When I first came to India way back in 1996, I was not here as a journalist. I came to study at JNU. At that time, India was witnessing early stages of economic liberalisation and the general living standard in the country was relatively lower. Also, the clash between the Western popular culture that came with liberalisation and the traditional Indian value system had just begun.
I recall a very interesting incident. A popular Hollywood production, The Bridges of Madison County, was playing at the nearby Priya Cinema (it was yet to be taken over by PVR). However, when I tried to catch it merely five days after its release, I was told it had been taken off the cinemas because it “does not comply with Indian traditional values”. The offending concept – extramarital affairs. Times have changed and a spate of Bollywood productions have exploited this theme and tasted success.
I spent another longer period here after 2004. I was doing research on Indian politics and society at Sardar Patel University in Anand, Gujarat. I was also contributing as a journalist for Xinhua News Agency. I must add here that the experience that I got there enriched my understanding of India. It was during this stint that I managed to interview lots of active politicians including Narendra Modi, George Fernandez, SM Krishna, Jairam Ramesh, Subramanian Swamy, Jayalalithaa and others. My interactions with politicians of all stripes helped me understand the complexities. But more than anything else, the stay in this small town helped me understand the difference between India and Bhaarat.
That might sound clichéd but it indeed was an eye-opener. The life was pretty tough compared to what I had in Delhi. In smaller towns, sometimes things of basic necessity come as luxuries. How can I forget waking up at wee hours to get hold of absolutely limited copies of Times of India and Indian Express from my neighbourhood stall. Five minutes of extra sleep and I would miss it.
Hardly any trains stopped at Anand. Often I used to catch a 3 AM train and as there was no facility to announce the up-coming station, I used to spend the night counting them out. If there were any unscheduled stops, which in fact were many, I used to mess up my counting and get down at the wrong station. Language was another barrier. When I was in China, I was under the impression that the entire India speaks English. I learnt the truth the hard way in Gujarat.
It was in Gujarat that I had my tryst with Mahatma Gandhi as well. Although I had read a lot about him, it was an experience in itself to participate in a 26 day long march by foot around Gujarat with journalists and scholars marking the 75th anniversary of the famous Dandi Salt March. From waking up at 4 AM to walking under a sun blazing at 45 degrees Celsius to catching up on day’s news and filing stories under the streetlights in the absence of other power sources in the makeshift tents, the journey was indeed a spiritual quest for me. I also realised the way such events form an essential tool of the political mechanism. The Congress Party made good use of it on the eve of general elections.
Over the years, thanks to my experiences and encounters in India, I have been able to take a calm and objective view of Sino–Indian issues while writing about them. There have been some drastic changes here too. Previously, it was customary for Indian publications and channels to merely echo what was being reported in the Western press.
Nowadays, firsthand Chinese opinions are gradually getting more and more space in the Indian mainstream media. This is a welcome trend.
However, it also brings another problem. The general perception among the Indian masses and the journalists is that since the government controls the Chinese media, all the opinions published in the media reflect the stance of the government. The truth is, Chinese media is as complex and varied as its Indian counterpart. The People’s Daily, Xinhua News Agency, China Daily, The Global Times – all of them represent different voices. Like in India, a Chinese columnist or expert can freely publish his or her opinion in the media. You will be saved from embarrassment and wrong projection if you treat these opinions as that – opinions.
Tang Lu is senior editor with Xinhua News Agency and a columnist for International Herald Leader. A longtime India-watcher and commentator strategic issues, foreign policy and media trends, Lu combines her academic exposure in India with her practical experiences to take a holistic view of events here.