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Monday, January 4, 1999 Published at 12:18 GMT

Andrew Whitehead

Former Delhi Correspondent Andrew Whitehead talked to Newstalk about his time in India on January 10, 1999

Andrew has spent 10 years reporting for the BBC, initially covering British politics, and more recently travelling across South Asia as a correspondent based in Delhi. This month, he turns to radio presenting, as one of the voices that will be anchoring the World Today for Asia.

If you want to read more about his career click here

Or if you'd like to see how he answered some of your questions in the live Newstalk discussion, read on.

Robin Lustig:Andy you spent four years or so as a correspondent in India did you find the people still in some ways expected you to behave as if the days of the Raj had never ended?

Andrew: The Raj ended 51 years ago and very few people feel nostalgic for it. I certainly don't. There is certainly a great tradition of hospitality particular to foreigners and I think there's still some lingering deference as well to foreigners. Organisations like the BBC which have a long presence in India are greatly respected but no the Raj is dead and I think we're all glad it's dead.

Lien May Wong calling from Singapore: I know there are some correspondents like Carrie Gracie and Daniel Lak who are married to spouses from China and India respectively, and so they know the local culture very well, the traditions and everything. I find that they are very objective when they report and most other correspondents are not.

Robin Lustig: Andrew your marital status and its effect on your reporting.

Andrew: Well I have to put my hands up my wife's an Indian, whether that affects and influences my coverage or not. I suppose really if you want to get inside a society - to understand its social morays, what makes it tick, of course it helps to have the remarkable privilege of access to a culture which having a spouse from that culture gives, but I don't think really tha is really a benchmark of fair reporting. You have many journalists who have wives from their own country who are absolutely as fair and as impartial and as authoritative as anyone else.

Robin Lien May Wong you think it makes a difference do you?

Lien May Wong Yes because I'm living in Singapore I have listened to, I think, David Willis and Simon Ingram and I find that somehow they don't really know the local culture very well so they weren't very fair.

Robin Lustig: Well I don't want you to get too critical of individuals who aren't here to defend their records because obviously the BBC hopes to be able to have a very wide range of very skilled and professional correspondents. I wonder how are you so sure about who is married to natives and who is not?

Lien May Wong I think Carrie Gracie was interviewed on East Asia Today when she was back in London and they said she was married to a local.

Robin Lustig In fact she talked to us here on Newstalk not so long ago just before the birth of her child. Obviously you feel it does make a difference. Andy, you seem to accept that it helps perhaps a correspondent but you're not going to go so far as to say you would recommend it as a professional career move?

Andy: No I think that would be going a little bit far. Of course if you want to get to the heartbeat of society you've got to have some route there - some access - you've got to have people you can talk to and ask: How do things work here, and what are the values, what are the sensitivities, even, simply what is the etiquette?

Robin Lustig: So your wife's family for example, in some circumstances, could actually be a very useful source, could be a very useful way for you to understand something which is puzzling you?

Andy: Yes of course. But they're not always right as nobody is an absolutely infallible guide to etiquette. I have to tell a little anecdote, and if my wife is listening she'll probably hit me when I go home. But very early on in our relationship when in fact she was a colleague - a fellow journalist - we went to a dinner party together and I was very new in India and I wanted to know the etiquette of what we should talk about and what we should avoid over the dinner table. And, for example, I asked can we talk about sex because it often comes up across the dinner table and she said: "Absolutely not!" And, of course, throughout the meal, everybody round the dinner table was talking about sex.

E-mail from Ankar Agurwal from California: He thinks that the media hasn't kept pace with the way life has changed in India and says: "How do you react to the fact that despite being known as the land of snake charmers and poor peasants India has made tremendous progress economically, socially and most important technically?"

Andy: I think that's absolutely right. The days when foreign correspondents can present India as a land of train crashes, child labour and snake charmers are over. It's vastly more than that. We've seen with the impact of satellite television, we've seen with the political developments, the cultural change, the growth of the computer industry, Hyderabad and Bangalore and Madras are now the world leaders in aspects of software programming. India has moved on. And I think almost all the foreign correspondents covering India are determined to reflect that. We don't want to indulge in old stereotypes, we want to explain to the world how India is changing and why and the tensions that gives rise to.

Shantanoo Gutta calling from Delhi: Andrew you've probably been reading about the persecution of Christians that's been going on in India of late. Now traditionally in India we have had the Hindu community persecuting Muslims and all of a sudden the Muslims seem to have been left to themselves and it's all Christians. How do you analyse it? What do you feel could be the reason?

Andy: It's very difficult for me to say from such a distance away what the reason is in events which are happening now in Gujarat but certainly I'm aware of the controversy you talk about, with hard line Hindu organisations it seems picking a fight with Christian missionaries in tribal areas of Gujarat. And obviously I think one thing that everybody around the world needs to remember that Christianity reached India a long time before it reached Britain, there's no doubt about that, probably several centuries earlier.

And it's an ancient religion and it is, in many ways, an Indian religion. But, of course, we're also aware of the great sensitivities within India about conversion from one religion to another, especially when there is any question of coercion or inducement. So I think we've got to bear all those facts in mind when we look at this controversy, but I'm certainly not going to offer a bland generalisation about what the government or, indeed, the Hindu organisations or the Christian church is up to.

E-mail from Tom Lansink from the Netherlands: He wants to know if India will follow the route of Pakistan and become a society whose identity is based on religion?

Andy: I don't think it will and I don't think that really is the agenda of the present Hindu nationalist led government. Pakistan was, by definition, an Islamic nation. Islamic identity was at its heart right from the moment of its inception. India is not like that. Pakistan has quite small minorities within its borders, the biggest being the Christian minority. India is home to at least 110 million Muslims, 30 million Christians, millions of Buddhists, hundreds of thousands of Parsees. It simply cannot be straight jacketed into a clerical nation and I don't think anybody's really trying to do that.

Ravi Kumar calling from London: I want to ask you a question about the way Hindu nationalism is portrayed in the English and American media. People often talk about the Western media but I don't know whether the French or the Germans are much interested in these things. It's the English media that I'm interested in. It's an extremely negative portrayal and words like fascism are freely used about leaders like Advani for example - the deputy prime minister. Now I notice that when the English and American press and radio including the BBC covers leaders like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt - a country where apostasy from Islam is punishable by a death sentence no words like fascist are ever used - the Saudi Arabian King is never described as a fascist.

And people talk reverentially about the need to respect Islam and all its sensitivities, no such sensitivities are shown to Hinduism or Hindu nationalism and no attempt is made to differentiate between some wild fringes and the majority of the movement.

Andy: Ravi an interesting question but let me say that the BJP is not a fascist party. Mr Advani - India's home minister - is not a fascist and nobody in the BBC has ever suggested that. There is a great deal of interest around the world in the nature of the BJP. Its advent in power has been a landmark in the development of Indian politics and India's democracy. And, yes, it has had quite a bad press in some parts of the world because it has been seen as intolerant and tainted above all by support for the demolition of the Mosque in Ayodhya six or so years ago. But nobody's pretending that it's a totalitarian party - it's a democratic party and we reflect that.

Robin: But Andy do you accept that in some quarters of the Western press it does seem to be portrayed in that way?

Andy: It has been portrayed as a single agenda, anti Muslim, slightly clerical party and that is not accurate but certainly it has got that impression. Partly because it has not been quite as adept as India's longer established party - the Congress Party - in playing up to the foreign media.

Ravi Kumar Well Andrew I think you're underestimating the extent to which simple minded negativism is used in portraying the BJP and Hindu nationalism in general. It's forgotten, for example, that Mahatma Ghandi was a very staunch Hindu and was against the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or any religion.

Robin Lustig: But Ravi what's your explanation? Why do you think, if indeed it is true that the BJP is portrayed in this way, what's your explanation?

Ravi Kumar: I think it is first of all the Muslim countries people have to respect them in the West because the Muslim countries have a lot of oil and economic power, which India doesn't. And the other thing is that Muslim groups in the West and elsewhere can often be very violent, Hindu groups, at least outside India, generally are very peaceful.

Robin Lustig: So you think there's a sort of Muslim intimidation going on?

Ravi Kumar: Yes there is, I'm pretty sure about that. And the other thing is you talked about the diversity of India. Only slightly over 50 % of Malaysia's population is Muslim yet Malaysia is a very strong Muslim country. In Egypt 20% of the population is Christian which is much bigger than the proportion of the population that's Muslim in India - diversity's not an excuse for India not being a Hindu nation. It would only be the second Hindu nation in the world, by the way, if it did become Hindu. That is the choice of the India people, it's not for some highfalutin Westerners to pontificate on these things and say India can never have it. It can have it if its deemed to be democratic.

Mohan Singh calling from Surrey, England: Many of my friends who have lived outside India find it difficult when they go back to India. I wonder if Andrew, after having lived in India for four years, would find his re-entry back into British society a problem?

Andy: It is quite hard when you've lived somewhere for five years and you've got used to the temper and the tempo of a society suddenly to change back. And London's a city I like - I'm not a Londoner but I like it, I like its vivacity but it is cold and it is grey and that does make a difference - especially in January.

Sandy And you've also got to get used to changing jobs.

Andy: That's right. When I've been in India I've been basically a bimedial correspondent working for both radio and television. Now I'm back in my first love in radio and presenting a new radio programme which starts in fact in a few hours time aimed at a breakfast audience in South Asia - it's called The World Today and it's on air from 0600 to 0900 India standard time.

Mohan Singh I find that the British media, living here in the UK at the moment, are some sort of brainwashing machinery. Let me give one example: When I was living in my hamlet in a hot, bright corner of Tamil Nadu and I listened to the BBC. BBC says Hong Kong goes to polls in the last General Election to be held under British colonial rule - so I was wondering well we have had a few elections in India, it is most noble of the British to be holding so many general elections in Hong Kong, let me find out how many general elections the British have held in Hong Kong and it seems it was the one and only general election the British ever held in Hong Kong and still it is being portrayed as the last general election. I thought the British have always been very democratic.

Robin: Andrew do you find, I know a lot of correspondents discover when they come back to this country that when they read what other journalists are writing about what used to be their patch they barely recognise it as the same place?

Andy: I think that is true you know because still the agenda, as far as the news editors here in London are concerned - much more them than the correspondents in the field - is still about corruption and natural disaster and the quaint and the curious and that isn't the India that foreign correspondents live in.

Robin: What do you miss most?

Andy: I'd have to say I miss where I used to live in Delhi. I lived in an area where I had a marvellous vista from my balcony. Delhi's a spectacularly green and beautiful city - people don't realise that. Of course it's got 12 million people but the nice areas of Delhi are beautiful and I used to have hoopoes in my park, which I used to see most mornings and lovely flowers in the spring and that doesn't quite compare with the London I'm in now.

E-mail from Shankar Menon in Delhi: What, in your opinion, would be India's status as a regional power in comparison with that of China, Japan and the Asian tigers?

Andy: Well India is a power. It was power, I have to say, long before it exploded its nuclear test devices last year and it is generally recognised as the biggest power in South Asia. Can it match China? Well I suspect it really can't. It's economy isn't quite yet as vibrant. It lost a war with China which is still very keenly remembered in India. And, of course, China has a much, much bigger military might - not simply nuclear but also conventional. But does it need to match China? Does it need to be so worried about the enemy - perceived enemy - on its North Eastern border? I think probably it's a bit too preoccupied with that and should get on with the job of making its systems of governments more efficient and its economy more efficient.

Dr Francis Christian calling from Labrador City, Canada: I'd like to compliment you on the unbiased and extremely professional way you report about the Subcontinent. A lot of people are trying to get into the soul of this ancient civilisation and you've succeeded. How did you manage it?

Andy: Thank you Francis that's extremely kind of you and obviously very pleasing for any correspondent to hear. I think I have the great privilege of working for an organisation - the BBC - which gives a lot of time to coverage of India and I know that my colleagues who worked in the press were jealous of that. They might get a story in twice a week in their papers, I can get - and BBC correspondents can get stuff on the BBC - two or three times a day. And it meant we had a much broader agenda, so we weren't simply doing the obvious headline stories, we could dig deep, we could talk about the diversity of India, we could talk about changing caste equations, we could talk about the status of women, we could talk about the way the film industry is changing and that means, I hope, that we gave a much broader and a much more accurate and fuller account of India and the way it's changing.

Andrew Whitehead's biography

As a BBC political correspondent Andrew had his own vantage point in the parliamentary press gallery high above the House of Commons, and access to the lobbies and corridors where politicians and their aides put their spin on the day's events. It was a time of great political ferment - the controversy over the poll tax, the splits within the Conservative Party over Europe, the downfall of Margaret Thatcher.

"The resignation statement of Geoffrey Howe, Mrs Thatcher's deputy, was the most dramatic parliamentary event I witnessed. It precipitated the party coup against her. And there she was in the chamber, listening in shock as her mild-mannered former colleague denounced her," he said.

After four years on the political beat, including regular trips to Northern Ireland, Andrew headed off to India. In his time there, he reported from almost every corner of that vast nation. He even made a valiant attempt to learn Hindi.

"India is an extraordinarily diverse country, and endlessly complex. But I like to feel I got beyond the stereotype stories about snake-charmers, communal riots and child labour, to give some sense of the social and cultural changes now underway there, and of the political tensions that are resulting".

His most memorable interview in India? Not with a political leader, nor with a film star or cultural figure. While making a radio series on the trauma of the partition of British India, and the resulting violence amid which India and Pakistan gained independence, Andrew visited an ashram, a place of retreat, and by chance met a group of women widowed at that time, who have been living in institutions ever since.

"Far from being reticent about the terrible events they had endured, they insisted I stay and listen to their stories. It was as if they had been waiting for decades for someone to show an interest in their lives and memories. It made compelling radio and was a very humbling experience."

Andrew's professional ties with India will persist with his presenting role on the World Today for Asia. So too will his personal ties. He married while in India; his in-laws still live there, and both his children were born in Delhi.

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