sharma, Maahira Jain, Reya Deya, Rutuparna Deshpande, & Shree Bhattacharyya
Issue 23

Can India Afford to Make Hindi Its Sole Official Language?

In the 37th meeting of the Committee of Parliament on Official Language, held on the 9th of April, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who is the chairperson of the committee, stated that Hindi should replace English as the only nationwide official language. He said, “Now the time has come to make the Official Language an important part of the unity of the country. When citizens of states who speak other languages communicate with each other, it should in the language of India.” The statement led to considerable debate in public discourse, with Opposition leaders, especially from the Eastern and Southern regions, criticising Shah for the same.

This is not the first time Shah has proposed that Hindi should be the sole official language of the country. On the occasion of Hindi Diwas in 2019, Shah had proposed “One Nation, One Language”, saying that “it is absolutely essential that the entire country has one language that becomes the identity of the nation. If there is any language that can tie the whole country in one thread…it is Hindi.”

Shah’s statements not only shed light on the BJP’s ideological imagination of India but also crystallises the broader intentions with which this dispensation functions. The rhetoric of this kind is in continuation with other cultural markers, such as food, and clothing, that BJP is attempting to Hinduise and Hindi-ise. Yet any statement made for the proposal to push for a singular official or “national” language, irrespective of how fleetingly it was made, demands serious and critical engagement beyond political rhetoric.

For such critical engagement, it is crucial to revisit the history of official languages in our country. The Constituent Assembly had accepted the Munshi-Ayyangar formula, which proposed that Hindi will be the official language of India but English will also be used for official purposes till 1965. The intention was to phase out the use of English in the meantime and give Hindi its promised primacy after 15 years.

A crucial turning point for the primacy given to Hindi changed with the setting up of the State Reorganisation Commission in 1952. In 1956, the Commission’s report recommended the states be primarily demarcated on the basis of language among other administrative considerations. This was in continuation of the resolution adopted by the Indian National Congress in 1927 for the redistribution of provinces on a linguistic basis. Naturally, linguistic sub-nationalism gained unprecedented strength within states created on a linguistic basis, such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra. The government thus passed the Official Languages Act in 1963 to implement the continuation of English for official purposes beyond the stipulated year of 1965. This was not sufficient for the non-Hindi states, especially the then Madras state, where mass protests including widespread violence spread from January to March of 1965. It was after repeated assurances by Prime Minister Shastri that Hindi would not be imposed, and an amendment to the Official Languages Act, did the protests in Madras dissipated, and English continued to stay as a language for official purposes alongside Hindi.

At this juncture it is important to question, why was there a demand in the first place for a singular “national” or “official” language? The answer lies in the understanding of a nation as a culturally and linguistically united group. This notion is found as far back as in mid-19th century Europe where German philosopher JG Fichte had argued that the basis of a nation should be a common language and culture. Herein, a nation is imagined as a monolithic entity which is united in its culture, and centralised administratively.

In India, leaders from the Hindi speaking states, primarily Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, felt the need for English to be replaced as it was a symbol of imperialism. Yet the fact that English had evolved into a language of official communication, especially between the Hindi speaking states and non-Hindi speaking states was overlooked. The notion of a nation as a monolithic entity where language is imposed has been both tried and failed, especially in culturally diverse countries. Belgium, Canada, and Spain stand as examples. However, a monolithic and homogenous idea of a nation continues to live on in the BJP’s ecosystem of ideas, as reflected by Shah’s statement.  

In a post-independent context, the imposition of Hindi would inevitably result in the hegemony of the northern states over the rest of the country. It would unfairly disadvantage people from the non-Hindi states; they would have to learn an extra language, and would inevitably be lagging behind Hindi states in prospering professionally. In the use of English, a foreign language imposed by a colonial administration that has left the country, people from northern and southern states find themselves on par with each other. The removal of English as an official language disrupts this equilibrium. The irrefutable fact is that English today has developed into a language of convenience in communication apart from having an aspirational value. It is more rapidly learnt than ever before because of social media, and it is an undeniable vehicle of social mobility. Hence, before English is removed as an official language of India, the Union Government has to evaluate to what extent Hindi can compete with English in bringing more economic and cultural prosperity to the country.

The solution hence rests in being open to the idea of facilitating multilingualism. Literary critic GN Devy rightly says that “the current practice of clubbing together multilingual spaces with monolingual habitats is not fair to the large cities today. The language choice of citizens should be widened and not narrowed by the state. If there is a mechanical and monolithic idea of unity followed by any entity, such an entity generally generates great hostility beyond its immediate borders.” This argument also holds true for rural India, where the government has to play a crucial role in allowing the youth the option to learn English apart from their mother tongue, rather than restricting it so that they have the opportunity to compete equally with the youth from the cities.

The alternative to this is to shift our attention to improving the economy. If we imagine India to be a global economic power, forcefully strengthening one identity will only lead to internal resistance and unfairly disadvantage a large part of the country. Instead, economic progress and technological advancements, followed by cultural self-reliance are the only ways to ascertain that Indian languages are able to strengthen themselves.

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student in Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes keen interest in anything related to Indian politics, media and culture.

Picture Credit: Mint

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Issue 23

The Price of a Burger: How Food Aggregators Are Eating Into Restaurant Sales

With the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic and the expansion of digital services, one of the newest trends has been the burgeoning of food ordering via delivery services. Isolated at home with not much to rejoice about, people across the world took to ordering food to spice up the monotony of everyday life. In India, 61% of Indians in urban metros prefer home-dining services post the pandemic induced lockdowns, owing to factors such as hygiene and sanitation standards. Additionally, the vigorous and creative social media vision adopted by third-party aggregators, such as Zomato, has contributed to a steady rise in food ordering via such apps and services. 

Earlier this month, one of India’s leading food delivery firms Zomato announced a new delisting policy that would allow restaurants associated with the app to be delisted or removed from the app in cases of complaints regarding food quality such as rotten food, order mix-ups, etc. The policy, which was earlier set to be implemented on 18th April, was temporarily halted after interventions from the National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) and severe backlash from the 500,000 restaurants listed under it. Such a draconian policy, devised without any official backing and awarding undue authority to food delivery partners brings to light the complex relationship between food aggregators and restaurants in India. 

Globally, restaurants have to pay delivery partners a commission of anywhere between 25-and 30%. Similar figures are at play in India, with restaurants paying a commission  of around 18%  to the aggregators. Furthermore, as of the new GST structure enforced since January 1st, food delivery apps collect a 5% GST from the restaurants and deposit it with the government on behalf of the restaurant. While this may be seen as a strategic move to prevent tax evasion by successful players in the restaurant world, it has a significant impact on smaller restaurants with annual revenues of less than 20 lakh, as they would now be liable to pay taxes to the third-party aggregators. 

One can argue that initiatives such as Zomato Wings, launched by the food-tech giant in 2021 which aims to help procure funding for cloud kitchens and restaurants by connecting them to suitable investors and strengthening their brand position are a boon to smaller ventures. However, such initiatives heavily increase restaurant dependence on third-party aggregators. As per a recent report, cloud kitchen numbers are expected to soar as high as 2 billion dollars by 2024. While such statistics and other trends of consumers preferring home dining services are indicative of a larger shift to cloud kitchens, such delivery kitchens cannot offer everything a restaurant can, and often strip away agency from dine-in restaurants. 

For instance, dine-in restaurants are able to develop effective and long-lasting relationships with their customers over time to ensure steady inflow and revenues. However, with the shift to cloud kitchens and delivery services, dine-in restaurants are likely to lose long-term customer loyalty, given that customers have minimal to no exchanges with the restaurant directly. Further, there is no scope for customizing orders to the extent that was possible in dine-in facilities, and the changing delivery partners with every order do not make things easier. 

The lack of direct consumer interaction with restaurants manifests itself as a problem when aggregators use the information received from customers as a means to propel their own services and labels, as was exemplified through the complaint filed by the NRAI against India’s dominant food delivery players, Zomato and Swiggy. On 7th April, India’s chief competition regulator, the Competition Commission of India (CCI) ordered an investigation into Zomato and Swiggy operations upon claims of unfair allegations. These include claims of the food-tech giants hiding consumer data from restaurants, not taking any accountability in cases of customer complaints, issues regarding price parity, and indirect coercion to enter into exclusive contracts with aggregators by way of a lower listing commission. Restaurants that refuse such a contract are then charged commissions as high as 30%. 

In the past, there have been numerous accounts of backlash from multiple stakeholders and civil society regarding certain malpractices adopted by platforms such as Zomato and Swiggy, the most recent being the flak for implementing a 10-minute delivery policy that would significantly endanger riders’ safety and potentially violate traffic rules. There have also been complaints about the lack of social security for workers in the gig economy, particularly in the delivery sector. While these are crucial to ensure workers’ welfare in an economy as fragile as the gig economy, there are other crucial aspects related to the restaurant industry that must be addressed to ensure welfare for other workers engaged in the business as well. 

There is no denying that third-party aggregators are of great importance to the restaurant industry in today’s world. However, there is a need for an inherent investigation into their practices and the heavy power imbalance in this complex relationship. This deep-dive is particularly important given the steep increase in fares on commodities such as fuel, which will most definitely impact delivery services over the coming months. Therefore, it will be interesting to see what the future holds in store for third-party aggregators, and what the results of the CCI probe yield. While the probe is just an appetizer of the restaurant world finally voicing its concerns, the main course is hopefully yet to arrive.

Jaidev Pant is a third-year student of Psychology and Media at Ashoka University. He is interested in popular culture and its intersections with politics, gender, and behavior.

Picture Credits: VCCircle 

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Issue 23

India’s Beef With Meat

Everytime we put food on our plates, we might think about its plating or its taste. We sometimes even try to guess the spices or the ingredients that have been used in cooking a meal. Food, and conversations around food, however, do not end there. Every piece of food on your plate holds a deep cultural significance. Therefore, using food as a point of polarization becomes much easier.

This conversation is sparked by the recent meat ban by Mayors of Delhi Government on the occasion of Navratri. They cited concerns around vegetarianism and purity around the festive season as the grounds for closing meat shops. Purity is often used synonymously with food diets, but who decides purity? What does purity even mean?

The sense of purity is deeply entwined with the sense of religion around which the entire idea of current political polarization exists. Food, in many ways, represents religion and religious practices. Many religious customs are centered around food offerings and sacrosanctity of food. The recipes of delicacies travel down generations and act as a link to one’s ancestry and background. This link to background transcends food from nutrition to a symbol of identity.

Points of differences become points of polarization and communal differentiation when we change the narrative to identity from identities. Food is a cultural symbol. It means different things to different peoples. The attacks at Kaveri Hostel, JNU was not an attack on any dietary practise or religion, but on the purity of an entire lifestyle. 

Meat is culturally believed to be something “not-indian”, being culturally different, it is supposedly assumed to be the direct opposite of “indian”. Since, indian is ours, it is pure and meat-eating, therefore, impure. This entire idea rests on the basic belief that meat-eating is not a traditionally Indian idea. Reports in The Conversation,and Scroll, beg to differ. India had a long history of meat and beef eating. The question therefore arises, Why now? Why purity?

Food has become synonymous with ‘identity’. It reflects the person, their caste, class, religion, background. It is as much a symbol of identity as hijab. And as a symbol of identity, it is defined in the binaries of ‘our’ and ‘other’. In an attempt to squash everything that is not “our”, food also comes under the items-to-be-squashed.

Food, however, is also different from all other aspects of polarization. It is a necessity of human life. It is not something that can be given up to please the status quo. It is a habit of a lifetime, it cannot be changed overnight. Moreover, why does it even need to be changed? To stay alive? To stay uninjured? This is the dichotomy of the situation. You cannot have food and you cannot give up food, and you need to stay alive. You need to be connected to your ancestry, your culture. 

Food, for many, is the only inheritance they ever receive. Dividing food in the binary of purity, is calling an entire culture impure, when the very notion of purity is shaken within the community making the judgment. Polarizing on meat is not just religious polarization but also fuelling the age-old caste polarization. For many castes, including dalits, meat is a very important part of their diets and culture. Banning meat is also banning them under the idea of building a common Hindu nation. 

Moreover, the situation is both ironic and not, because the ban and attacks are centered around communities who are both economically and socially disadvantaged. The ban is going to attack low level producers of meat who depend on it for both their financial and dietary needs. Moreover banning of such stores will affect offal production that is consumed by lower caste ‘hindus’. If on one look, the decision seems as a ban on one community’s diet, it is not. It is a move to financially, culturally, emotionally, and nutritionally affect communities of every religion. 

It might seem as a shock that something as basic as food can cause riots and attacks. But food is anything but basic, yet a basic need for sustenance. If the politics of food becomes this evident and out rather than playing in subtly, we need to analyze where is our politics of polarization headed.

Lakshya Sharma is a first year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. He is an economics and media studies student. Apart from his academic interests, he has keen interest in writing and fashion.

Picture Credits: News24

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Issue 23

Uniting Hindus or Masking Brahminism –  Hindutva’s Narrowing Scope

Events in the country over the last month have really put to test the idea of India — from the violence erupting on the occasion of Ram Navami, to the hijab ban in certain schools and colleges, to the meat ban during Navaratri and the violence accompanying it. Even as activists and scholars ring alarm bells over the despairing condition of minorities in the country, the silence of the ruling party is deafening. While the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu ideology has never been a secret, there is something to be said about the scope and implications of this particular brand of communal violence. The ban on meat and meat shops, the roisterous ‘Jai Shree Ram’ chants, and the timing of these ‘clashes’ during certain Hindu festivals is telling of a very narrow conception of Hindu majoritarianism — Brahminical Hinduism, to be precise. 

This assessment, however, is directly in contradiction with a long list of political analysts whose line of argument in defense of the BJP’s Hindutva ideology is that it has managed to ‘unite’ Hindus across caste lines. The very definition of Hindutva is as an amorphous Hindu ‘culture’ and a way of life, as opposed to as a religion, according to one of its progenitors V.D. Savarkar – himself a Marathi Brahmin. The primary evidence for this argument of Hindutva unity comes from the BJP’s seemingly caste-blind electoral mobilization, propelled by support from its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Caste in Indian politics often crops up only as an electoral issue, and even then it is criticized for being used as a ‘vote-bank’ by political parties. The sweeping majorities garnered by the BJP and its vehemently Hindu majoritarian doctrine have led many scholars, such as Vinay Sitapati, to comment on the ‘new’ idea of Hinduism fostered by the party. According to Sitapati, the RSS was ‘radical’ in its construction of a ‘unified’ Hindu identity that rested on electoral politics – he calls it the ‘Hindu fevicol’ phenomenon. 

More colloquial arguments for Hindutva’s unifying factor are made by BJP leaders themselves during electoral rallies, who pat themselves on the back for moving India towards ‘casteless’ elections. Regardless of these spurious assertions and the tokenistic meals at Dalit households before elections that all politicians (including BJP) partake in, the truth of the matter is that the essence of Hindutva is Brahminical. It was conceptualized and pursued by a party whose leaders were predominantly Brahmins, such as Savarkar, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, and Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Moreover, the Hindu ‘culture’ that the RSS and BJP emphasize is but a slightly masked version of Brahminical culture. 

The argument about BJP’s attempted unity across Hindus might hold true in terms of electoral mobilization — the BJP has made inroads into caste vote-banks and managed electoral wins but they are just that. They’re not indicative of a shift in Hindutva’s caste inclusivity, but a facade of nationalistic unity propped up by the BJP in the name of uniting against an ‘other’, in this case, a communal other i.e. Muslims. This farcical unity though has not brought about any changes within Hinduism’s own hierarchical structures, and the BJP should not be credited for that. The present spate of violence has shown what has always lied at the core of the Hindutva narrative, which is an exclusionary upper-caste notion of Hinduism and its principles of purity and pollution. 

Renowned academic Kancha Ilaiah’s book Why I Am Not A Hindu succinctly explains how the popularised ideas of Hinduism are largely upper-caste, and how Dalit conceptualizations of Hindu culture and practices are much more diverse and inclusive. He mentions (and statistics supplement) how vegetarianism is a restrictive practice only followed by a minority in the country, and especially only upper-castes in Hinduism. Even the worship of Lord Ram is not unanimously prevalent across the country’s social communities, and Ilaiah talks about his Dalit-Bahujan community and the various other gods they worship like Virappa and Pochamma. Even their rituals involved pouring alcohol and sacrificing animals, which aren’t seen as conventional Hindu practices according to Brahmins. 

The BJP and the RSS may try to peddle the idea of Hindutva as a ‘way of life’ to its voters, but the actions perpetrated by and in the name of Hindutva reinforce the upper-caste origins of the ideology. Even if we were to accept the RSS’s argument about Hindutva’s focus on Hindu culture rather than Hindu religion, logic would force us to reckon with the fact that the RSS’s idea of Hindu culture is limited, and derived from the religion itself. As for Hindu religion, historical experience and facts cannot deny that it is a deeply undemocratic religion. How then can we ever hope to run a democratic country on its basis? 

Akanksha Mishra is a third-year undergraduate student of political science and media studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 23

Dividing Karnataka

The sound in the video is sickening. It is the sound of water melons as they are smashed on the ground. The sound is repeated many times as the summer fruits are thrown violently to the earth, one by one, until the cart is empty and the ground is covered with red pulp. 

The video was taken outside a temple in Dharwad district of northern Karnataka on April 9.  The fruit cart belonged to a vendor, a Muslim, who has been selling fruit in that location for years. This year, however, fringe elements from the right wing decided that non-Hindus should not be a part of temple fairs or be allowed to sell goods near temples. The Dharwad episode was one of many incidents where Muslim vendors were sent packing from places where they had being selling their wares in peace for years. 

Anyone with a smartphone would have seen far more violent videos – whether they wanted to or not- in this era of WhatsApp forwards. But this video still hurt for so many reasons. 

The deliberate direct hitting at the livelihood of a fruit seller because of his religion. 

The fact that this was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of intimidation. 

The audacity with which this was done. 

It probably comes as no surprise to know that when those responsible for this vandalism were released on bail, they were welcomed by other members of their group. A watermelon was smashed to mark the occasion…

Welcome to Karnataka 2022.

It would be wrong to say that Karnataka is new to friction between communities. Like elsewhere in India, people have died in communal flare-ups – with the coastal belt of the state being particularly sensitive.

But over the past few months, the targeting of minorities appears to have become more widespread and on a range of different issues. And the BJP state government, under relatively new chief minister, Basavaraj Bommai, does not seem to be coming down as hard as it should on such blatant discrimination. Far from it. 

Ahead of Christmas last year, there was vandalism at churches and prayer halls – usually under the guise of opposition to what was described as ‘forced conversion.’ Christmas celebrations were stopped in a school in Mandya district. 

In January, the headmistress of a government school was suspended in Kolar district for allowing children to perform namaz in a classroom. 

This year, some girl students were not allowed to wear their hijabs into their classroom – and were confronted by fellow students wearing saffron shawls. The issue reached the High Court and even the Supreme Court with those who said ‘hijab is my right’ coming up against the prescribed ‘uniform’ in some educational institutions. 

Halal meat was also a target. Videos emerged of intimidation of people at butcher shops and restaurants that provided halal meat. The target this time was not only Muslims, but also Hindus who sold meat from animals slaughtered in the halal way. Hindus were asked not to buy such meat – especially for consumption on the day after the festival of Ugadi, a day when non-vegetarian food is a tradition among many Hindu families. 

The BJP’s National General Secretary from the state, CT Ravi tweeted

No more HALAL PRODUCTS for Hindus.

Let us fight unitedly against Economic JIHAD ! ! !

The volume of sound from loudspeakers was another issue that was raised. Notices were sent in April to mosques – and also temples and churches. But in the context of what was happening on other fronts, many saw this as another way to curb Muslims. 

After pressure on issues ranging from what they wear, what they eat, how they earn a living, how they pray – it is a situation of What Next for minority communities in the state. 

All these incidents did get  tremendous media attention. And made people question the image of progressive Karnataka and of capital Bengaluru – India’s own Silicon Valley. 

Biocon Chief, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw tweeted

Karnataka has always forged inclusive economic development and we must not allow such communal exclusion- If ITBT became communal it would destroy our global leadership.  @BSBommai please resolve this growing religious divide

Former chief minister, B S Yediyurappa, who stepped down last year to make way for his successor, Bommai, said that Muslims should be allowed to live with dignity and that Hindus and Muslims should live like children of the same mother. This statement made headlines – something that in itself showed the current mood. For a prominent BJP leader to come out and make a rather basic statement on communal harmony was something considered unusual enough to be prominently reported. 

But there is just about a year to go before state elections in Karnataka – and many observers believe this is all part of a plan to garner votes ahead of that. The state has usually banked on caste equations when it came to voting blocs. This time, there is more religion in the mix – which some see as a cynical attempt to win the votes of the majority community. 

But just as friction between communities is a historical fact in Karnataka, as it is across India, so is the other reality.  Of people from different faiths living together as neighbours and friends. In peace. 

In the middle of all this, in April, the magnificent Chennakeshava temple at Belur in Hassan district started its chariot festival in the traditional way that it has followed for centuries. And that included the reading of verses from the Quran.

Maya Sharma is a journalist who has been working out of Karnataka for over 30 years as a television reporter, anchor and documentary filmmaker. She is Senior Consulting Editor with NDTV and is also a  Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media. Maya writes, loves animals, travelling, stories and chocolate. She has reported on gender issues, crime, civic issues, business, sports and environmental issues – with a special focus on wildlife and animal welfare. 

Picture Credits: Human Rights Watch

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 23

One for All or All for One? Equality in the Ukraine Refugee Crisis

As the conflicts between Russia and Ukraine continue to plague the people, civilian housing, and facilities have faced major destruction. The residents of several cities have been forced to evacuate to neighboring countries and refugee centers. The crisis is notably the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War 2

The civilians are fleeting towards western countries mainly Poland, Romania and Moldova who have cumulatively housed around millions of Ukrainians. Primarily the Schengen areas have stepped up due to the lack of internal border controls, creating a certain ease in the evacuation process. While the process has been ongoing since February now, the UN continues to estimate at least 6.5 million people who are still scattered across Ukraine, owing also to logistical delays of the lengthy queues at all borders. 

While the United Nations in unison with the Ukrainian and other governments is carrying out several humanitarian services, including monetary assistance, shelter and transit points, the evacuation of those living in besieged cities remains strained. As Russia allegedly continues to shell these towns, with no ceasefire to allow for safe transportation, those in the town of Mariupol and the Azovstal plant are in dire straits.

Furthermore, what defines a refugee, and to whom access to these habitating services is granted only includes Ukrainian citizens or foreign students with visas. In a crisis like this should a hierarchy of ethnicity or discrimination of any kind come into play ? The latest survey, conducted between April 11 and April 17, found that at least 60% of those internally displaced are women and children. This section of the population being majorly at risk, for cases of trafficking and sexual assault are being given priority. 

The jarring difference in attitude and assistance provided to Ukrainians versus the Syrian refugees of 2015 continues to elicit questions of differentiation in treatment. While the extent and portrayal of the destroyed homes, and stranded women and children is alike, why are countries like Germany now willingly harboring several Ukrainians in ways they denied the Syrians ?

As Moldova rolled out a welcome wagon to all Ukrainian refugees, Bea Ferenci, the UN Human Rights advisor, anticipated unfair treatment of the Roma minority group. The group being previosuly subjected to racial and biased discrimination is more prone to face negligence during evacuation procedures. However authorities have partnered with the Swiss Development Cooperation to provide the additional assistance and accessibility to the Roma refugees.

Besides Roma, refugee discrimination seeps further, with instances of relgious acceptance. Israel reportedly has only been sheltering Jewish citizens or those with a Jewish lineage. The Homes for Ukraine initiative started by the UK too, has faced criticism as staff and workers have come forward, calling it flawed. It is said to be crafted in a way which allows minimal entry of people into the UK, by not granting visas to entire families, providing almost no training to the staff and a lack of overall clarity. 

While countries like Switzerland are also offering social welfare schemes to aid the refugees who they accommodate in asylums and with families, the costs of living in Zurich makes survival even harder. The already displaced Ukrainians now struggle to meet daily food requirements, as the 500 Swiss francs budget is insufficient. Homes can no longer provide meals, and asylums and shelters sparingly distribute food. Can such restricted and meager support truly be considered a scheme for social welfare ? Is the help being offered only name-sake ?

Not only European leaders, but President Biden who first declared that the United states would take in 100,000 Ukrainians has now launched a new refugee sponsorship programme. It essentially allows for one to apply for temporary residency on humanitarian grounds. The refugees will be permitted to work and stay in the country for a period of two years. Owing to the strain on the humanitarian resources, the burden of Ukraines large-scale crisis has diverted attention away from the other ongoing global refugee situations like Afghanistan and Syria. 

Foreign countries aside, locals and citizens have stepped forward to aid what is deemed by the Pew research center, the sixth largest refugee crisis in the last 60 years. People in the Donbas region are hesitant to leave behind their fellow citizens, and are refusing to leave their now bombarded homes.  Aleksandr Prokopenko,a local of Popasna, a village now in shambles and primarily a battleground, told CNN in an interview about his love for his town and people and his desire to help them despite the circumstances. This native hero now drives to and fro from his hometown rescuing those in need. 

Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for the UNHCR said “The war in Ukraine has triggered one of the fastest-growing displacement and humanitarian crises ever.” To combat such mass-movement of populations there is a need for effective humanitarian resources. The existing system has been put to test with other global crises like the pandemic and economic inflation which have made it harder to control. It has also diverted attention away from the other ongoing global refugee situations like Afghanistan and Syria.The selective accommodation, biases and rigid policies disable true humanitarian services from unfolding. So as the world now witnesses one of the largest refugee crises, is the world moving towards a more inclusive system?

Maahira Jain is a third-year student at Ashoka University studying Psychology and Media studies. She is a movie buff and is extremely passionate about writing and travelling.

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Issue 23

How Does the Western Media Portray South Asia?

A subject that has long been explored is the dichotomy between the western and the eastern countries. In the 21st century, with the merging of different cultures, societies and ideologies, perhaps these differences are being blurred. However, the way the two sides portray each other affects how they think of the other and whether they choose to focus on the differences or not. The portrayal is often driven by what is stated in the news and media. In a study conducted in 2016, scientists were able to manipulate the participants’ perception of how risky a country seemed by differently phrasing news stories. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the media and how information is disseminated, especially if their viewership is worldwide.

One of the paramount situations in the east right now, especially in South Asia, is Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. Over the last two months, it has reached new highs, as food is in short supply, protests are ensuing, and the country is in turmoil. Throughout April, The Guardian has covered the Sri Lanka crisis in over seventeen articles. Out of these, only six have made it to the front page. The New York Times published just six articles regarding the crisis in the last two months, The Washington Post just four and The Times just three. None of the cover page headlines of the latest eight editions of The Economist mention Sri Lanka. These are all western newspapers that cater to an international audience. They express the views of the west and influence the views of the world, and their lack of coverage of a South Asian country’s crisis is striking. These do not represent all western media, nonetheless, they represent the top newspapers that are the most widely read. There are other Asian countries or countries in the Global East that make it to the headline; for example, the Russia-Ukraine conflict often has its own subsection dedicated to it. Of course, there will always be a conflict or crisis that requires or receives more precedence than another, however, it is hard to ignore how matters of importance in South Asia are often neglected in the extensive newspapers of the west.

In 2021, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication published a paper where the writer, Amol Parth, examined articles by The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, TIME, and The Guardian over the last decade to explore the global media coverage of India. Their analysis uncovered that the words used most in the context of India have been negative, outrageous, or full of contempt. The report discusses that the reason behind this could be that western newspapers do not have a lot of resources dedicated to India. Their arm-chair journalism – that is, journalism without going into the field – has resulted in them simplifying matters for their international audience, and not being able to capture the complexity of the country. In 2017, The New York Times article, ‘In India, Fashion Has Become a Nationalist Cause‘ received a lot of backlash because it claimed that the traditional Indian wear, the Sari, has become a trend imposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party to promote chauvinistic nationalism, after they’d come into power. However, they failed to mention that the Sari is not a sign of Hindutva but is a part of India’s heritage as  a whole.  Yes, BJP is a political party that is staunchly right-wing who promote Hindutva through most mediums, but not through the Sari. When influential western newspapers report partial and erroneous information such as this, it harms the global image of South Asia. 

Another example of partial or biassed information is the Washington Post article in 2014, ‘Bangladesh’s political unrest threatens economic gains, democracy’, where they wrote “Once known for sweatshops and cyclones, Bangladesh has emerged in recent years as a fragile democracy with an expanding economy”. Yes, this statement is partially positive: they have an expanding economy. However, it is the prefix of this sentence that points out the inherent bias of the western media where they have reduced an entire country to ‘sweatshops and cyclones’. One can argue that this is a close reading of just one article. Nonetheless, other analyses have pointed out that Bangladesh has been mostly reported in terms of violent Islamic extremists, disastrous country, and human rights violations in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Most bad news dominates the headlines, as they catch one’s attention, and this image of South Asia could be because of that. However, it is when the rhetoric becomes exclusively negative with barely any positive or hopeful articles to balance that, then the bias in western media becomes apparent. 

Information for the news is borrowed from various sources, and even western newspapers have to sometimes borrow resources from other media channels. India Today, an Indian news channel and magazine, published an exclusive interview with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. In the media, an exclusive is of great importance as the channel becomes the first to tell the story, especially in a situation that is intensely tense and critical, such as the Russia-Ukraine war. However, when the information gathered from the interview was re-reported in The New York Times, the information was attributed to “an Indian broadcaster“. No name nor any hyperlink was given. Therefore, it is not just how much or how South Asia is portrayed in western media, it is also the lack of respect that is given to the South Asian media.  

Yes, not every western news article regarding South Asia has biases, not every South Asian crisis or unrest is neglected, and it is not everytime that a major western newspaper “forgets” to credit a South Asian media channel. However, it is a trend that has been observed and continues to be propagated. Therefore, the western newspapers have to expand their coverage, diversify their opinions, credit other resources when required and honour the importance of South Asia. 

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).