We’re Only Human

Indu Viswanathan
Sep 25, 2019 · 7 min read

Are supporters of a petition demanding accountability from NPR and fair representation or is it “Hindutva apocalyptic propaganda”?

On September 10, 2019, NPR became the subject of heated debate when it was revealed that its New Delhi producer, Furkan Khan, had published violent, Hinduphobic tweets about Hindus and India (see below). She removed the tweet, stating that she didn’t wish to be “misrepresented”. She later tweeted a longer apology and resigned.

NPR responded tepidly (and somewhat defensively, as you see above) to harsh public criticism from Hindus. We were not satisfied with their response, as Khan’s horrifically violent Hinduphobic tweet reflected a much deeper issue of journalistic integrity in reporting on Hindus and Hinduism from NPR, in India and in the US.

The following day, we started a petition demanding an ethical inquiry into NPR’s methods of covering news and issues related to Hinduism. We have been excited to see the change.org petition pick up a little speed over the past two weeks. At the time this article was published, it had just been endorsed by over 6,700 signatures, mostly from people in India and the United States. (Given that over 10% of the world’s population is Hindu, a few thousand reads as somewhat apathetic. That’s an analysis for another time.) The vast majority of comments (across social media) were very supportive of the petition’s demands, from Hindus and non-Hindus alike.

We did anticipate that, given its popularity, the petition would inevitably get trolled, and that the scruples of the petition-signers would come into question. We also anticipated that this critique would fall squarely into the popular (“woke”) trope that when Hindus speak up for our right to be represented fairly and equally in the face of documented inequity, we are secretly harboring fascist agendas.

As usual, Twitter did not disappoint!

(Names were excluded to honor the ethics of expectations of public privacy while tweeting within a thread.) The tweet on the right is impressively circular in its logic, disallowing any thoughtful or meaningful dissent. Ironically, it also overrides Hinduism with Christian (Crusader) and Muslim (infidel) notions.

In any case, we were correct in predicting that advocating for fair and balanced reporting regarding Hinduism would be met with these kinds of melodramatic and suspicious accusations about the petition’s supporters. (That our accusers were Indians with Hindu names was, unfortunately, equally predictable.)

However, it did make us curious about who was signing the petition. Why were they signing it? Were they really “paid trolls” looking to promote “fascism” in India? Were they really seeking to destroy any criticism — nay the very critics themselves?

So we decided to analyze comments left by signers on the petition. This was our approximation of getting into the “mind” of the supporters, without the resources to call and interview each one. We downloaded all the comments (n=677) left on the petition, as of September 24, 2019. (Note: All comments are publicly available on the petition.) Next, we cleaned up the data by taking out (a) comments that were merely signers’ names (n=29) and (b) comments that only reiterated support of the petition without adding any other information, context, reasons, analyses, etc. (e.g. “I support this petition”, “Signed”), as we felt it reasonable to assume that everyone who signed the petition supported it and these comments were not giving us any additional information (n=67).

This left us with 581 comments. We assessed these remaining comments against fifteen categories, of which each comment fit into one or more.

The first four categories (Fluff, Modi, Islamophobia, “Hindutva”) fall squarely into the troubling areas that our Twitter critics (Twitics?) brought up. The remaining categories pertain to either living as a Hindu (Anti-Missionary, Values, Safety, Hinduphobia) or articulated concerns about anti-Hindu media bias (Fairness, Agenda-Driven, Media Bias, Other NPR, NPR Bias, FK).

These were the results.

Of the 581 comments, those first four, potentially eyebrow-raising categories were negligibly populated. Two people mentioned Modi, one of them merely noting a marked uptick in media bias after he came into office, without any additional commentary. Of the Islamophobic comments, one of them expressed concern that Muslim NPR reporters universally had an anti-Hindu agenda; the remainder expressed very strong Islamophobic sentiments (that we most vehemently stand against). The greatest concern for petition signers was broad NPR bias against Hindus (44.2%), followed by a call for fair and balanced reporting on Hinduism and issues related to Hindus (24.8%), and concerns about Hinduphobia, in media and in the world (21.7%).

As we read the comments, several themes/concerns emerged that went undetected by our categories (the “Other” category). It should be noted that the majority of these concerns came from folks who identified themselves as (former) NPR subscribers. The themes are listed in descending order of popularity.

  1. NPR reporters do not seem to be educated enough about Indian history or about Hinduism (from an authentic Hindu perspective and not a Western one). They are unqualified to report on Hindus and Hinduism with any real context or authority.
  2. NPR’s biased reporting is contributing to a larger media phenomenon that is generating a sense of disharmony and divisiveness in India.
  3. Overwhelming frustration, anger, disappointment, and unfairness at media bias, gaslighting about genocides and religious colonizations of Hindus, the plight of Hindus in Muslim majority countries, skewed public narrative about Hinduism and India, and the ways in which this was impacting their lives, their children, and their nation.
  4. Frustration with the silence and inaction of Hindus in allowing ourselves to be abused and bullied (e.g. by the press).
  5. Calling for Hindu unity to speak up and speak out.
  6. Lack of non-Hinduphobic Hindu representation on NPR’s staff.
  7. Racism and orientalism as a motivator for biasing coverage and concern, and frustration that this goes largely unaddressed.

In the end, based on our analysis, it seems like the overwhelming majority of people signing this petition are not articulating any desire to do harm, to whitewash the facts, or to silence anyone. What this group of people appears to seek is: fair reporting on issues related to Hindus; authentic, respectful representations of Hinduism; self-representation; religious freedom and expression; a sense of Hindu community-in-action; and unity and parity within the larger population.

Not so fascism-supporting or fundamentalist after all, despite what the popular progressive press would have you believe happens when a bunch of Hindus get together and share our thoughts and feelings about our state in the world.

And, finally, we thought we would end with some comments left on the petition which we felt were both insightful and representative of the data. Because these comments were shared on a public site, we didn’t feel there was an ethical issue in including them, but we did exclude names, because of the same ethical considerations of expected public privacy.

Note: This analysis was conducted by the author with the support of a team of software engineers, data scientists, a neuroscience researcher, and a media studies scholar. This is one of several existing and upcoming analytical reports about this issue.

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Indu Viswanathan

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New York-based mother, scholar-activist, community member, friend, meditator, musician, and writer.

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