Monday, December 17, 2012

NRIs: Above scrutiny by everyone, including the Media

It’s the season for getting hitched. The number of invitations I have received to weddings and engagements of friends in the last two months far exceeds what I have heard of in the last two years. Hardly surprising, one can say, considering winter is usually the preferred time for such activities in India. Neither is it surprising to see that many of these friends are NRI men marrying Indian women (arranged by parents, of course).

What is surprising is the extent to which everyone (including the society watchman) will go to keep the NRIs in good humor. The house is spruced up to a point that it resembles a poor cousin of the 2 bed room apartment in Houston (referred to as “big house”). The 12 year old scooter is hidden away and the equally old car is given for urgent servicing (“make sure it works for 2 weeks”, is what people like my father would usually tell the mechanic). The kitchen is cleaned and fridge stocked to the brim to ensure the poor child (ahem, the NRI himself) is fed well, even as you know that he/she has been eating better quality/ variety of food overseas.

Toiler paper makes its debut on the shopping list and so does bottled water and hand sanitizer. Mothers learn to understand the meaning of “cookie” so that they can thrust the Marie biscuit on cue and fathers will usually talk less. (Better than getting your ego shattered because you displayed ignorance). The watchman and maids get tipped by the NRI if they as much say hello.

(Image Courtesy:
If the NRI failed, it must be the fault of the place he lives in. After all how can an Indian be held guilty for wrongdoing? We are morally good people.

It is no surprise that the common man’s sentiments are reflected by the media as well. Mainstream media’s treatment of NRI issues is often one-sided, portraying them in sympathetic light, while conveniently masking flaws. In short, the NRI is above scrutiny in the media. My piece for the Hoot deliberates on this through three well known examples. The text is reproduced below.

Recently, around 45,000 illegal immigrants with Indian citizenship staying in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were asked to leave the country or regularize their visas within two months. World over, this would be considered the right thing to do. But not so by the Indian media that was quick to report the plight of such immigrants and the measures taken by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.

An article by FirstPost (and many other publications), originally sourced from the PTI, seems to make it clear that illegal immigrants enjoy bargaining rights. The letter written by Mr. Vayalar Ravi, Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, to various authorities in the UAE is quoted, asking the authorities to pay for the air tickets of those immigrants who are unable to afford them. Why should such a request be made in the first place? Rich or poor, everyone is aware of their visa status and when it is due for renewal. In most cases, the over staying (for several months at that) seems to be deliberate, as the report mentions past cases of similar amnesty programmes that helped 3.4 Lakh illegal immigrants in 2007, another 3 Lakh in 2002 and around 2 Lakh in 1996. Clearly routine over staying followed by intervention by the Ministry of External / Overseas Indian Affairs seems to be the norm. No mainstream Indian media discussed this point.

The Gulf News highlighted this in a report mentioning a 62 year old Pakistani who had over stayed for 10 months because he claimed he was involved in a court case relating to a bank loan. Another report by the same publication indicated that people overstayed because they liked the country and felt it offered better prospects for them. It also underlined how people waited for such amnesty drives in order to not pay the large overstaying fees. While none of these stories have quoted Indians, the sentiments of our brethren cannot be very different.

Another instance of the media keeping mum is in the child abuse case in Norway involving a couple from Andhra Pradesh. The couple has been charged with ‘gross and repeated mistreatment and abuse’ of their seven year old son and sentenced to a jail term. Yet, India media chose to highlight the shock faced by the family’s relatives in Hyderabad upon hearing this news. NDTV specifically mentioned how both grandparents of the child fell ill, and one had to be hospitalized, upon hearing the news of the sentence. The report further tried to evoke sympathy be saying the couple’s second child, a two year old, was missing his mother very much. The report concluded by questioning the nature of care the children would get now with their parents away? But what do the relatives think of the abuse of the child? Are they not shocked at the treatment meted out to him? The report conveniently fails to discuss this.

The Economic Times towed a similar line by mentioning how the seven year old was suffering from a psychological condition that could get worse if he was away from the parents. It also mentioned how the child’s health had deteriorated due to poor eating habits in the absence of his parents. No where did the report ask the doctors quoted as to how the child could cope with the situation, considering reversing/ reducing the parents’ sentence term was likely to be a lengthy process? It is hard to believe that the future is so bleak for a child who has escaped mistreatment in the form of body burns and beating with hot, pointed metallic objects.

Quick on the heels of this, were a set of reports from various publications that mentioned the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission directing the State government to put out a petition to release the couple. No where does the report mention whether such a petition was justified and whether it would get any results. Talking to a lawyer might have helped give better insights to the legalities of the case and possible recourse. The Times of India was the only publication that put out a story about how counseling could help parents and children improve their relationship. It also highlighted the cultural differences in Indian and Norwegian parenting that could result in such incidents.

The third example of covering NRIs in sympathetic light is the Norway custody case over the Bhattacharya children. When the children were taken away by foster care, media reports said that it was because they were fed by hand (a common Indian practice, but supposedly uncommon for Norwegian authorities). Later it was reported that the mother of the children was suffering from some mental ailment and was dubbed unsuitable to care for the children. Next, it was reported that the couple in question were seeking divorce over a matter of domestic violence. Eventually the children were handed over to the paternal uncle with visitation rights by the mother. All through the reporting, the media seemed to sympathize with one or the other parties involved – the children, the mother or the uncle. It also reported potshots being taken by each side on the other to win the custody of the children. Should the media have at all covered this issue once the Norwegian courts had reached a settlement? I don’t think so because what is emerging now is just personal bad mouthing.

The nature of issues faced by Indian immigrants in other countries may be complex. But that should not deter journalists from pursuing all sides to a story, even if that means taking an unsympathetic tone towards immigrants. Immigrants usually are aware of their status in these countries and should take the efforts to be equally aware of local laws. Asking the Indian government to intervene, as has been the case in many of these issues, dilutes the diplomatic status we enjoy with these countries for greater economic relations and reports should point this out.

Examples of such reporting are far and few. One such instance is the work done by Times of India in covering the Savita Halappanavar death case. It not only highlighted the details of the complicated medical matter but also how termination of pregnancy was tough not only in Ireland but many other countries. It’s editorial also noted out how the issue was being played out as India vs Ireland and recommended against it.

The next time you meet an NRI, do everyone a favor and behave normally. I will, and hopefully without offending my friends.