“Western Media: Narratives on India from Gandhi to Modi” — A Review

“Western Media: Narratives on India from Gandhi to Modi” — A Review

Overall, this is a good effort, but it offers an uneven account of the long arc of Western coverage of India from independence to the present. The summarization of COVID-19 coverage by the Western Press is the strongest part of the book. The author misses a few key incidents and details. More careful editing would have helped. There is not enough meta-analysis to bring out patterns of coverage, which would have made it useful to call out recurring tropes and sleights of hand.

This timely book traces Western Media’s coverage of India over the decades following independence to the present. While it has done a creditable amount of digging reportage of India over the decades, it could have done with better editing. It seems to be confused between being a history of the Anglosphere’s coverage of India, and an analysis uncovering the broad patterns of that coverage. This reviewer maintains that both of these projects are worthwhile, and neither has been accomplished in the present work or elsewhere.

Chapter-wise Summary

The book opens in distant Suriname, where the news of that country’s independence from the Dutch was not deemed important enough to be reported on by the Western Press, and how the momentous occasion was covered condescendingly even in neighboring Brazil, mimicking the US narrative. The parallels with India are not difficult to draw.

Chapter 1 briefly sketches the origins of Western reporting, including its umbilical links to the rapacious colonial project. It then compares Western newspapers’ overtly evangelical vituperations of the 20th century with modern-day homilies, asking the important question: “The style of the arguments may have changed, but has the intent transformed?” It then moves on to describe the colonial-evangelical origins of the oligopoly which continues to dominate print news worldwide and shows the extent of its dominance.

Chapter 2 deals with the tumultuous period immediately after independence. Several now-forgotten events, including the strong-arm tactics Reuters attempted in stifling the PTI’s editorial freedom, interfering with the delicate matters about the integration of Hyderabad, and even creating mischief by misquoting Ambedkar and misreporting Gandhi, are covered.

Chapter 3 covers events about Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, skipping over the period in between the two PMs. In the section on Indira Gandhi, we hear about Nixon’s choice of language to describe Indira (and India) in 1971, and how the Western Press delayed coverage of the matter for some days after its declassification, so that it could be dressed up as an apology by Mr. Kissinger a full 34 years later! We also hear about the frosty relationship between Indira’s Government and the BBC. The section on Vajpayee speaks to the doublespeak of the US media and political establishment in the face of the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament and the J&K Assembly. When India was a victim of terrorism, she was painted as a warmonger; but when the US was attacked, the Economist’s vote was “for war”!

Chapter 4 shines the light on Western media coverage of the Indian Space Program in recent years. It opens with the racist NYT cartoon depicting an Indian farmer with a cow (of course!) knocking on the doors of the “Elite Space Club” to the horror and bemusement of its Caucasian occupants. The conceit that “it can’t be racism if we, the good liberal people, do it” is on full display. There is also a recounting of the British media’s questions about the lack of infrastructure in India (now being remedied) as well as the jealous outbursts about “returning British aid”. While the author (justifiably) talks about the British economic exploitation of India during the colonial period, this reviewer chooses to take savage pleasure in their foaming-at-the-mouth and say: picture abhi baaki hai! The author then goes on to talk about the benefits ISRO has brought to the Indian public (more on that below) and contemplates why Western Media might want to downplay ISRO’s achievements, settling on ISRO’s cost-effectiveness vis-a-vis foreign competitors.

Chapter 5 deals with the coverage of COVID-19 in India by the Western press and is perhaps the strongest chapter in the book. It opens a story in The Guardian about Gandhi contracting the Spanish Flu a century ago, which is demonstrated to be false. This story is shown as an example of the creation of “social media friendly” historical anecdotes that often pander to lazy stereotypes. The chapter traces the journey of Western Media narratives about the pandemic starting from fear-mongering about death rates, comparing the migrant labor problem to the Partition (!), the frequent label-dropping about the “Hindu Nationalist” BJP government even in articles not strictly about politics, differences in coverage of the Kumbh Mela and the Tablighi Jamaat event, floating of unauthenticated information, linking unrelated items to COVID such as cancellation of NGO licenses and child labor, reporting absolute numbers of COVID deaths instead of those adjusted for population size(and how the NYT eventually contradicted itself on the death numbers …), the distrust towards the Indian vaccine, the poor/grudging coverage of the Indian Government’s response…. the list goes on. This reviewer found this chapter to be a valuable and condensed retrospective of the whole affair.

Chapter 6 focuses on two recent incidents that bring out two important facets of Western coverage: tropes and a built-in editorial bias in line with liberal orthodoxy. A story about a Kerala man killing his wife by cobra bite made it into mainstream Western publications in the same week where there was the return of migrant workers to their villages, India-China border tensions, and approval for hydroxychloroquine use in India. This amply illustrates the penchant for lazy stereotyping (India is a land of snake charmers!) over serious reportage of the country. Upon reading this, one wonders if Western coverage of other countries in the Global South is to be trusted at all! The second story is about an NYT recruitment advertisement explicitly pushing its editorial line, which is unusual for any paper to do (and it was done by NYT only in India). This lays bare the editorial confirmation bias of the paper to project India’s democracy as being endangered without examining alternate points of view.

The concluding chapter has a short and somewhat rambling meta-analysis of Western Media’s coverage, touching on their bias towards stories closer to home, the colonized Indian mind mindlessly emulating its erstwhile masters – this is strangely exemplified by a story about a saree wearer being turned away from a posh restaurant when one could point to any number of Indian media figures fawning uncritically over Western Media figures – neo-imperialism and the role of Big Tech. The book ends by calling for a New World Information Order led by India.


This book is structured chronologically but does not offer a comprehensive history of Western media coverage of Bharat since independence. Important events in the past, such as foreign press coverage of the Emergency (1975-77) and nuclear tests (1974 onwards) are overlooked. The book focuses more closely on the recent past in chapters 4-7, but even that is incomplete (there is no talk about Article 370 and Kashmir, the CAA, changes in foreign policy, infrastructure development, etc.).

There seems to be a selection of historical events covering all leaders with a pan-national appeal since 1947, but there is often no connecting tissue between them. Drawing conclusions from these incidents is left to the reader as well. There needs to be an explicit central set of themes driving the book[1] for it to tell a story. This is completely missing; indeed, multiple chapters read like a collation of newspaper columns with no unifying message.

Incomplete Historical Analysis

Not only are the conclusions not explicated, but there is also simply not enough historical material provided to draw sound conclusions from. As an illustration, consider the subsection on the integration of Hyderabad into Bharat in Chapter 2. The story is that of British Media creating a negative narrative of the integration of the Princely States back home, so much so that a British civilian wrote an angry letter to Sardar Patel about his speeches on Hyderabad. This narrative led to the British parliament discussing the matter, securing parliamentary sanction for it to be taken up by the UNSC. A question is raised about why the British looked the other way with Burma, then in a similar situation. There were also murmurs of a potential British (re-)intervention in Bharat in the British press, geared towards creating a narrative to gain public support for such an intervention, which thankfully did not happen!

The above is as far as the book goes. This reviewer feels that the whole story needs more historical context, and other historical parallels (which are readily available), enabling the author and his readers to gauge multiple historical patterns crucial to understanding the present. One, the British political context of that time needs to be understood: large sections of the British political spectrum, including Mr. Churchill, intended to divide India into three — India, Pakistan, and Princestan[2]; failing that, they tried to throw a spanner into the works of the integration of the Indian states. Indeed, Churchill argued that Hyderabad and Kashmir had the “right to choose,” and argued that the Acts of the British Government proved that it can never be trusted if it left Hyderabad to fend for itself (direct quote from blog).[3] Prominent Conservative figures, including the King’s lawyer, extended legal help to the Nizam of Hyderabad[4]. It was quite likely this political constituency which drove the anti-Indian integration narrative in the sections of the media sympathetic to it5.

Two, there is a long-standing pattern of Western geo-political and commercial interests driving media narratives to win public support for actions which were initially unpopular or drum up issues which lack widespread awareness to manufacture consent towards a particular action. In the case of Hyderabad, the geopolitical interest was a push to retain as many Western-friendly dispensations in the subcontinent as possible, for that would help the British maintain their influence in India, the Middle East, and Australia. To quote2: Churchill saw “serious implications for Britain’s communications and bases between the Middle East and South-East Asia” in a “complete withdrawal” from India. The narrative building about an issue to which most Britishers were probably indifferent[5] and the legal support extended to the Nizam needs to be seen in the context of these geopolitical interests. There is a long history of this sort of “Manufactured Consent”[6], and we point out two instances:

  1. In the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis[7], Gamal Abdul Nasser, the then Egyptian leader sought to nationalize the Suez Canal Company (which operated the Canal) which was owned by the various Western Powers. Fearing loss of control of the canal, the British, French, and the Israelis engaged in a detailed dance of secret alliances precipitating insincere offers of peace9, and media narratives where Gamal Abdul Nasser was painted as a “modern-day Hitler”10, ultimately resulting in an invasion of Egypt aimed — as you guessed it — regime change. The adduced video is a must-watch.
  2. The American public saw the First World War as essentially an European conflict, and wanted to remain neutral, as isolationism was the fashion of that time. Perhaps the first large-scale propaganda effort in modern times is that of the Creel Committee11 which sold the war to the American public, turning around an initially lackadaisical response to the military draft. Chris Hedges, in his magisterial Death of the Liberal Class, traces that process and its longstanding effects, noting that George Bush’s tactics in framing the war in Iraq come from “the same playbook”.

Three, the hypocrisy of Western media in terms of its selective coverage is exemplified by condemnation of l’affaire Hyderabad but not similar events in Myanmar. Multiple other examples of hypocrisy could and should be given, including Western condemnation12 of the annexation of Goa in the face of the horrific persecution of non-Catholics13 there, notwithstanding their “liberal” values of “religious toleration” and “anti-colonialism”.

A detailed historical analysis tracing events over the years from the First World War to the Suez Crisis to the Iraq War would lend weight to that all-important question raised in Chapter 1: “What has really changed?”. Entire books have been written on the games played during the Partition, particularly in Kashmir14 — and media narratives formed an important part of that process.


An important theme that is touched upon in the book, but not studied systematically is the use of tropes about India and Indians in general and Hindus in particular. The story about the NYT cartoon and the cobra is really about this issue at their core; it needed to be called out more explicitly as here15 and here16. The portrayal of the country as poor, dirty, and diseased with little hope for improvement notwithstanding great leaps made in poverty alleviation17, sanitation,18 and the eradication of diseases19 — not to mention the cows, curry, and cobras — gets exhausting. Images and imagery of India/Indians20/Hindus21 often paint a negative and disrespectful picture of one of the handful of cultures still standing from the classical world, amounting to visions of an “exotic” or “superstitious” other22 if not outright caricature. The reading public must be conscious of these tropes so that they begin to call them out loud and clear, at all times – for that is the only way they stop.


This book does not dwell enough on the potential causes of the coverage being the way it is, much less put forward a thesis on the matter. There are mentions of bias, neo-imperialism, and economic and geopolitical interests, but a synthesis of these is missing. Many Indians allege a systematic bias in the Western Media against India, stemming from a wide range of institutionalized prejudices including hostility to India’s rise, neo-imperialist ambitions, racism, anti-Hinduism, Hinduphobia, Hindumisia, colonial-era bigotry against Hinduism, and so on. Other (easier to falsify) hypotheses are available too. These include realpolitik (as we’ve seen in the above section on the historical analysis), connections between media/academic groups doing India studies and countries hostile to India, ignorance as well as apathy about a distant country with whom trade relations and tourism were (historically) marginal, and even “Indian academics being anti-India as a class”23. An understanding of the causes of this coverage will enable better understanding of how to counter these portrayals, and indeed, which one of these portrayals to attempt to counter. This is important, since India’s position in various global indices driven by press coverage may feed downstream into matters of material significance such as credit ratings24.

Editorial Comments

The book features unsubstantiated leaps of logic in several places. For instance, in Chapter 4 about ISRO, the author attempts to argue the improvements ISRO’s work has wrought in Indian agricultural productivity by citing two pieces of data: one, about the ISRO programs that had the potential to improve agricultural productivity, and two, the actual agricultural output of India which ensured self-sufficiency. Putting these two data points together does not prove that ISRO’s programs helped increase agricultural productivity, but experimental studies designed to measure the gains from ISRO’s programs accruing to agriculture do so. A meta-analysis of such studies is here25. As an aside, the true benefits from the space and nuclear programs to Indian society stretch far beyond agriculture, extending into self-reliance in energy26, defense and national security27, communications, and navigation systems28 — but they are not covered here.

This book features primary work sampling and studying 230 news articles in Western media about the pandemic in India, but the methodology of sampling and measurement was not compared with existing work such as Joshy et al.29 AI-powered analyses of much larger sets of news reports about India are also available30,31. This study would have been more useful if it was broken down thematically, and powered by data and analytics software available for free32 to cope with a larger dataset size – indeed, such an analysis could have driven the narrative of the book. While some academic studies of Indian media were cited, the survey is incomplete.

Finally, the book needs much better editing. There are at least two places where a sentence is repeated in successive paragraphs. The quote about India’s right to self-government by Will Durant has typographical errors to the extent that it does not make grammatical sense. Non-standard abbreviations like “NWIO” for “New World Information Order” and “GoI” for “Government of India” are scattered throughout the book.

Future Work

In this section, we will review some directions that were covered minimally or not covered at all in the book. These could be elaborated upon in future work.

First, nothing has been said about the networks of political, intellectual, and financial patronage linking these Western Media houses, Western universities, the editors/ journalists working for these media houses, and the ancien regime in India. Indeed, there have been familial links between major figures in the Congress System and editors/journalists in large Western media houses over the years. The increasing role of Big Technology companies in this complex is lightly touched upon in Chapter 7, but it needs adumbration.

Second, there is no examination of the impact of the changing business models of news media finances in India and abroad on the coverage of India. In the past, news was a loss leader for American TV conglomerates. Since the 80s, news media boards have tightened the screws on this; this would have reduced the budgets of the lower priority India desk. With even tighter budgets in the age of social media, it becomes harder for these media houses to invest in primary reporting or proper editorial oversight, as exemplified by the obvious factual errors33,34 in The Guardian’s recent report about India “ordering killings in Pakistan”.

Third, the methodological flaws in the reporting of data have been touched upon, but not elaborately. These flaws pop up in the coverage of multiple issues, feeding into a narrative of “India bad” which reproduces itself by citation loops. One example is the propensity to report absolute numbers not adjusted for the continent-sized population35 of India, which can make any problem appear humongous. This issue shows up in the reporting of COVID deaths (discussed in the book), deaths of journalists36, rape statistics… the list goes on. Another is availability bias: India does report data, however imperfectly37,38, and allows citizens and foreigners to gather data, whereas certain other large countries do not39. Both of these factors feed into a recent headline about urban pollution40(as the article itself admits!) for instance. There are a host of measurement issues with health-related metrics such as child malnutrition41 and anaemia42 , but flawed metrics such as these are often used uncritically to paint India as the poster child for global poverty and disease. The fiasco43,44 with reportage of the Global Hunger Index45 is, of course, at another level. Other bad practices, such as cherry-picking an 11-year-long “decade” to make India look bad in terms of arrests of activists (as Prof. Salvatore Babones has famously pointed out) have not been discussed.

Fourth, the book does not systematically trace or diagnose the changing nature of the response of the Indian government and common citizens to the coverage. The present book has scattered references to the response of Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and functionaries of Modi sarkar to Western coverage, but does not make an effort to connect the dots over the years. India’s successful march towards nuclear arms feature masterstrokes of narrative46 – a coverage of those, and other successes, would have been nice. Completely missing, also, is a study of the attitudes of the general public to this coverage over the years.

Fifth, there is no attempt to understand the audience that this media is catering to, the reactions the language and imagery evoke in them, and how it might shape Western policy towards India. Language, images, and imagery matter — for they carry specific meanings in each cultural context. And these images may be hurting India’s image abroad47. Ultimately, however, Western Media is understandably West-centric. They cater to an audience back home that is largely unfamiliar with distant foreign lands and may not care48. Foreign Media’s comments need to be understood in the context of politics back home: despite the tenuous parallels between Modi, Putin, Erdogan, Orban, etc., there is an urge to compare them to each other and Trump.

Speaking in Delhi, former Canadian PM Stephen Harper said as much when he noted that

Western commentary on India is often a “proxy for domestic political commentary… against conservatives”49. An understanding of this back home in India will also temper the over-enthusiastic domestic commentariat from treating foreign papers as infallible purveyors of gospel truth.

Lastly, the book does not talk about the seemingly poor levels of knowledge of India’s history and institutional structures among the reportariat — Indian and foreign. There is scant reference to academic studies of the country in reportage; indeed, it is doubtful if India correspondents of major foreign papers have had any exposure to academic literature — including that emanating from the West — about India’s laws/constitution (Granville Austin, Madhav Khosla, Rohit De), national security situation including the insurgencies in Kashmir, Punjab, and the Northeast (Christine Fair), contemporary political history (Vinay Sitapati, Tripurdaman Singh), etc. If they did, there would be a more measured view of the current dispensation in Delhi keeping in view the checkered past50 rather than the monochromatic Modi-bashing. They would recognize the fact that violence in India has been going down, not up, since the 70s, irrespective of the parties in power51, and that trend would likely continue as the society becomes more prosperous. Evaluation of the India expertise and experience among the foreign press corps over the years has not been explored anywhere as far as this reviewer knows.


The book is a laudable and expedient attempt to correct the record of Western media’s portrayals of India, particularly during COVID-19. However, it fails to build a complete and water-tight case about patterns of media coverage and their underlying causes over the years when there is one to be made. This book would have done better to arrange its contents thematically rather than chronologically. It would have then been a ready reckoner for people to debunk the latest half-truths or outright calumny by pin-pointing the rhetorical and statistical sleights of hand driving it.

To this reviewer, the criticisms of this work are emblematic of the problems in the larger “non-left” (for lack of a better term) in India. This is a cacophonous group with its own peculiar sub-cultures and internal culture wars52, but has relatively fewer people who write well-researched, comprehensive, well-edited books which the other side cannot simply dismiss as being polemical or unlettered. That side still has the upper hand in intellectual circles and may continue to do so for a long time: it is up to us to counter it, and it can only be countered by impeccable work. Newspaper editorials and social media messages may bring short-term political victories, but they are no substitute for long-lasting, critically acclaimed books and academic work. Those are the only durable ways in which the culture is shaped. Admirable work in this direction has indeed been done, for instance in the books by Vikram Sampath, Meenakshi Jain, Jaithirth Rao, and Arun Shourie. A large and resilient ecosystem with a penchant for excellence must develop in the culture, the media, and the academy.


1. For example, consider India is Broken by Ashoka Mody. That book traces an economic history of the country in the decades following independence, using a set of instances from the time of each prime minister of India to bring focus upon the same failings — an unwillingness to devalue the rupee (which hurt exports), a lack of focus on primary education, repeatedly missing the manufacturing bus, and failure to combat mounting and increasingly institutionalized corruption. The same tools — analysis of World Bank/IMF reports about India, plotting the exchange rate of the rupee, studies of Indian PM visits to the US, and the tone of contemporary Indian films — are used throughout, to draw conclusions along these lines, and the conclusions are summarized at the end of each chapter. This sort of analysis is invaluable in building and reinforcing an argument, which is missing in the present work. As an aside, this reviewer thoroughly disagrees with the doomsaying as well as some of the policy prescriptions of Mody’s work, particularly about “civil society organizations”.

2. Churchillian strategy for India, postindependence

3. Churchill and Hyderabad 23 Jun 1948 cbkwgl. This blogger is probably the worlds expert on the integration of the princely states.

4. As Centre notifies 17 Sept as Hyderabad Liberation Day, know how Hyderabad joined India in 1948

5.  This is the reviewer’s (reasonable) surmise, but a book-length exposition would need to substantiate it.

6. They had more pressing problems at home such as rationing, which continued till 1954.

7. Manufacturing Consent

8. Suez Crisis 1956 (All Parts)

9. Protocol of Sèvres Wikipedia

10. Opinion | Hitler On the Nile The New York Times

11. Committee on Public Information Wikipedia

12. Annexation of Goa Wikipedia

13. The Liberation of Goa: A Participant’s View of History, by Galtonde, Pundalik D

14. Did we win our freedom or the British gave it to us? Reading history from diplomats lens

15. Hindu nationalism or Hinduphobia”? Vamsee Juluri

16. Western medias stereotypes of Indian culture | Illinois

17. India eliminates extreme poverty | Brookings

18. Water, sanitation and hygiene | UNICEF India

19. Expert Q&A: How India took on a deadly neglected tropical disease

20. Indian food is great. Perhaps too great — note the sarcasm of the headline, the stereotyping of vegetarianism in the byline, and the choice of image representing *millets*.

21. Reza Aslan outrages Hindus by eating human brains in CNN documentary|Guardian

22. Hinduism: Stereotypes and Prejudices

23. Indian Intellectuals Are Anti India

24. Global Indices: Turning The Gaze lecture by Shri Sanjeev Sanyal at the 6th Intl MESD Conference

25. Satellite Remote Sensing Applications for Agriculture: A Review in Indian Context

26. Onward to thorium

27. Indias Space Ambitions Buttress MIRV Efforts The Diplomat

28. Explained: What is NavIC, developed by ISRO, that the government wants to make mandatory for smartphones | Business Insider India

29. The BBCs Portrayal of India: An Analysis of how the International News Coverage of India Changed in the Digital Era shows that BBC coverage of India leans towards negative stories on page 232.

30. From China to India, US: Media coverage during Covid19 reveals the power of controlling narrative | The Indian Express


32. Data: Querying, Analyzing and Downloading: The GDELT Project

33. Guardian Report Attacked For Factual Inaccuracies On Terrorists Killed On Pak Soil


35. The population of India (NOT the subcontinent!) equals that of Africa, is close to twice that of Europe, thrice that of North America, 3.5 times that of South America, and is 30 times that of Oceania.


37. Modi cant prove India is 5th largest economy. Data will fail him

38. Unhappy With Data Sets, Modi Govt Suspends Director of Institute Which Prepares NFHS

39. The increasing challenge of obtaining information from Xis China | Merics

40. Eightythree of the 100 Most Polluted Cities are in India, But Lack of Monitoring Influences Global Ranking

41. The Myth of Child Malnutrition in India, Arvind Pannagariya

42. Anaemia in Indian women may be overestimated

43. How a faulty metric to calculate global hunger is creating a flawed narrative against India

44. Interpreting Indias Performance on the Global Hunger Index | IFPRI : International Food Policy Research Institute

45. India slips out of top 100 countries on Global Hunger Index | The Independent

46. Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security

47. International views of India and Modi | Pew Research Center

48. Is it Western media that has changed in the last few years or is it India?

49. Attacks On India In Western Media Are Attacks On Conservatives

50. The Real Story: Is Indian democracy being undermined? en Apple Podcasts

51. Internal Security in India: Violence, Order, and the State | Oxford Academic

52. Rath yatra to pran pratishtha the evolution of the Rightwing intellectual over three decades

Surya Chavali

Surya is an engineer with a passion for contemporary Indian history and geopolitics.