India

Top notch New York Times who-done-it story comes up short on Hindu roots of India's caste system

Top notch New York Times who-done-it story comes up short on Hindu roots of India's caste system

The New York Times ran a fascinating story out of rural India over the weekend that to my mind underscored -- with one big caveat -- some of the complicated mechanics and very best qualities of foreign reporting.

Headlined, “How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India,” the piece, written in the first person by a veteran correspondent, showed — without explicitly explaining — the powerful connection between religion and everyday cultural expression. The writer was Ellen Barry, who shared a staff Pulitzer Prize while previously working in the paper’s Moscow bureau.

Conveying the daily experiences of ordinary people living in a distant and different culture requires a level of empathetic insight and writing skill greater than that of the average newspaper reporter. Barry’s that kind of journalist; she’s able to turn the travails of ordinary individuals into highly readable copy

This story focuses on how a man got away with murdering his wife -- a circumstance that unfortunately happens far too often in rural India.

For that he can thank corrupt local officials and ingrained male disrespect for women -- particularly poor women -- rooted in South Asia’s Vedic-origin caste system. The Vedas are Hinduism earliest scriptural writings and are estimated to be between 2,500 to 3,500 years old.

This, despite Indian laws making caste discrimination illegal.

(Before any non-Hindu readers dismiss this as solely a Hindu problem, note that the Wikipedia link in the previous paragraph, repeated here, makes clear that in India and neighboring (and primarily Hindu) Nepal, some Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews also have adhered to caste system protocols over the years.)

Barry’s story is long, around 3,500 words, but it stays interesting to its conclusion and it's worth reading in full.

I like how Barry documented her dogged reporting technique, returning time and again to re-interview people, often asking the same reworded questions over and over. That kind of intensive reporting becomes more rare with each passing news cycle.

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The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

If you drew up a list of the 10 most common complaints made by GetReligion readers about mainstream religion news coverage, this would be one of them.

The complaint: Why do so many journalists ignore the role that faith plays in the lives of prominent and inspirational figures, especially when writing major profiles or, most symbolically, in their obituaries?

No, we're not just talking about sports heroes and entertainers.

In this latest case, we are talking about one of the world's most courageous Catholic nuns, the woman often called the "Mother Teresa of Pakistan." Here is the top of a major report from Al Jazeera:

Tributes are pouring in for a German nun who spent more than half a century in Pakistan battling leprosy and helping the country's most vulnerable people.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi announced in a statement that a state funeral would be held for Ruth Pfau who died on Thursday, aged 87.
"She gave new hope to innumerable people and proved through her illustrious toil that serving humanity knows no boundaries," the statement said. ...
Pfau trained as a doctor in her youth and went on to join a Catholic sisterhood. She arrived in Pakistan, where she spent the rest of her life, in 1960. She specialised in the treatment of leprosy, a disease that causes discolouration of the skin, sores, and disfigurements.

Now, some of the stories -- because of her medical training -- referred to this Catholic hero as "Dr." Ruth Pfau.

However, it took some time to find a report that included a rather important word -- "Sister." As a GetReligion reader noted: "Might this woman's faith have had something to do with her work?"

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A world religion few readers know about: Sikhs get some news coverage from ProPublica

A world religion few readers know about: Sikhs get some news coverage from ProPublica

ProPublica, the investigative journalism powerhouse, doesn’t have a religion reporter even though it has a raft of other specialties ranging from civil rights, the military and health care to consumer finance, tech and education.

Why this newsroom doesn't cover the motivating force behind how billions of people live their lives is a puzzle but recently the organization did come out with a piece about religion.

Called “Sikhs in America: A History of Hate,” it chronicles how a blameless religious minority has been mistaken for Muslims for years and often murdered in cold blood because of that misperception. Remember, it was not a Muslim but a Sikh: Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered at a gas station in Arizona right after 9/11.

The lengthy first-person feature begins with an incident that took place not far from where I live.

The 1907 episode in a seaside timber town in Washington came to be known as the Bellingham Riots. Really, though, there were no riots. There was a pogrom.
At the time, the U.S. was suffering through deep economic distress, a panic-filled recession that had begun the year before. Angry anti-immigrant sentiment was ascendant. And hundreds of Sikh men who had traveled from India to Bellingham to toil in the lumber mills paid the price.
Some 500 white men, many of them members of the local Asiatic Exclusion League, descended on the Sikhs and other South Asians, routing them from the bunkhouses where they roomed and chasing them into the streets. Within hours, the entire Sikh population of Bellingham had fled, frantically piling onto trains and boats in search of some sort of refuge. Many had been physically battered.

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Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

Reporters and editors who specialize in religion should be aware of a young Web site -- TheConversation.com -- and regularly check out its section devoted to “Ethics + Religion.

This innovative site was launched in 2011 in Australia, 2012 in Britain, and then 2014 for the United States, with funding from 11 foundations and sponsorship by a constellation of 19 major U.S. universities (oddly, no Ivy Leaguers).  

The stated concept here is to provide “an independent source of news and views” that allows “university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public,” as opposed to writing articles for narrow academic journals. TheConversation hopes that its “explanatory journalism” from experts will “promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues.”

The editor for the ethics + religion section is Kalpana Jain, a former reporter for The Times of India who has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

The site can help reporters by offering three things: 

(1) Added angles and background on themes in the news.

(2) Ideas for new stories.

(3) Perhaps most important, names of knowledgeable scholars on specific topics to keep on file as needed in the future.

This is, of course, similar to the ReligionLink material offered by the Religion News Association. Of course, when it comes to solid sources of information, reporters want to bookmark as many as possible.

A good example of this new site’s resources is the detailed July 19 piece “Explaining the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S.”

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Air India goes veggie; The New York Times and India's The Hindu play it way, way differently

Air India goes veggie; The New York Times and India's The Hindu play it way, way differently

Sometimes a story grabs my interest simply because of its timing. That’s the case this week with a New York Times piece out of India that I came across just a day prior to flying back to the United States following several weeks in Israel and Greece. It's about an Air India decision to serve vegetarian meals only to coach passengers on all its domestic flights.

So what's this beef all about? (Bad pun, I know. I promise I'll make up for it below.)

Try humanity’s Achilles’ heel, the often toxic mix of religious identity mixed with politics -- either real or imagined -- that accounts for so much of what we think of as religion news. This story ties together some powerful symbols.

About to endure two more coach flights from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Washington, D.C. -- the last of six international flights booked for this trip abroad -- this story felt as if it was written just for me.

Perhaps that's also because I always order the Hindu vegetarian meal on international flights no matter the airline. I’ll say more about why, further down.

Here’s the top of the Times piece.

NEW DELHI -- Coming from some other debt-ridden airline, it might have been shrugged off as just another service cutback. But not this time: When Air India announced on Monday that coach passengers on its domestic flights would now be offered only vegetarian meals, the move provoked an uproar on social media.
G. P. Rao, a spokesman for the government-owned airline, said the change was made a week ago strictly to reduce waste and cut costs. But what people eat can be a sectarian flash point in India, especially since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took power.
Many members of the Hindu majority are vegetarians, while the country’s Muslims and some other minorities eat meat. So the airline’s action was seen by many as discriminatory and part of a wave of religious nationalism sweeping the country.
“Only veg food on Air India,” Madhu Menon, a Bangalore-based chef and food writer, wrote on Twitter. “Next, flight attendants to speak only Hindi. After that, stand for national anthem before flight take-off.”

The story next offered a defense of Air India’s scheme (in Indian English, “scheme” loses its negative connotation; it's used as Americans might use “plan” or “proposal”).

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Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

Manipur, India, horses, polo and societal change: So what's missing in this picture?

In the beginning, it appeared to be merely a story about quasi-abandoned horses in northeastern India and for the most part, that’s what “In the Kingdom of Dying Ponies” was a recent offering of Foreign Policy Review.

Until I began realizing the scene was set in Manipur, that neglected corner of India that tourists rarely get to. Northeastern India is the one part of the country that is either majority Christian or has equal parts Hindu and Christian, which is the case with Manipur.

A bit of history: It was mainly the Baptists who swept through the area converting folks in the late 19th century, plus establishing schools, hospitals and translating the Bible into their language. That area of India has seen its Muslim population grow due to immigration from nearby Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

So … in a piece about society in Manipur, would you expect to see at least a little bit about the religious demographics happening there?

Two paragraphs into the piece:

Polo is the archetypal sport of snobs. But in Manipur, where the British learned of the game before introducing it to the world -- or at least the aristocracy -- polo is still a commoner’s game. And the exalted status of the Manipuri pony, the only breed used at the Manipur tournament, is one reason why. The indigenous semi-feral pony is a sacred figure for residents of Manipur, featuring prominently in the ritual life of the Meitei people, the area’s majority ethnic group. The ponies are treated as regal mounts, never put to labor, and trace their origin in local lore to the Pegasus-like Samadon Ayangba, the “swift first among beasts.

The Meitei, by the way, are Hindu.

But the ponies’ regal status has not stymied their slow demise. For decades, the ponies’ numbers have gradually dropped and now there are thought to be only around 500 left. In Imphal, one spots them on the streets, huddled together in pitiful herds, red-eyed, skinny, and surrounded by honking traffic. At night, they forage through garbage piles alongside cows and mongrels. Many of them seem hardly in a condition to be used in sport, which is just as well, because there are far fewer places in Manipur to play polo than there once were. “People in Manipur have forgotten the legacy of the pony,” lamented one local musician.
The ponies’ sorry state is a symbol, and result, of Manipur’s own downward trajectory. For centuries a prosperous, independent kingdom, it is today a pariah on India’s fringes. If it is ever in the national conversation, it is over its separatist unrest, heavy militarization, endemic corruption and overall dysfunction. But for residents of the New Jersey-sized state, the biggest shift isn’t just the violence and disorder -- it’s the area’s marginalization, and the way it has sapped the city’s pride, autonomy, and political will.

The author only sees political reasons behind the region’s poverty of spirit. Something is missing.

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Toronto Globe and Mail misses it on religious roots of sex-selective abortions

Toronto Globe and Mail misses it on religious roots of sex-selective abortions

Ten years ago, I wrote a four-part series about the horrific imbalance of boys and girls in India due to the rampant aborting of female fetuses. I spent three weeks in India tracking down doctors who were assisting in those abortions and activists who were trying to prevent them.

People kept on telling me that I needed to also check on whether female Indian immigrants to the United States were aborting their female children. I heard rumors that they were but I ran out of time and could not pursue that angle.

So I was glad to see that The Toronto Globe and Mail not only tackled the topic recently, but actually had some statistics to back it. However, the newspaper only told half of the story. As it said:

Fewer girls than boys are born to Indian women who immigrate to Canada, a skewed pattern driven by families whose mother tongue is Punjabi, according to a new study.
One of the most surprising findings of the study, to be published Monday in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology Canada, is that the preference for boys does not diminish, regardless of how long women from India have lived in Canada.
“It’s counterintuitive,” said Marcelo Urquia, a research scientist at the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Health Policy and lead author of the study. “We know that the longer immigrants are in Canada, the more likely they are to align to the host country.”

The longer they are in Canada? So western feminist values haven’t rubbed off at all? Are we sure that there is no religion ghost in this subject?

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