This May, a million troops were amassed in Kashmir with nuclear weapons at the ready. The top story of The Washington Post? The ongoing investigation into Chandra Levy’s murder. June 5, in a moment of terrifying escalation, Indian and Pakistani soldiers exchanged artillery fire, killing hundreds and inching ever closer to an atomic holocaust. The front-page headline of most U.S. papers? Another car bombing in Israel.
After weeks of skirmishes and absurd atomic posturing, diplomacy eventually prevailed. But while the immediate threat has been quelled, the region persists as the leading candidate for the world’s first true nuclear war.
Here in the West, even at the height of recent tensions, the conflict over Kashmir rarely led the news. It often came after local politics or sports.
News editors have the unenviable task of prioritizing news items, reflecting — some would say, defining — society’s priorities. A bombing in Israel and the murder of a young intern are tragic events, to be sure. But they pale in comparison to the global catastrophe that would come of a nuclear war in Asia.
American news is renowned for its narcissism. (Reports of world events are often prefaced with, “In a move that might affect U.S. interests…”) But coverage of the Kashmir conflict has betrayed a disturbing deepening of such self-absorption.
And Canadian media are following the U.S. lead. The Toronto Sun’s Eric Margolis, one of the few to take the story seriously, wrote in frustration that the conflict “might as well be on Jupiter” for all the media and public attention it got.
Why? The short answer is racism. Not the easily identifiable, overt kind, but one bred from Western narcissism and a steady diet of stereotypes.
On May 28, Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke addressed the press on the matter of the escalating tensions between the South Asian nuclear powers. Shockingly, her concern was not over destabilization of the region or the threat of mass death and environmental havoc from nuclear bombing. Her worry was that the crisis would mean Pakistan pulling troops from its Afghan border, hindering the U.S. efforts to smoke out scattered Taliban hold-outs. This despite the Pentagon’s own projections of 12 to 20 million casualties from an Indo-Pakistani war.
A joke began to circulate earlier this summer alluding to the possibility of the nuclear exchange beginning on July 11. It would be a “7-11” war — based on the stereotype of South Asians as shopkeepers. We in the West are regaled with inaccurate images of the subcontinent as home to teeming, brown-skinned masses subject to regular mass kill-offs from riots, floods and other disasters. The unspoken sentiment fuelled by these stereotypes: “There are a billion of those people. What’s a few million less?”
New York radio “shock-jock” Howard Stern — famed for his offensiveness but whose ramblings nevertheless may reflect the sentiment of many Americans — commented recently that India and Pakistan are “like children;” the U.S. government should “take their toys away.”
To play with nuclear weapons is decidedly infantile behaviour, but Stern’s comments betray the essence of the West’s concept of South Asians: they are children for America to scold, coerce, manipulate and punish.
No matter that Asian leaders are often more experienced on the world stage than their American counterparts, more cognizant of legal and philosophical traditions and administer vast, ancient and accomplished cultures. How can such arguments stack up when measured against tangible evidence, like television and movie characters? (Think Apu on The Simpsons, or any of the disproportionately pandering or puerile depictions of Asians in Western media.)
Because India and Pakistan are so far away from us, we are tempted to think of theirs as just another foreign conflict we don’t need to worry about, much the same way that we ignore other horrific events that we think won’t affect us.
According to University of British Columbia professor and anti-racism activist Sunera Thobani, “this is just one more shocking example of the American media’s myopic approach to South Asia. It is typical of the U.S. media to feed mostly entertainment to the American population and pay attention only to those international issues which are defined as being most directly tied to American foreign policy interests.”
In her June 2 article in The Observer, Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy recounts the tensions in New Delhi as the nation braces for war and foreigners leave in droves. Some Western journalists remain, many seeking to interview Roy. Each interview concludes with a variation of the same question: is she writing a new book?
Roy responds with indignation, “Right now when it looks as though all the music, the art, the architecture, the literature, the whole of human civilization means nothing to the monsters who run the world, what kind of book should I write?”
As Roy is painfully aware, Western media has not fully grasped that the Indian subcontinent is more than just a faraway, exotic land providing us with New Age inspiration, store clerks and material for sad jokes. It might very well be the site of the single greatest tragedy in human history.