Even as India battles global perception wars, American sociologist Salvatore Babones has emerged as a unique western voice defending India against the disinformation and misinformation campaign insidiously run by Western institutions.
Currently, researching a book on Indian democracy, Babones is a comparative political sociologist and an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney. The New Indian caught up with him on issues ranging from his love for samosa to how a handful Indians shape western perception of India. He also clinically dissects the series of onslaught by foreign elements – be it BBC or Soros – on Indian democracy.
Urvashi Khona: Your first reaction when you entered India?
SB:- My first reaction is that Samosas taste good in India and on the second trip I had Dosas. They are also nice. So that’s my first impression.
UK: Your paper throws light on how India is looked at by the west – what is it that you say?
SB: Well, I am not doing some cultural analysis of India. It’s wonderful to meet people but I am not here to bring back my impressions of India. All of my work is based on data and documents. What I am looking for is an objective analysis of India to counter the very negative subjective accounts that are referred to in the West. I am going through actual statistics.
My recent paper that came this week is on International religious freedom rankings. India is known as the worst country in the world for social hostility to religion. These reports were based on data compiled by the US state department in its US international religious freedom index.
I found it extremely unlikely that India is the most hostile country in the world to religion when religion is so vibrant here. If any country is hostile to religion, it is Australia or the United Kingdom and others, certainly not India. So I got down to numbers and that is what my report is about calculating these subjective narratives with objective facts.
UK: Please throw some light on the facts and data that you have gathered to counter this narrative against India.
SB: Fortunately, when it comes to India we have very good facts about freedom of religion and freedom to practice religion in India and it comes from the very same research centre that published the report that is anti-India. The same research center had done a survey in India in 2019 and 2021 across 29,999 households in 17 languages in which 98 percent said they were free to practice their religion, while 89 percent of Christians and 89 percent of Muslims responded that they are “very free to practice their religion” in India.
Only 2 percent said that they were “unfree” to practice their religion. But the narrative that we hear does not correspond to the majority view of the survey. While the global perception about India is that Muslims are facing genocide in India, Muslims here say they are just doing fine.
What’s more is that more than 90% of Indians of every major religious group Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian said that “to be Indian it’s fundamentally important to respect other people’s religions. Hindus respect Muslims practicing their religion and Muslims respect Hindus practicing their religion.
Even when it comes to religious discrimination we have stats saying that 24% of Indian Muslims say at some point they face discrimination. Now there’s discrimination everywhere. Someone is always going to face some problem that they believe was due to religious discrimination. So, we have to ask if 24% a lot?
At the same time, 72% of India’s Muslims say they’ve never faced discrimination. What’s more, if we look internationally, few ask this very same question in the United States. More than 80% of African Americans, 46% of Hispanic Americans, and 42% of Asian Americans say they face discrimination. In other words, Asian-American discrimination in the United States is a far greater problem than Anti-Muslim or Anti-christian discrimination in India.
UK: What is the source of the prevalent narrative of India being an unsafe place for minorities?
SB: These accounts don’t originate in the West. They originate in India. The West hears from Indian human rights activists, Indian colonialists, and social scientists that the situation in India is grave. It is not as if the US is sending fact-finding reports to India. We are getting complaints out of India. Then these complaints are recorded by the US state department and these depositions are fed into research center reports. The person who authors these reports almost always has a South Asian name. These narratives are not coming from Antony Blinken (laughs) US secretary of state. The state department is very wary of these narratives and not trying to make too much of them, It’s the Indians and Indian Americans and Bangladeshi Americans, and Pakistani Americans who are really making this an issue.
UK: Why do we take such narratives peddled by the Western media as gospel truth?
SB: Because we have very little knowledge of India. There are probably half a dozen of Indian origin journalists and commentators who completely shape the Western narrative on India via articles in The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal remember when an American reads that article, they do not look at who has written the article. They consider it as a truth because it. has been published by the Washinton Post or some other prestigious publication. We live in a data-poor environment about India. One article about India Muslims facing threats of genocide will form the defining perception about India’s reality. But this not true for America. Indian know a lot about American democracy. Names of governors, Secretary of State etc. People follow US politics. If an article about Amercica becoming a fascist country were to be published, very few Indians would take it seriously.
UK: Point taken that most of the criticism in the West about India is peddled by a handful of Indian journalists. But why does a George Soros feel the need to talk about India or comment on Adani-PM Modi relationship?
SB: To be honest being criticised by George Soros is an electoral goal for Narendra Modi and BJP. If anything they are playing up this fact, not turning it down. Soros is notoriously known for being very outspoken about politics in developing countries. He takes strong views but is often ill-informed about developing countries. He spends a lot of money attempting to shift the political debate and political consciousness in developing countries. He is anti-national, a liberal Internationalist and he promotes that agenda. No surprise that he is opposed to the current government of India but if anything the current government of India is going to make advantage of that criticism.
The issue is not about commenting. One can comment. The fact is people like Soros who try to influence the public discourse around India are ill-informed about India.
When I present data and documents and information about Indian democracy, I present it to you, you make up your own mind. I’m not trying to interfere in Indian politics of course I don’t have the resources for that. I know I’m not a mega billionaire who can spend money to support organizations that promote my point of view.
UK: What is your reading of the BBC documentary on Modi and his relationship with the minorities, and their harking back to Godhra riots?
SB: The BBC documentary didn’t have much material other than a leaked report made by the British High Commision in 2002, following the Godhra riots. The documentary has been released only for one reason. It was timed with an Indian-origin PM taking over the top post in Britain. What else can explain the timing. It was done to embarrass Rishi Sunak, who is both Hindu and of Indian origin. I would say, it is a anti-Hindu leak. If the leak was made to target India or to target Narendra Modi it would have been made in 2014, 2019 or 2024. Whoever in the British foreign office wanted to get this report out decided to do it at exactly the same time when Rishi Sunak became PM. There was someone in the British foreign office who wanted to embarrass Rishi Sunak.