This interview with Suhasini Haidar is part of the Asia program’s Women’s Voices from the Indo-Pacific Project, produced by Senior Fellow Manjari Chatterjee Miller and Research Associate Clare Harris, featuring influential women in India’s political, economic, technological, and social fields whose work matters for the U.S.-India bilateral relationship and India’s relationship with the world.
Suhasini Haidar is the diplomatic editor of The Hindu, one of India’s oldest and most respected national dailies. She writes on foreign policy issues and hosts a weekly online show, “WorldView with Suhasini Haidar.” Prior to this, Suhasini was foreign affairs editor and prime time anchor for India’s leading English news channel, CNN-IBN, and correspondent for CNN International’s New Delhi bureau. In 2015, she was the recipient of the prestigious Indian print journalism “Prem Bhatia” award.
Ms. Haidar, who has covered challenging conflicts from regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon, and Syria, and was once injured in a bomb blast in Kashmir, is deeply concerned about journalistic freedom in India.
What do audiences in the United States commonly misunderstand about your field of foreign policy journalism and reporting in India?
U.S. audiences divide the world into allies and enemies, a thought process to which Indian foreign policy does not subscribe. There is an Indian understanding of its place in the world that is not necessarily decided by the “with us, without us, allies and enemies” kinds of categories. The truth is that the idea of nonalignment predates the Non-Aligned Movement, and is an old concept in India. As a result, India is neither drawn into the “us versus them” nor the “with us or against us” clarity to which U.S. foreign policy lends itself. At the moment, India seems to think that it can have a foot in each boat; that it is in a sweet spot where it can be aligned with all. Assuming that the steady progression in India’s relationship with the United States over the past twenty years will lead to India becoming a U.S. military ally is a big mistake.
U.S. analysts also tend to focus on singular central figures in power in their understanding of India. They personalize the relationship between the two countries by pegging it to specific people in positions of power when, in fact, the bilateral relationship is best pegged to ties between the people of both countries.
Sometimes, U.S. analysts see India’s diversity as a weakness. They put greater weight on strong, decisive, and centralized leadership which can take the U.S.-India relationship forward. But India’s strength and attraction for the world is its diversity, its pluralism, and its attempt to take all its differences together as a democracy, not as a majoritarian or authoritarian regime. India remains a democracy despite its inner divergences and massive population, and this is important not just for India, but for democracy in the world.
What are the most consequential factors in your field that you think will play a role in India’s relationship with the United States or the world over the next three to five years?
The world is going through a crisis in the international order. In this environment, India’s connections to Russia and China will increasingly influence its relationship with the United States and the European Union (EU).
While the United States has gone along with India’s refusal to criticize Russia for the war in Ukraine, its fifty-fold increase in Russian oil imports, and its use of an alternative rupee-ruble payment mechanism, it is unlikely that the United States or even the EU would be similarly understanding of any such compromise with China. But if China’s transgressions into Indian territory continue, then India’s discomfort with both China and the China-Russia “no limits partnership” will strengthen its ties with the United States and the EU.
If the United States sees India as a counterpoint to China, then that can only stand if India is, in fact, a democracy and not an authoritarian regime. As the Indian government takes a more authoritarian turn, with attacks on minorities and restrictions on civil society, concerns over human rights are likely to bleed into the bilateral relationship.
The United States sees India as a partner with “shared values,” but these shared values must be something that the United States encourages in India. That does not mean I think it is for the United States to have a role in any kind of internal intervention in what is essentially an Indian affair. Rather, the United States should make clear what kind of democracy it believes it shares values with. When there are injustices that are going on, then it is everyone’s job to point them out. To stay silent, or worse, to condone them or pretend as if they are not happening is not something any country should do.
Can you speak to the status of women in the work that you do?
I am not in a position to comment on the status of women across India, as my field of foreign policy reportage in an English-language, national newspaper remains a bubble. The chairperson of The Hindu Group, Dr. Malini Parthasarathi, is at present a woman, and she was my editor when I joined in 2014. Prior to this, I worked in television for twenty years at progressive channels like CNN International and then CNN-IBN in India. However, I am highly aware that sexism, gender discrimination, traditional patriarchy, and even misogyny are real problems for my colleagues across the media landscape. Recently, the case of a senior government minister, who was accused by more than twenty women colleagues of sexual harassment during his tenure as an editor of several major media outlets and newspapers, has brought the spotlight back on how deeply rooted the problems in this field are.
What inspired you to pursue your career path? How does your personal background inform your journalism?
I have been a journalist for all my working life, though I did not plan on being one growing up. My undergraduate degree was in statistics, but a chance summer job working on a television documentary made me switch. I then completed my post-graduate degree in broadcast journalism at Boston University. I come from a family of professionals—my father is an economist by training who then joined politics, and my mother is a lawyer—so I have grown up with an interest in current affairs as well as a deep belief in public service. Despite deviations by some in the profession, I believe that journalism is a public service, and that is what continues to inspire me. I think our job as journalists is very simple, and I see it as portraying the truth as simply and honestly as possible and letting the viewer make up their mind.
When you look at the state of journalism and reporting in India, what concerns you most or brings you hope? What are the most pressing priorities for you and your colleagues?
Journalism is a profession of hope, of belief that news coverage and reportage can make a difference and better society. However, the state of journalism in India today does worry me at present. What has been normalized in India is that journalists themselves are seen as enemies of the state. There is definitely a privilege to being an English-language journalist in the capital city, whereas journalists who are in smaller towns face a daily barrage of abuse of journalistic rights and freedoms. Even if they are personally neutral and professional, they are forced to take divisive, non-constitutional positions in order to be “popular” with the government.
It has become more and more difficult to do a critical analysis of government policy using facts and figures if your conclusions are not what the government wants to hear. There are many ways that the government will try to attack your credibility. Look at Jammu and Kashmir, where journalists are practically gagged and tossed into jail under anti-terror laws, or the fact that journalists are routinely now turned back at Indian airports by police who say “sorry, there's a lookout circular for you,” and then are not allowed to travel abroad. These things are happening at both the national and state government levels to suppress reportage. Hyper-nationalism has also become a factor. There is organized “trolling” and intimidation of journalists, especially women and minorities, from social media handles backed by ruling parties. Recently, there has been a surge in government-friendly websites that target only journalists by publishing false articles about them. Their target is not “bad journalism,” as they claim, but journalism itself.
Indian journalism has survived such onslaughts in the past and is likely to survive these as well. The pressing priority is for all to recognize the atmosphere journalists are operating in today.