New Delhi: With international media becoming more critical of New Delhi’s policies, especially in its handling of the second COVID-19 wave, the Indian embassy in the US has called Indian students who would volunteer to look beyond this ‘biased’ portrayal and help ‘course correct’ the narrative.
The Indian embassy, as part of the US’s student outreach programme, has recently asked for volunteers to register for the Fall 2021 programme. It asked them to contribute their “time and ideas” in three core areas. The first one, on climate action, offered to expand awareness about “exciting initiatives [that] are being undertaken by the Government of India towards sustainability”. Another one was about the New Education Policy 2020 and its “grassroots” applications.
The third vertical – ‘India in The News’ – is advertised as the ideal choice for a “news junkie”. On the website, the text suggests that this section is about recognising how “India is portrayed” and “understand the story behind the news”.
This description sounds innocuous. But, the email sent out by the India Student Hub on May 17 gives another twist to the duties of volunteers.
In the email, the descriptions for the Climate Action and Grassroots Learning segments are identical to those on the website.
However, for the ‘India in The News’ section, there is a noticeable difference.
After the breezy questions about being a news junkie, the email asked potential contributors to assess whether they “are concerned about how India is portrayed in the media”. Then it goes on to ask whether they would “bring to light such portrayals and course correct the current biased and negative narrative against India in the global scenarios”.
It is followed by a link to a registration form, which is also available on the website.
Among the various information sought in the registration is whether the candidate has been involved in any study or project “regarding India in the News, Bias in the US Media viz India”.
The Wire has sent several questions to the Indian embassy in Washington DC about the vertical ‘India in The News’ and the rationale presented on the website and the circulated email. There has been no response so far. The article will be updated once an official comment is received
The email, seen by The Wire, was signed off by “Soorya, Education Wing, Embassy of India”. The website refers to Soorya Sriram as one half of the two-member team running the India Student Hub initiative.
The Wire has learnt that India Student Hub was run by Roopal Shah, who had been an education adviser with the Indian embassy until very recently.
The archived web page of the India Student Hub described Roopal Shah as “having served almost a decade as an attorney, and a decade with Indicorps”. She is also the younger sister of well-known Indian-American Sonal Shah, an alum of the Obama administration who currently heads the Asian American Foundation.
Sonal Shah had a controversial tenure due to personal and familial association with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Sonal and Roopal’s father, Ramesh Shah, is also a former president of the US chapter of the Overseas Friends of the BJP (OFBJP). She had issued a statement in December 2008 denouncing her previous links with the group.
Roopal Shah left her position with the Indian embassy within the last month.
The India Student Hub’s Spring 2021 volunteer drive also had a ‘vertical’ on “Trends in News and Media”.
According to an archived link from November 2020, the description for this vertical noted that “a civilisation as old as India is often not understood or misinterpreted, especially by western societies”. It proposed a seminar-style programme to “help them understand and explore India beyond the media depiction”. The volunteers would be “asked to create a project – either a blogpost, an interview, a graphic, artwork, etc. to provide deeper understanding of India to their peers”.
The Indian government has not been pleased with the US media, especially over the past two years.
During a visit to Washington as part of a diplomatic campaign following the dilution of Article 370, Indian external affairs minister S. Jaishankar had identified that his main problem in the US was the “English liberal media”. He claimed in October 2019 that the US media was “ideological” and “didn’t present the facts on the decision to downgrade Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status.
More recently, there has been heightened criticism in most of the international media in recent months over the Indian government’s alleged mismanagement of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to hundreds of deaths due to shortages of oxygen and availability of hospital beds. Despite apprehensions of widespread undercounting of cases and deaths, India has been the worst-hit country by the pandemic over the last several weeks. There had also been adverse reports about the government’s censure of tweets criticising the handling of the pandemic.
Last month, the Indian high commission in Australia had publicly rebutted a report published by the country’s largest circulating newspaper, The Australian, which had directly pointed the finger at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for fuelling large “super-spreader election rallies and religious events”.