Myth as History, or History as Myth? – Analysis of How Ayodhya’s History is Depicted in BBC and NYT

The facts about Ayodhya are often obscured by Western media outlets by suppressing the Hindus' claim to the Ram temple.

Myth as History, or History as Myth? – Analysis of How Ayodhya’s History is Depicted in BBC and NYT

Introduction

“They peddle myths and call it history,” asserts the title of an opinion piece by Romila Thapar recently published in The New York Times. The “they” in this assertion refers to no particular scholar or historian, but to a general “they” that is often invoked in the New York Times and other publications under the broad label of “Hindu Nationalism.”
This invocation of the “Hindu nationalist rewriting of history” is a recurring theme in Western media commentary on India. It appears to have had some connection to reality during the previous BJP government’s tenure in India from 1999-2004 when apparently some policy efforts were made by the then Human Resources Development ministry to revisit textbooks (although the characterization of what these changes were might be debatable and more complex). In any case, it appears that the Congress-led government that came to power in 2004 reverted to the old curricula to the satisfaction of the academic establishment. What has happened, or did not happen since 2014, in the Narendra Modi government, though seems to be caught up in a fairly strained web of accusation and denial. Professional historians like Romila Thapar and international news media like Reuters and the New York Times have talked once again about this alleged rewriting of history through myths, although the concerned minister seems to have vehemently denied any such changes having been made between 2014-2019 (see my response in The Hoot to one such claim made by Reuters India, here). For the most part, the charges of unscientific rewriting of history against the BJP seems to be based not on any substantive policy changes on curriculum, but on unscholarly comments made in non-academic settings by politicians (and one or two awkward examples in scientific settings too, apparently).
I have been following the media coverage of these disputes over Indian history fairly closely since 2005 when my opinion piece on the California textbooks issue was published in the San Francisco Chronicle. My view was that it was unfair, as many academicians were doing at the time, to ignore the reasonable criticisms being made of the old (and often contemptuously racist) colonial era myths in the textbooks about India and Hinduism that parents and community groups were finally speaking up against after decades of silence. At the same time, the Chronicle also published another view, this one by Romila Thapar and Michael Witzel, titled “A Different Agenda,” in which they warned that “ominously unscientific religiously-based materials…. may now be presented as historical facts.” Fourteen years later, now that a similar allegation has once again come from Professor Thapar in the New York Times (and a few times in between too) it may be helpful to look at the track record, on this same question of history, of not the “accused” (the BJP, the RSS, “Hindu Nationalists,” and sometimes anyone who disagrees with the academic establishment and its dominant and hallowed canons even if they have no stakes at all in the “Hindu Nationalism” business), but the “accusers.” It may not have occurred to the editors and publishers of Western news media that while the impulse to impose an objectifying colonial gaze upon others darker and ‘heathener’ and ‘Hinduer’ than them might remain, such an impulse finds resistance from said dark, heathen, Hindus, who, very often, can also speak, write, and meet propaganda with truth and reason.

History as “Myth”: The Case of Ayodhya

The Ayodhya temple issue is perhaps the most famous example of a historic dispute in the news. One useful way to examine the track record of Western news media in their coverage of debates and contestations over history in India today might be to look closely at how they have reported the issue in Ayodhya. Are they objective? Do they present all the known facts in an open and honest way? Do they quote sources of equal repute and credibility on different sides of the dispute? Do they use images in a way that humanises different groups, such as Hindus and Muslims, in the same manner? These are all valid and commonly studied indicators of media bias followed by media researchers. While I have shared some of my findings on Western media’s record more generally on their coverage of India elsewhere, in this essay I focus on one key indicator that is central to the question of objectivity as far as coverage of the Ayodhya dispute is concerned: do reports on Ayodhya present the facts as facts, particularly on the wider issue symbolized by it to indigenous Hindus, which is the history of the massive destruction of Hindu (and other indigenous) traditions and sacred spaces in India during medieval Islamic imperialism? Do we see any reference to relevant works like Sitaram Goel’s Hindu Temples and What Happened to Them? Or to the key archaeological findings and legal conclusions drawn on the key Hindu claim of indigeneity and persecution here: the fact of the existence of Hindu places of worship in India under several imperial symbols of conquest? In the case of Ayodhya, it is a simple proposition to test: do Western news reports acknowledge that a Hindu temple was destroyed there? Or, do they propose a different approach to this reality?
In the following table, I present all the relevant quotes from reports in The New York Times and the BBC news from all articles published in the past 6 months that appear under the search term “Ayodhya.” I list the mentions into two broad columns: whether these reports talk about the Ayodhya issue in terms of an indigenous, or pre-Mughal history to India (i.e. mention the existence of a temple before Babar), or if they present it as a matter of “belief” that Hindus (or, sometimes “Hard-line Hindus”) have about the “birthplace of Ram.” Historical Fact, or mythological belief? I use these categories as I observed a clear pattern in study of earlier coverage too (mainly from 1992-1993), and it seems to be a consistent one.
As expected, the column for mentions of a temple having existed there proved redundant, as there were none in my sample. Instead, there were a few extended “belief” mentions, where a pre-existing temple is mentioned, but mostly as a “belief” of Hindus again.
Table 1. “Ayodhya” in BBC and NYT (2018-2019)

Source Date Title Belief in Lord Ram’s birthplace Belief in pre-existing temple Other
BBC 5/20/2019 India election 2019: 13-17 May the week that was “In 1992, right-wing Hindu mobs razed the mosque to the ground, claiming it was built on the site of a temple destroyed by Muslim rulers”
BBC 4/25/2019 Meeting a ‘foot-soldier’ of the Hindu far-right “(The mob that razed the 16th-century Babri mosque) more important said that it was standing on ground believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god, Rama.” “The mob that razed the 16thcentury Babri mosque claimed that it was built on the site of a temple destroyed by Muslim rulers”
BBC 4/23/2019 Why Is a 2,500-year-old Epic Dominating Polls in Modern India? “Hindu faithful believe a Hindu god, Lord Ram was born” “Hardline Hindus… believe the Babri mosque was built after the destruction of a Hindu temple by a Muslim invader”
BBC 12/8/2018 Ayodhya: Thousands rally in Delhi over disputed religious site “Hindus believe the disputed religious site is the birthplace of one of their most revered deities” (photo caption)
“Hindus believe it is the birthplace of their beloved deity Lord Ram but Muslims say they have worshipped there for generations”
BBC 11/25/2018 India’s Ayodhya Site: Masses gather as Hindu-Muslim dispute simmers “Hindus believe the religious site in the state of Uttar Pradesh is the birthplace of one of their most beloved deities Lord Ram. But Muslims say they have worshipped there for generations”
Notes that 2010 Allahabad High Court ruling acknowledges the site as birthplace of Ram
“Hindus say the site is the birthplace of Lord Ram, and insist the Babri masjid was built there only after Muslim invaders destroyed a Hindu temple that stood there first.”
NYT 5/20/2019 Factbox: As Indian Election Dust settles… “(Allies of BJP) will likely renew controversial demand to build a Hindu temple on the ruins of a 16thcentury mosque”
NYT 5/20/2019 India’s Hindu Groups to Double Down on Demands as Modi Set for Big Win “Many Hindus believe a mosque razed in 1992 was built in the same place where Lord Ram, a physical incarnation of Hindu god Vishnu, was born.” “They also point to evidence there was a temple there before a mosque was built in 1528.”
NYT 5/18/2019 How My Hometown Became the Epicenter of India’s Religious Politics (oped) “Ayodhya… considered holy by Buddhists, Jains and Muslims, and believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Ram, one of Hinduism’s most beloved deities and the protagonist of the epic poem the Ramayana”
For residents of Ayodhya Ram was omnipresent but some Hindu activists claimed that Ram was born within this contested area”
“(The BJP in the 1980s ran a campaign) contending that a temple to Ram had existed on the  disputed site until it was razed in the 16thcentury and replaced by the Babri masjid, a mosque built by India’s first Mogul emperor”
NYT 5/10/2019 India’s Top Court Extends Term of Arbitrators in Ayodhya Temple Dispute (Allies of BJP) “ratcheted up their demand for a temple to be built at the site many Hindus consider to be the birthplace of a revered deity, Lord Ram” “Hindu groups say there was a temple at the site in Ayodhya before a mosque was erected by a Muslim ruler in 1528”
NYT 5/17/2019 India’s Modi Faces Backlash After Backing Terror Accused Candidate “Thakur boasted about her role in demolishing a 16thcentury mosque in.. Ayodhya” … “(and echoed) BJP’s promise to build a temple at the mosque site.”
NYT 4/22/2019 Sri Lanka, India, China: Your Tuesday Briefing “The minority Muslim population knows it as the site of a 16th-century mosque built under a Mughal emperor. And Hindus believe it is where the deity Lord Ram was born.”
NYT 3/17/2019 Railing Against India’s Right-Wing Nationalism Was a Calling. It Was also a Death Sentence. (Magazine) (Hindutva activists and BJP politicians) “tore down a 450-year-old mosque”

Here is a link to an article that details the timeline of the Ayodhya case: Facts about Ram Temple
It is clear that not even one report out of 12 clearly lays out the indigenous, pre-Mughal picture about the temple. Eight reports frame the issue as being about the “birthplace of Ram” (which while not entirely untrue, serves to relegate the Hindu claim of indigeneity and persecution and any plea for justice to the domain of “myth”, a term often used in such reports as well). The notion of a Hindu temple having once existed there before being destroyed by Babar is mentioned in 4 cases, but in all of them, this is qualified as just a Hindu or even a “mob” or a “hardline” claim. Interestingly, the phrase “Babar destroyed” or that the “Mughals destroyed” is carefully averted from mention too. The Mughals always “built” or “erected,” whereas what the Hindu did is “razed,” “destroyed, “tore down” and so on. This is not inconsistent with broader patterns of Hinduphobic bias in these publications.
Another interesting dilution in a more recent piece in the NYT is the presentation of Ayodhya site as “holy” for “Buddhists, Jains, and Muslims,” but Hindus, once again, only “believe” that Ram was born there. Once again, this is consistent with the racist-religious-supremacist view of Hindus as not being worthy enough to even be attributed a sense of sanctity for their sacred sites. It is perhaps similar to a report on Jerusalem saying the city if holy for Muslims and Christians, but Jews “believe” it is also holy to them.

Conclusion

To conclude, one might inform Professor Thapar and other concerned scholars that some of the people who are publishing them have a habit of doing what she (sometimes rightly) fears the “Hindu Nationalist” unscientific politicians are doing – passing off myth as history, or in this case, propaganda as journalism. The BBC and the New York Times seem to be the prime mythologists of our time, as far as India is concerned. They should try doing journalism for a change.

About Author: Vamsee Juluri

Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of several books including Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence, Saraswati's Intelligence, and most recently, Writing Across a Cracked World: Hindu Representation and The Logic of Narrative (for a complete list of his books visit his author page at Amazon here).

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