Avoiding four religion-reporting traps in India
Religion is a popular but troublesome topic in India.
And in my career in South Asia’s largest nation, I have covered many gory incidents of violence over religious issues. Along the way, I have come across irresponsible and insensitive stories that have carelessly provoked communal bloodbaths or witlessly offended religious sensitivities.
One example came in 2002, when a faith-based news agency reported that “thousands” of Muslim youths had converted to Christianity in India. The story was meant for evangelical Christians in the West, but unsurprisingly the Indian mainstream media found it useful, too.
A few months later, a national daily carried a report based on those claims, and the outcome was devastating. An Islamist terror group detonated a bomb targeting a Christian school to warn “Christian missionaries” to stay away from Muslims.
To prevent a religion story from unwittingly creating a negative impact, knowledge of the religious atmosphere of a country is imperative. Yet even with knowledge of India's religious topography, hidden pitfalls remain.
Below are four danger zones where care and caution will certainly help improve coverage of religion in India.
1. Take caution when reporting religious statistics.
Chief offenders in this category are faith-based news agencies in the West that gravitate to reports of Christian conversions in India, a country where over 80 percent of the 1.2 billion people are Hindu.
Too often, I find many such stories carrying exaggerated figures. If all the published stories of mass conversions thus far were correct, India would have been “reached” several times over. Of course, some stories of large numbers of conversions are factual, but the use of statistics can cause tensions in India.
The stories cause tension because the notion of conversion itself is an extremely delicate issue in the country, and is not understood at all like conversions are understood in the West.
Following the appointment of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s wife Sonia Gandhi (pictured) as the president of India’s Grand Old Party, the Indian National Congress, in 1998, Hindu nationalists started a massive campaign alleging that wealthy Christians from the West were “investing” millions of dollars to convert poor Hindus in India. This push was mainly aimed at linking Mrs. Gandhi – Italian by birth, and a Catholic – to the “conversion agenda.” But over the years, many began to believe that conversions were in fact due to some sort of conspiracy.
Even when conversions are seen as above board, the growth of Protestant Christianity in India is still tainted with its links to British colonial rule, and so even the word “conversion” carries a negative connotation.