NYT's Mangalyaan cartoon: Yes it's racism, no it's not about Modi's US visit

Last week was a historic one for India's space programme as the Mangalyaan aka Mars Orbiter successfully entered orbit around the red planet. In doing so, India became the first country in the world to enter the Martian orbit in its maiden attempt. And with that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) became the fourth international space agency after National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the US, Russian Federal Space Agency (RFSA) and European Space Agency to undertake a mission to Mars.

India's space mission cost around Rs 450 crore, or nearly $74 million, and cost roughly a tenth of NASA's Mars mission Maven spacecraft that also reached the planet's orbit a few days ahead of Mangalyaan. However, despite the 'low-cost' of India's space mission, there has been constant criticism that India should just worry about fighting poverty and not waste money in trying to get into space. As one of our earlier posts had noted when the mission was first announced, the criticism levelled at India is the closest thing to 'blatant racism.'

The New York Times now is at the centre of a new controversy after putting out a cartoon mocking the India Space Mission, which showcases a poor man with a turban on his head and a dragging a cow along, knocking on the door of the Elite Space Club. The member of the Elite Space Club might remind you of colonial overlords from a era long-gone and it's safe to presume that this is a white-men-only club. One of the members of the club is reading a newspaper which has the Indian Mars mission as the top headline. Neither of the two men look very pleased at the idea of the Indian man knocking.

The cartoon has been widely criticised for being just another example of stereotypical images used to depict India. It is assumed that we all wear turbans, we drag our cows along, even when we're going to the Elite Space Club. There's little doubt that the cartoon is in poor taste, given that it reduces all of ISRO's hard work to just a man in a turban, which is far from the truth. As this Huffington Post piece by Sharanya Haridas, rightly points out the cartoon is racist and stereotypical.

However we're not sure about the rest of Haridas' criticism of the cartoon. For instance she points out that the cartoon has been published at a time when Prime Minister Modi was visiting New York and had addressed a "20,000 strong crowd at Manhattan's iconic Madison Square Garden yesterday," where he spoke about India's growing importance.

And while it's true that PM Modi did give quite a performance at the MSG, most of the US media didn't even put the story on their front pages. Also the perceived success of the PM's visit and speech are in no way related to how the West should view ISRO's Mangalyaan programme, which incidentally was first launched from Earth in November 2013 before Modi took charge of the top job.

The NYT cartoon is seen in this photo.

The NYT cartoon is seen in this photo.

She also then posts a bunch of pictures of ISRO's women scientists and male scientists and points out the 'women are rocking' their silk saris while the men are in Western clothes. She also points out: "There are no farm animals in sight at the ISRO office."

Either way, none of this criticism actually ends up doing service to the ISRO space mission. What needs to be pointed out is that for India, space research can hold some very real consequences for country and isn't just about India trying to enter the so-called Elite Space Club as the New York Times cartoon seems to suggest.

For starters, ISRO isn't destroying our programmes to fight poverty.  As the three scientists from ISRO pointed out in an AMA on Reddit, "ISRO's allotted budget for fiscal year 2013-14 is $ 950 Million, almost 19 times less, and is about 0.33% of the total Indian budget. So, no, ISRO is not taking a bite out of the poor and hungry Indian's pie."

They also pointed out satellites launched by ISRO are helping with disaster situations. The scientists wrote, "In fact, through its remote sensing and communication programs (IRS and INSAT), we are only helping build an essential infrastructure for the country. We saved millions (of lives and dollars, both) by being well prepared for the cyclone Phailin. That is where maintaining cutting edge technological capability through R & D pays! Remote sensing helps our farmers and fishermen: the beloved poor-hungry-Indians and enables them to buy food."

So yes, ISRO's isn't just going to Mars to drum up some fake sense of pride, it is also doing some research to help our country in a very real way. And where the Elite Space Club is concerned, a lot of the so-called developed nations are relying on India's help to put their own satellites into space. In June, ISRO's PSLV C23 carried SPOT-7 a French earth observation satellite, along with four other satellites into space. These were the AISAT from DLR Germany, NLS7.1 and NLS7.2 from UTIAS/SFL Canada and VELOX-1 from NTU Singapore. So far, India has helped put 40 foreign satellites into Space.

As far as the Elite Space Club is concerned, the truth is that it no longer exists. The Space Race between USA and Russia is over and nations like India are now showing that they have technological capabilities to reach the Mars orbit, and that too at lower costs.

Updated Date: Oct 06, 2014 10:53 AM

Also See