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No sex please, we’re Indian: Get Religion, January 9, 2014 January 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism.
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Rape and religion returned to the front pages of India’s newspapers this week after a judge in Delhi stated premarital sex was sinful.

The Hindu reported:

Pre-marital sex is “immoral” and against the “tenets of every religion”, a Delhi court has said while holding that every act of sexual intercourse between two adults on the promise of marriage does not become rape. Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat also held that a woman, especially grown up, educated and office-going, who has sexual intercourse on the assurance of marriage does so “at her own peril”.

According to The Times of India, Judge Bhat, who presides over a court set up last year in response to the nationally publicized gang rape and murder wrote:

When a grown up woman subjects herself to sexual intercourse with a friend or colleague on the latter’s promise that he would marry her, she does so at her own peril. She must be taken to understand the consequences of her act and must know that there is no guarantee that the boy would fulfil his promise. He may or may not do so. She must understand that she is engaging in an act which not only is immoral but also against the tenets of every religion. No religion in the world allows pre-marital sex.

The BBC picked up this story as well. It added this explanation for Western audiences in its story “Indian judge says pre-marital sex ‘against religion’”:

Pre-marital sex remains a cultural taboo in India. Last year, a court in Delhi said live-in relationships were immoral and an “infamous product of Western culture”.

But the BBC goes no further in offering context or an explanation (it appears to be a re-write of an AFP story, which may be a mitigating factor). Even though the lede and headline of the BBC story makes explicit reference to religion, this angle is not developed. This criticism does not fall only on the BBC, the Indian press has also shied away from developing the religious angle to this story and has been content to publish only the judge’s obiter ditca.

The press has not remained silent in discussing Judge Bhat’s remarks — but the conversation has been channeled into discussions of gender and women’s rights.

Why the reticence? In a series of GetReligion posts, TMatt has addressed whether the Indian press avoids reporting on the religion and caste angles to a story. In a 2010 post entitled “Life and death (and faith) in India,” he wrote:

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

The Indian press as well as the BBC and the wire service reports on Judge Bhat’s decision are continuing this trend of avoiding religion in reporting. An in depth article from the Wall Street Journal last November entitled “Indian Rape Law Offers Desperate Last Resort” sticks to culture only.

While the Indian press may be restrained to report on religion, should the BBC frame the story in a faith-free atmosphere? Were India a fiercely secular society, such an omission might be justified. But it is not — nor are the rates of pre-marital sex comparable to the West. A study by the International Institute for Population Studies estimated that 3 per cent of women had engaged in pre-marital sex.

Why? Perhaps it is because sexuality for a woman in the Vedic tradition of Hindu culture is controlled by her age and marital status. It frames virginity, chastity and celibacy as being appropriate for distinct periods of life. Virginity is expected of a woman before marriage and chastity is expected within marriage. Celibacy, as signaled by an ascetic withdrawal from the obligations of marriage and family life, takes place at the end of life with abstinence being a liberation of the self from worldly attachments. While Tantric cults exalted women in worship, their sexual mores did not extend to a modern notion of female sexual autonomy. While the ideal seldom governs the real, it must be stated that pre-marital sex simply does not work within the Hindu worldview.

Discussions of sexuality in India seem to go in two directions: blame the English and the golden past.

As the BBC noted an Indian court blames the penchant for some to engage in premarital sex as an “infamous product of Western culture.” Homosexuality and the country’s sodomy laws are also laid at the door of the British too.

Or we go to the opposite extreme and hear of a mythologized past where openness and a lack of hypocrisy ruled. This is the Kama Sutra narrative, but it is not history. It is more a product of the nationalist aspirations of the rising middle classes. A macedoine of anti-colonialism with a dash of “Orientalism”, seasoned with a repressed Westerners and liberated Orientals. However the Kama Sutra narrative of Indian sexuality is largely irrelevant to an understanding of its modern manifestations and as sociologist Sanjay Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi writes:

is best confined to expensive coffee table books of our ‘glorious’ past that was supposedly destroyed by foreign invaders.

There is no middle ground in reporting on sex in India. Silence or secularism governs the discussion. While this may be the environment in which the Indian press must work, should we not expect more of the BBC and the western wire services?

First printed in Get Religion.

Time takes sides in India’s sex wars: Get Religion, December 13, 2013 December 13, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Press criticism.
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Time magazine reports India’s Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the nation’s colonial era “sodomy laws”, ruling there is no “right” under the constitution to same-sex carnal relations. The court ruled that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code could be repealed but only by the legislature not judicial fiat.

Time is not too happy about this. The magazine’s editorial voice can be heard through out “Homosexuality is Criminal Again as India’s Top Court Reinstates Ban”.  The lede states:

In a surprise move, India’s top court on Wednesday reversed a landmark judgment by a lower court decriminalizing homosexuality in the country. The court said that the law regarding homosexuality could only be changed by the government. “The legislature must consider deleting this provision (Section 377) from law as per the recommendations of the attorney general,” Justice GS Singhvi, the head of the two-judge Supreme Court bench said in Wednesday’s ruling.

In 2009, the Delhi High Court had overturned an archaic colonial law (section 377 of the Indian Penal Code) that made gay sex an offense punishable by up to life imprisonment. Wednesday’s decision shocked many because while anticipation was high not many expected India’s top court, which in the past upheld many progressive rights judgments often going against the government and popular discourse, to revoke such a forward looking judgment.

“Archaic” is also used in the subheading of the story to describe the law. The commentary in the second sentence of this paragraph is not quite accurate. The Attorney General of India had argued in favor of overturning the law — there is a hint of this in the quote from the court’s ruling, but nothing further.

The Hindu, one of India’s leading daily newspapers, noted the attorney general called the sodomy law a British import.

Mr. Vahanvati had said “the introduction of Section 377 in the IPC was not a reflection of existing Indian values and traditions, rather it was imposed upon Indian society by the colonisers due to their moral values. The Indian society prevalent before the enactment of the IPC had a much greater tolerance for homosexuality than its British counterpart, which at this time under the influence of Victorian morality and values in regard to family and the procreative nature of sex.”

Time makes its views clear in this paragraph.

While activists vow to challenge the ruling, the decision to decriminalize homosexuality is now in the hands of New Delhi. And while the good news is that the government has recently changed its position on the issue, arguing for it in the court pointing out that the anti-gay law in the country was archaic and that Indian society has grown more tolerant towards homosexuality, the bad news is that the country is heading for general polls in a few months and a much embattled coalition government is striving hard to retain power. It is thus highly unlikely that gay rights will take center stage in Indian Parliament any time soon.

“Good news”? That does cross the line dividing news and commentary.

There is also a lack of balance. Time quotes the South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a “veteran LGBT activist” and other “[s]tunned LGBT activists”, but offers no voices in support of the decision, or an explanation of the legal principles offered by the court in its decision.

What then is going on in this story? Was there a breakdown in Time’s back office that permitted an ill-written story barely distinguishable from a press release making it through the editorial process?

It is not as if no voices in support of maintaining the law are present. When the Delhi court struck down the law in 2009, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian leaders held a joint press conference denouncing the decision. Times‘ argument that a general election campaign will see this issue disappear from the public eye due to its unpopularity implies politicians support keeping the law — and The Hindu reports some will even campaign on this point.

Is the attorney general correct in saying laws banning consensual same-sex carnal relations are un-Indian and merely a vestige of the Raj? Or does the near unanimous voice of opprobrium from India’s religions for homosexual acts and the political classes desire to campaign on this issue speak to an Indian cultural and religious aversion to gay sex?

Or, are we seeing the “new normal” of reporting on social issues? As my colleagues at Get Religion have shown, balance is not a requirement for many mainstream media outlets when reporting on social issues. Bill Keller of the New York Times has stated his paper strives to be impartial when covering politics, but does not feel this same need when reporting on social issues. As TMatt has wrote at Get Religion, Keller believes that:

When covering debates on politics, it’s crucial for Times journalists to be balanced and fair to stakeholders on both sides. But when it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it’s only natural for scribes in the world’s most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens.

There is nothing really new in Keller’s worldview. Sixty three years ago Lionel Trilling wrote in the preface to The Liberal Imagination “It is one of the tendencies of liberalism to simplify.”

In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation. This does not mean, of course, that there is no impulse to conservatism or to reaction. Such impulses are certainly very strong, perhaps even stronger than most of us know. But the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not, with some isolated and some ecclesiastical exceptions, express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.

The state of American intellectual life has changed little, and I fear it has worsened. Trilling believed there should be an interplay of ideas between left and right for “it is not conducive to the real strength of liberalism that it should occupy the intellectual field alone.”

Citing John Stuart Mill’s essay on Coleridge, Trilling wrote:

Mill, at odds with Coleridge all down the intellectual and political line [wrote Trilling], nevertheless urged all liberals to become acquainted with this powerful conservative mind. He said that the power of every true partisan of liberalism should be, “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies… ; sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers. We are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom: their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.”…What Mill meant, of course, was that the intellectual pressure which an opponent like Coleridge could exert would force liberals to examine their position for its weaknesses and complacencies.

Time’s report on the court battle in India over Section 377 reflects the complacency that Trilling fought so hard, unsuccessfully, to halt in American letters. By not engaging with ideas uncongenial to its own thinking Time has become sloppy, stale and predictable — all but valueless as reporting and rather tepid, even insipid, as polemic.

Please hear what I am saying in this post — I am not discussing the merits of the court decision, but Time magazine’s reporting on the court decision. As journalism this story fails the test — unbalanced, excessive adjectives and adverbs, open support of one side of an argument, short of key facts, lacking context, and stylistically flat.

Now if the story had been presented as “liberal outrage over Indian court decision” essay or news analysis piece, my criticisms would not be as sharp. However, Time has packaged this story as a news piece. Sunk in their complacencies, Time and many other media outlets are small-minded and provincial. They serve as exemplars of the mindset ascribed to the late New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael: “I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.”

First printed in Get Religion.

Destroyer of worlds … an Indian iconoclasm: Get Religion, November 8, 2011 November 8, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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Located just below the logo at the top of this page is the quote “the press …  just doesn’t get religion.” This is the mantra of GetReligion, a website dedicated to critiquing religion reporting in the secular media.  (Independent and denominational religion publications such as my own Church of England Newspaper fall outside our remit.)

The articles on this website examine religion “ghosts” in stories — when questions of faith, belief or religious identity animate an issue but are neglected in the article. Other GetReligion stories laud reporters or newspapers for providing context, insight or understanding of the faith issues at play. We also point out errors, false assumptions and omissions found in the in coverage of the familiar as well as the exotic.

Many answer the question “why” these mistakes are made by reference to the banishment of religion from education and the public square. But a lack of understanding of the faith is not solely a function of secularization. One need only turn to the India — a country steeped in religion — to see this.

Asian News International (ANI) — an Indian wire service — ran a story last week with the somewhat bald headline “Man attacks church in Mangalore.” It reported:

In a freak incident, a man broke into the St. Alphonsa Church in Mangalore and damaged an idol of Jesus Christ on Thursday. The man has been identified as Shiva, a resident of Jalligudde. It was learnt that he went into the priest’s private chambers, removed his clothes and tried to wear the holy vestments, before he was discovered by a couple of students staying at a hostel attached to the church. He damaged the main idol of Christ and the Holy Cross placed inside the church. He also broke both the arms of the idol.

The lede in DNA — an English-language daily broadsheet published in Bombay — opened with the damage also. “Drunk youngster damages church in Bangalore”  (Some problem here with the headline. Bangalore is the capital of Karnataka and 250 km northwest of Mangalore, Karnataka’s main seaport).

Church attack returned to haunt Mangalore on Thursday night when an unemployed man, in an inebriated state, vandalised St Alphonsa Church near Kankanady Market in the south Karnataka city. In the third such incident in a fortnight, Shiva Bajal, 24, damaged the grottoes of Jesus and Mary. He also damaged the furniture in the main hall of the church and tried desecrating the altar. Further damage to the church was prevented when a group of people from the parish apprehended Bajal. The inebriated man continued his rampage and also tried to assault Shibbi, a priest.

The Daijiworld television network broadcast a report on the attack showing the wrecked church. (The report starts about 40 seconds after the video begins — following the commercial). The Hindu — one of India’s oldest (1878) and largest circulation (1.5 million) English-language newspapers — also highlighted the damage:

Between 8.30 p.m. and 9 p.m., a man entered the church, attacked the statue of Jesus with a candle stand, and went to the sacristy where he inflicted more damage. The man, since identified as Shiva, broke an idol of Jesus and threw a copy of the Bible on the floor. He threw the monstrance (a golden-coloured article about a foot in height which is used for the Adoration), and a stole that is used in a number of sacraments, Assistant Parish Priest Shibbi Puthiyara said.

But unlike the other reports, it gave some context to the attack for the non-Christian reader. It interviewed one of the parishioners who witnessed the attack, and quoted her as saying:

“The monstrance is so sacred that it is held only with the stole.” … “The man damaged the statue of Jesus, the monstrance, and the stole. All three are considered sacred,” she said.

All of these reports highlight the religious issues involved and treat seriously the concerns and anger of the congregation. However, the language used in the ANI article, for example, is incorrect. While I know a few hard-shell Protestants who would argue the Roman Catholic Church’s use of statues in their churches is “idolatry”, the statue of Jesus is not an “idol” in the sense that an Indian reader would understand the word.

Nor is the priority given by the Indian reports to the damaged statue or liturgical vestments over the destroyed monstrance correct. This can best be illustrated by comparing the press statement put out by the local Catholic bishop and the newspaper reports. On 5 Nov 2011 Bishop Aloysius Paul D’Souza of Mangalore wrote:

The Catholic Church dedicated to St Alphonsa in Kankanady was attacked by a miscreant on Thursday November 3 night. The holy monstrance was desecrated and statues of Jesus were damaged.

The monstrance was “desecrated” and the statues “damaged”, the bishop reported. Why the difference? Two words: Real Presence.

For the Roman Catholic the Eucharistic elements, or gifts, are transformed at the moment of consecration into the Body and Blood of Christ — not only spiritually transformed but substantially transformed, retaining only the the appearance or accidents of bread and wine. They are the Body and Blood of Christ. The elements in the monstrance were damaged and thereby desecrated or profaned. This nicety is missing from the Indian accounts save for The Hindu.

Turning the glass the other way round, while a Western reader might bristle at the idol reference would he catch the symbolism of the name of the attacker: Shiva?  In the Hindu pantheon Shiva is the destroyer.

Some may recognize this through a quotation from the Bhagavad Gita made famous by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Upon witnessing the world’s first nuclear explosion in 1945, Oppenheimer — the director of the Manhattan Project — said the brought the epic Hindu poem to mind.

“Now I am become Death [Shiva], the destroyer of worlds,” Oppenheimer said citing Chapter 11 verse 32 of the Bhagavad Gita when seeing the destructive power of an atomic blast.

For an Indian audience, the irony of a man names Shiva destroying things would be obvious. For a Western audience calling a statue of Jesus an idol is thoughtless or a deliberately provocative statement — both have meanings bellow the surface. A good reporter is one who informs his readers without being didactic and who is able to catch the nuances in a story to give it shape and context. I wish there were more of them.

 Image of the monstrance and of Shiva via Shutterstock.

First published by GetReligion.