How the media twisted Irani on Mahishasura

BY VAMSEE JULURI| IN Media Practice | 02/03/2016
Why were her remarks framed as being in opposition to Mahishasura worship rather than as opposition to the denigration of Durga?
VAMSEE JULURI says the coverage lacked honesty

The author says this image has been morphed to appear surreal and monstrous

  

Union Minister Smriti Irani’s statement in Parliament on February 24 led to several media reports and commentaries about Goddess Durga and Mahishasura. This article briefly examines the ways in which these debates were framed and whether there are concerns about suppression, bias, and demonization that must be considered here given the contested ways in which questions about religion, myth, history and identity are playing out in India.

What exactly did Irani say about Durga and Mahishasura? How did media reports present her statement? What are the possible meanings that were preferred and those that were excluded? What are the possible consequences of such exclusions, and do they correspond to expectations in the current discourse about exclusionary strategies and marginalized identities, or should the debate be broadened?

There were over one dozen articles and commentaries about Mahishasura published in leading Indian newspapers and online news and commentary sites and a least one in-depth discussion on English TV. There have also been several brief news reports on the issue, largely reporting reactions by other political figures. I focus in this analysis, however, on the article/commentary format alone, given the importance of the issues raised and the often urgent and polemical tone in which several of these articles engaged with questions of marginalization and subaltern narratives.

"There is, at the outset, a notable difference between Irani’s utterance and the angle with which the Durga/Mahishasura issue was approached in most of the articles and commentaries that followed. "

 

I also focus on articles published in the mainstream media or online media and do not include individual and smaller blogs, owing to the fact that the mainstream media and online sites are expected to follow a certain standard of professionalism and intellectual rigour, even in advocacy and opinion pieces. 

I examine these articles mainly at this time for the issue of how they framed Irani’s statement, ie whether the authors/editors used accurate citations or paraphrasing prior to making an argument. 

There is, at the outset, a notable difference between Irani’s utterance and the angle with which the Durga/Mahishasura issue was approached in most of the articles and commentaries that followed. Her statement in parliament on this point, which was also cited in some articles, begins as follows: 

“Posted on October 4, 2014. A statement by the SC, ST and minority students of JNU. And what do they condemn? May my God forgive me for reading this. 

Durga puja, a most controversial racial festival, where a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durga is shown killing a dark-skinned native Mahishasura. Mahishasura, a brave self-respecting leader, tricked into marriage by Aryans. They hired a sex worker called Durga who enticed Mahishasura into marriage and killed him after nine nights of honeymooning in his sleep. Freedom of speech, ladies and gentlemen. Who wants to have this discussion in the streets of Calcutta, I want to know. What is this depraved mentality? I have no answers for it.”

There are several elements here that Irani might have been referring to as  “depraved mentality”; it could be the positing of Durga as a morally questionable historical character rather than a spiritual, mystical or metaphysical figure; it could be the attribution to her of an “invader” identity and narrative (a foreign “Aryan” who kills a “native”); it could be the phrase “sex worker” (a shocking and discourteous term for a name revered by millions all around the country with a mother-like sensibility); and it could be the imputation of deceit (Durga kills Mahishasura after nine nights of honeymooning, in his sleep, at that). 

"Clearly, there is no specification at all by Irani about what exactly is “depraved” about the text she has read out. "

 

In any case, Irani does not specify whether what she finds offensive is the denigration of Goddess Durga or the very idea of a community choosing to worship Mahishasura as such.

Clearly, there is no specification at all by Irani about what exactly is “depraved” about the text she has read out. There is no reason to presume necessarily that she is condemning Mahishasura worship, or the right of a subaltern community to worship Mahishasura, at all.

Given the rather graphic emphasis on the language and tone of the alleged pamphlet’s description of the Goddess Durga, it might well be interpreted that the potentially offensive quality about the pamphlet had to do with the denigration of a revered and popular sacred figure, rather than a subaltern group’s supposed practice of respect for Mahishasura.  Considering that Irani did not at any time condemn or comment about the alleged depravity of worshipping Ravana, Bali or any other figures by any Indian community, it is quite consistent with this inference. Irani later added, in the Rajya Sabha: “I said it with pain… I am a Durga worshipper.”

 

Durga Denigration v. Mahishasura Suppression

Despite this clear indication that the issue with the JNU pamphlet was its offensive tone against the Goddess Durga, it is telling that several articles and commentaries on the issue focused almost exclusively on presenting the issue as one of Irani being offended by Mahishasura worship. As the table below indicates, almost all the articles that appeared focused on criticizing the Minister for her alleged lack of knowledge of alternative narratives, her imposition of Brahminical dominant narratives, and so on. The few articles that referred to the idea that the pamphlet in question might also be offensive to the popular understanding of Goddess Durga too did not address this aspect in as much depth.

 

TABLE 1. Selected Articles on Mahishasura/Durga (24/2/16-1/3/16)

Publication

Title

Mahishasura Denial/

Durga Denigration/Both

(examples)

Quartz

“Smriti Irani, are India’s Mahishasura worshipping tribals depraved and anti-national?”

Mahishasura Denial

(see title of article, theme repeats throughout)

The Wire

“Mahishasura and the Minister”

Mahishasura Denial

“Irani… betrayed her lack of knowledge of alternative readings

First Post

“The Day Mahishasura Visited Rajya Sabha”

Mahishasura Denial

to question debates…violation of right to freedom” “nothing short of fascism”

Quint

“Anti-national Mahishasura”

Mahishasura Denial

“Irani angry about demons contemporary and mythological”

 

Scroll

“Durga and Mahishasura Share Same Origins”

Both

“who has right to feel insulted”

“Durga (not like) maternally inclined mata rani model defended by bhakts”

Indian Express

“Why it isn’t Depraved to Look at Mahishasura as the Victim” (top hit)

Mahishasura Denial

See title

Hindustan Times

“Durga Row: No one Questioned Smriti Irani who Asuras were”

Both

“cults arisen in opposition to mainstream Hinduism”

Quint

“Mahishasura-Durga in Parliament: Devas and Asuras were all People”

Mahishasura Denial

“Irani seems to have a problem with Mahishasura”

Bangalore Mirror

“Not just Durga, Mahishasura also “Worshipped”

Mahishasura Denial

“dominant Hindu understanding… which views M as demon”

The Hindu

“The Mahishasura Debate: Alternate Traditions”

Mahishasura Denial

“you must apply dynamite to the Vedas (citing Ambedkar)

(Note: the only major online site not covered in this sample was Daily O, as it contained several pieces often mixing this issue with others at JNU. The range of opinion there, though, was a little more diverse, with a couple of pieces addressing the meaning of Durga, and others once again following the pattern above).

 

What does this misrepresentation suggest? 

This overwhelming pattern of misrepresentation draws attention to three broad concerns. 

One, the raising of issues pertaining to alternative narratives and subaltern traditions might be well-intentioned and useful, generally speaking, but in the case of Hinduism as a lived, popular and very diverse religion with complex articulations of elite and subaltern elements, this calls for a more nuanced and respectful approach. Does it serve the cause of subaltern politics to take an insensitive,  misogynistic, and Hindu-phobic attitude to debates about revered deities? Is it even accurate to generalize “Hindu” and “subaltern” as antithetical entities in the way current discourses are doing?

Moreover, are attitudes consistent? If we recognize the right of a community to ritually mourn Mahishasura (based on memory and folklore rather than recorded history) are we not being hypocritical in ignoring the right of another community to mourn at Deepavali for their (recorded) massacre by a tyrant in an even more recent time? Simply put, is Durga Puja as oppressive to this community as “Tipu Jayanti” is to another? Questions to think about, just to broaden the debate.

Two, what is the best way for commentators to write about complex issues like religion and belief? Is it accurate to perpetuate the mythology of Hindus as “Aryan invaders” with all its colonial-era orientalist assumptions? Is it possible to address issues of privilege and accountability in India without recourse to flawed racist narratives disconnected from indigenous realities? On a more pragmatic note, it may also be helpful for reporters to also pay attention to questions of expertise.

One glaring absence in these articles was inputs from experts on Hinduism. Several articles quoted from often the same pool of activists and subaltern viewpoints. While subaltern views are always welcome, the absence of the alleged “dominant” culture here is also telling and reminds us of a larger problem: do Hindus have a voice, especially in elite discourses such as the English language media? Can we not have Sanskrit scholars and spiritual guides, for example, telling us about the meaning of Durga and Mahishasura in these reports? In the present form, media discourses seem to rely heavily on a one-sided and selective presentation of myths and facts (consider, for instance, how Durga is described as “mythology” in several accounts and at the same time as a historical figure guilty of oppression and murder).

Three, the media needs to introspect on how easily even well intentioned subaltern positions can easily turn into demonization campaigns (I use “demon” in the conventional sense here and not in the sense for which Irani was blamed). There are several levels of demonization, arguably, in the narrative that has been constructed since last week.

First of all, as several articles in the table above indicate, there has been a singular targeting of Irani in this whole discourse. While one can have a fair and factual (and civil debate) about her actions as a minister, the fact that her fundamental point in invoking the Mahishasura pamphlet was largely and inaccurately refashioned as an attack on Mahishasura worship and subaltern traditions tells us that the media has been far from fair and honest with her.

The personal attacks on her intellect in some of these articles, including insinuations that she mixes up mythology and real life, or that she lacks (implicitly) the posh liberal arts education that would make her critically aware of the Hindus and their alternative histories, must be seen in the light of some of the broader epithets that have been used about her recently, including the highly sexist headline “Aunty National.”

It is also telling that in at least three illustrations that accompanied the articles cited below, Irani appears in less than flattering form. In one, she appears on placards held by protesting students, in another, we see her captured with her eyes glaring and wide open. And in one graphic illustration, we find her eyes actually morphed to appear surreal and monstrous (next to the mandatory trishul to signify “militant Hindutva” presumably).

We do not know, finally, if the demonization is about Irani or about Irani for saying she is a Durga worshipper, or about Goddess Durga herself - which really only means the hundreds of millions of people in India, elite and subaltern, who worship her, and who don’t happen to fit into the theories that India’s post-colonial intellectual elite has made for them, selfishly and hypocritically in the name of the other.  

 

Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of ‘Rearming Hinduism.’  

 

 

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