HAF Correspondence with The Economist

HAF's First Letter: Originally couriered July 21, 2011 to Delhi offices; emailed August 5, 2011 after phone follow-up; second reminder/follow up email August 8, 2011
 
Dear Sir or Madam:
 
We are writing to you in regards to the July 21st article, Kashmir’s future: Fleeting chance and to request that the offensive description of the sacred Amarnath Caves as a “penis-shaped lump” be replaced with “naturally formed ice stalagmite worshipped as a form of the Hindu God Shiva,” or other accurate and respectful terminology, on any and all on-line versions of the article. We also request that an apology be published in the next print edition and online for any hurt caused to religious sensitivities by the offensive description. The reporter not only discounts the tragedy of religious cleansing and terror faced by Hindus living in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, but makes gratuitous use of sexual imagery to describe the holy shrine at Amarnath -- demonstrating inappropriate humor at best, and profaning of the sacred at worst.
 
The reporter’s description of the naturally formed ice stalagmite worshipped as a form of the Hindu God Shiva, as a “penis-shaped lump,” is both sensationalist and deeply offensive. Lord Shiva is worshipped by a billion Hindus globally as the creative energy sustaining the universe, and the vertical rounded column, the lingam, to them represents the infinite, indescribable nature of God.
 
Any discussion of the violent dynamics in the Kashmir valley is incomplete without mention of Pakistan’s spy agency sponsored Lakshar-e-Toiba, a banned terrorist outfit, routinely attacking Hindu pilgrims going to Amarnath, and the 350,000 Kashmiri Hindu Pandits who remain refugees in their own country -- driven out of their ancestral homes in the Valley over two decades ago.
 
Editors at The Economist know well the tortured history of India’s Kashmir, and blithely desecrating Hindu symbolism while neglecting the ongoing Hindu human rights disaster there elicit real questions as to the magazine’s place in the contest between “intelligence and unworthy, timid ignorance.” In fact, just as recently as July 18th, Amarnath was described as a “sacred site of a big ice stalagmite within a cave,” in the article, Summertime in Kashmir: And the living looks easy. It is our sincere hope that the latter is a better demonstration of The Economist’s commitment to quality journalism.
 
HAF is an advocacy group providing a progressive voice for over two million Hindu Americans. The Foundation interacts with and educates leaders in public policy, academia, media and the public at large about Hinduism and global issues concerning Hindus, such as the portrayal of Hinduism, interfaith relations, tolerance and pluralism.
 
We await your direct and formal response to our request of language retraction and replacement as well as an apology.
 
Sincerely,
Suhag A. Shukla, Esq.
Managing Director/Legal Counsel
 
HAF's reply to Mr. Adam Roberts at The Economist: August 9, 2011
 
Dear Mr. Roberts:
 
I appreciate your response to my query and concerns. I do hope you will consider further dialogue on this issue that we, at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), as well as many of our members, consider of profound significance.
 
While you are correct that wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingam, and some practicing will Hindus concur that the lingam is a phallic representation symbolizing the male creative energy of the universe, I am certain that you read the following line in the first paragraph of the same wikipedia entry, "A complementary theory suggests that the Lingam represents the beginningless and endless Stambha pillar, symbolizing the infinite nature of Shiva.[5][6]"
 
Arguably, beyond just recognizing the Lingam as a sacred representation of Shiva, the latter definition is the most relevant one to practicing Hindus in their daily worship. It certainly is for the devotees of the sampradaya to which I belong -- one with an international following numbering in the hundreds of thousands -- and as it is to many other prominent sampradayas. I am also confident that your conversations with Amarnath pilgrims would likely have yielded the same answer as would have consultation with a Hindu spiritual leader, scholar or community leader. Most of the comments on your article pertaining to your choice of words to describe Amarnath also allude to this same understanding.
 
But regardless of which definition provided by wikipedia you ascribe to, I hope you are open to recognizing that the phrase selection of "penis-shaped lump of ice" is needlessly provocative and poorly chosen terminology. Would you not agree that "phallic" conveys to readers that the object has symbolic significance and is therefore more respectful than "penis," which is more literal and evokes a more graphic, anatomical image? And that "stalagmite" or "ice formation" is more appropriate than "lump of ice?"
 
Indeed, your depiction conjuring up the specter of hordes of Hindus plodding over mountain passes to worship a "lump of ice" as some Great Penis is replete with the same perverse and tired stereotypes that Hindus counter so often--that Hindus are idol worshippers (we worship murtis, or representations of the divine), are polytheists (we are accurately monists and/or panentheists) or that Hindus pay obeisance to warrior, monkey or elephant gods (the divine is sacred across all living entities and each incarnation is suffused with rich symbolism relevant to a certain time and space).
 
HAF, the member organization which I represent, created a small handbook to explore common misrepresentations of Hinduism in the media (http://www.hafsite.org/resources/media_toolkit) as well as a Frequently Asked Questions (http://www.hafsite.org/resources/q_a_booklet) that I hope you will consider and know that HAF can connect you with Hindu spiritual leaders and renowned scholars and academics at major institutions globally. We have also worked closely with the U.S. based Religion Newswriters Association in the authoring of its Religion Stylebook (http://religionstylebook.com/) to help journalist navigate through religious terminology in an accurate, yet sensitive manner. HAF carried out these two projects because we firmly believe that journalists carry a responsibility of dealing with that which is held divine or sacred with dignity and proper consideration of the emic understanding of symbolism and iconography.
 
As far as your commentary on Kashmir, we can respectfully agree to disagree. HAF publishes an annual human rights report (http://www.hafsite.org/media/pr/human-rights-report-2010), in which we have been studying and documenting for nearly a decade the violence and its victims in Kashmir. While there may be a temporary lull in the violence and the Hindus you observed or spoke to made the pilgrimage, we hold that there are many more Hindus who refrain from doing so out of fear for life and limb and that the role of Pakistan in the violence as well as the plight of Kashmiri Pandits who remain unable to return home must be acknowledged.
 
It remains my sincere request that you will consider retraction of the current description, “penis-shaped lump of ice,” and replace it with the complementary definition of the Shiva-linga or with the language suggested previously in my letter with a note to readers of the change and that The Economist publish HAF’s Letter to the Editor (sent through the letters@economist.com) for the benefit of readers who may have read the original description which many Hindus find offensive. I await your prompt response and hope to remain in dialogue with you into the future.
 
Sincerely,
Suhag Shukla
 
HAF's final reply: August 10, 2011
 
Dear Mr. Roberts:
 
Thank you again for your prompt response. While HAF respects that The Economist will remain "frank" in its reporting, we will presume, from past articles, that "frank" does not mean offensive or sensationalist. I do not question whether you intended to offend -- few do outside of the tabloids. But the fact remains that your choice of words has offended many beyond HAF's membership. Here are just a few of the comments section for your article:
  • "You should be vigilant with your choice of words "to a sacred penis-shaped lump of ice at Amarnath" using word penis to symbolise Hindu idols can deeply hurt sentiments of a community and you should refrain for using such words. Did not expect this from economist."
  • "This article is also ill-informed, irrelevant, if not positively mischievous, when it mentions in passing that pilgrimage to the "sacred penis-shaped lump of ice at Amarnath....". How does this description relate the main points of the essay? It has been done and so I take the liberty to comment as follows: I am yet to come across a devout, well-informed Hindu who thinks of the Lingham as aPenis of any kind - as much as I am yet to come across a Christian who thinks of the cross as an instrument of torture and death to which he is offering his reverence."
  • "'[A] sacred penis-shaped lump of ice at Amarnath" - how stupid are the Economist's writers becoming? I wouldn't expect such ignorance even from the now defunct News of the World... I'm slowly becoming drawn away from the Economist given its persistent ignorance particularly regarding India and Hindus. What a joke. "
My abiding hope remains to work with you and The Economist directly to have some form of clarification published by the editorial staff on the popular perception of the lingam. I am sure you will understand, however, that as the largest Hindu advocacy organization in the U.S., we are receiving a flurry of inquiries from our membership with hopes to see results. As such, our next step will be to begin a more public engagement with the magazine to allow our members a channel to express their frustration on what is being seen as a serious insult coming from a magazine with The Economist's prestige and popularity among so many in India and in the diaspora.
 
I hope hope you will consider the concern this phraseology about the lingam has caused and how readily it could be ameliorated, and thank you again for the professionalism in engaging in this discussion with me.
 
A shortened version of the original Letter to the Editor which was sent to letters@economist.com is pasted below:
 
Dear Editor,
 
The July 21st article, “Kashmir’s future: Fleeting chance,” not only discounts the tragedy of religious cleansing and terror faced by Hindus living in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, but makes gratuitous use of sexual imagery to describe the holy shrine at Amarnath -- demonstrating inappropriate humor at best, and profaning of the sacred at worst.
 
The reporter’s description of the naturally formed ice stalagmite worshipped as a form of the Hindu God Shiva, as a “penis-shaped lump,” is both sensationalist and deeply offensive. Lord Shiva is worshipped by a billion Hindus globally as the creative energy sustaining the universe, and the vertical rounded column, the lingam, to them represents the infinite, indescribable nature of God.
 
Any discussion of the violent dynamics in the Kashmir valley is incomplete without mention of Pakistan-sponsored terrorists routinely attacking Hindu pilgrims going to Amarnath, and the 350,000 Kashmiri Hindu Pandits who remain refugees in their own country -- driven out of their ancestral homes in the Valley over two decades ago.
 
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
 
Suhag

Click here to return to HAF's action alert and to voice your objection the Economist's insulting description of Amarnath.