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How the New York Times reduced a 40-minute conversation with Sanjeev Sanyal to merely 2 words to prove that Shramik trains were ‘virus trains’

Sanjeev Sanyal gave a very detailed explanation of the steps taken by the government at various points of time in dealing with the Wuhan Coronavirus, but NYT chose to reduce his comments to just two words

With the world trying to grapple with the Chinese Coronavirus, every country’s political administration and health system was put through the ultimate test – how prepared were countries to deal with catastrophe? How prepared was any country’s health system to deal with an unprecedented and unknown pandemic that was plaguing the world, coupled with a heady mix of propaganda, fake news, subversion from authoritarian regimes and the public seeking answers.

While several countries came close to crumbling under the weight of the pandemic, India, with a population of over 1.3 billion people, spectacularly managed to hold its own. At the time of writing this article, the United States of America had over 17 million cases and over 3 lac deaths, and India had about 9.9 lakh cases with less than half the deaths. With India already gearing up to vaccinate over 60% of its population, India has emerged as a frontrunner. While several other countries like Germany, Italy etc erupted with protests against the lockdown, Indians calmly abided by an early lockdown that slowed the spread of the virus in its initial stages to a large extent.

While India’s track report in dealing with the raging pandemic is being hailed by several experts, the western media has been rather grudging in accepting that a so-called ‘third world country’ managed to handle a pandemic foisted upon the world by a country they quintessentially thought was far ahead in the development scale compared to India – China. The Western Media, that is often caught peddling propaganda for money on behalf of China, was seen covering India’s response to Covid-19 with extremely biased lenses.

One such article that recently surfaced was one in the New York Times, which reportedly get millions to run Chinese propaganda. The article titled The virus trains: How lockdown chaos spread COVID-19 across India published by NYT is filled with prejudice against the Modi govt, blaming the govt for the spread of Coronavirus in the country.

The bias of New York Times becomes apparent at the very outset when, for some reason, it mentions that the Modi govt’s Covid-19 task force is dominated by “upper-caste Hindus”, and claims that it didn’t contemplate how imposing the lockdown will induce desperation, panic and chaos for millions of migrant workers.

Excerpt from NYT article

For the report published by NYT on how the migrants carried the Coronavirus to every nook and corner of the country by travelling special trains arranged by the Govt of India, the authors had talked to a number of people, including Sanjeev Sanyal, author and the Principal Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance. But now Sanjeev Sanyal has exposed how the left-wing publication chose what to include and what to not, to build up a narrative they had already decided.

The article mentions that Sanjeev Sanyal had confirmed that the administration had been aware of the risks posed by moving people from urban hot spots to rural areas, and adds that he said that the situation had been managed “quite well.” Only the two words “quite well” were quoted from the interview they had taken with him.

OpIndia has now acquired the full recording of the conversation that took place between Sanjeev Sanyal and the journalist from the New York Times, who was researching the story for the publication. Suhasini Raj, one of the co-authors of the article in NYT had reached out to Sanjeev Sanyal and spoken to him at length about government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The conversation spanned over 40 minutes.

That the New York Times thought that only two words – ‘quite well’ – should be quoted in their article out of a 40-minute conversation does not really come as a surprise. If publications don’t wildly misquote people they speak to, as the Washington Post did during the Delhi Riots, their standard tactic is, essentially, to pick and choose only the parts that fit in well with their narrative and leave the rest of it out. It would appear that Sanjeev Sanyal perhaps did not give them enough material to support their pre-decided narrative about India’s response to Covid-19, and hence, as a mere formality, they decided to ensure that at least 2 words out of the 40-minute conversation were included in the article.

What is also interesting is that the New York Times decided to quote the two paltry words from the 40-minute conversation with Sanjeev Sanyal, right after they had spewed pointless homilies about the task force being dominated by “upper-caste men”, thereby, attempting to already prejudice their readers against his comments – even if they were two words. This simply proves that NYT perhaps never really wanted to engage with Sanyal in good faith and from the very beginning, they knew exactly that talking to Sanyal was a mere formality.

What Sanjeev Sanyal said in his 40-minute long conversation with New York Times, out of which, NYT decided to quote only two words – ‘quite well’

In the recording that OpIndia has now perused, it is clear that Sanjeev Sanyal shared a lot more information than what they chose to incorporate (which we cannot reiterate enough – was merely two words). What is far more important though, is how the journalist also tried to make him say certain things, which indicates that they were looking for a certain type of answers.

At the outset, Sanyal explained how the situation in March was uncertain and unclear, with no clear information from WHO on the pandemic. He mentioned how different people took the situation differently, and how different countries adopted different approaches to deal with it at that time.

He then went on to explain the rationale behind the decision of the Modi government to impose a nationwide lockdown. He said that when the situation was uncertain, one common strategy to be adopted is the barbell strategy. According to this well-known strategy, one hedges for the worst outcome, and then takes a step by step approach as more and more information becomes available.

Sanyal further explained that according to the strategy of ‘hedging for the worst outcome’, the government had decided to impose total lockdown in the month of March. He narrated that there was more than one reason for imposing the lockdown. First, to stop the spread of the disease. Along with this, the lockdown period also gave the government to create testing capacities, quarantine facilities, getting people trained, gather information about the infection from across the world etc.

After a couple of months, more information became available, facilities were ready, and also economic costs of the lockdown were beginning to reflect. Due to these reasons, the government started to open up the country by April-May, Sanyal told the NYT journalist.

Sanjeev Sanyal gave an incredibly detailed explanation of the steps taken by the government at various points of time in dealing with the Wuhan Coronavirus, but NYT chose to reduce his comments to just two words. Moreover, he said that the government was aware of the economic impact of a total lockdown. He said that the govt was aware that they will have to pay a big price for the lockdown.

Completely disregarding his comments or even his detailed explanation, the article wrote that the ‘Hindu Upper Caste Modi government’ had no clue about the possible impact of those decisions. This clearly demonstrates how NYT had a pre-determined agenda to paint the Modi govt as clueless, and when they received a contrary viewpoint from the principal economic advisor, they simply decided to not publish his comments at all.

How the New York Times journalist tried to put words into Sanjeev Sanyal’s mouth, so she could get a comment that would suit the NYT’s agenda

Towards the latter part of the conversation, the NYT journalist tried to get Sanjeev Sanyal to say that the Shramik Special trains run by the Railways to move migrant workers were responsible for the spread of Coronavirus to several states. She said that their ‘study’ has found that migrants coming from cities like Mumbai and Surat carried the virus with them to eastern states like Bihar and Odisha. Responding to this, Sanyal explained how before the trains were started, villages were asked to prepare quarantine facilities for incoming migrants. He said that most of rural India managed the situation well, and given the size of India, the spread of coronavirus in rural places is very low.

Despite such categorical assertions, NYT completely omitted them from their article, and claimed that the trains spread the virus across the country.

What makes it rather evident that the New York Times interviewed Sanjeev Sanyal with a predetermined narrative in mind, becomes evident from the fact that the NYT article chose to quote what the Odisha administration said about the above segment, but conveniently decided to omit Sanyal’s explanation to the entire fiasco.

Excerpt from NYT article

If the New York Time was genuinely interesting in painting an authentic picture of India’s response to Covid-19, it would make sense for them to add both comments by the Odisha CM and Sanjeev Sanyal, however, since one of the comments (the one by Sanyal) did not really fit their narrative and because Sanyal refused to fall for their strategy of putting words in his mouth, they simply decided to drop the comments altogether.

Sanjeev Sanyal also mentioned various schemes launched by the government to help people and businesses in coping with the effects of the lockdown, by NYT didn’t deem them necessary to mention them in the article while talking about troubles faced by poor during the lockdown.

The article labels the Shramik Special trains as Virus Trains, and blames the trains for the spread of the virus in the country, and blames the Modi government for running them. But the article fails to mention a very important aspect of the trains. Initially, the union government was not in favour of transporting migrants to their native places. The objective of the lockdown was to keep people where they already were so that the infection is not spread. But several states, especially opposition ruled states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Delhi used various tactics to force the central govt to run the trains. But the article blames the Modi govt alone for the decision.

Talking to Sanyal in detail about the govt’s handling about the Coronavirus pandemic, but not including them in their article shows that New York Times had already decided to attack the Modi govt on the issue, and as Sanyal’s comments didn’t suit them, they didn’t include them in the article at all. This shows how international media tries to paint a negative image of India with a preconceived notion.

Although the number of India’s total Coronavirus cases is second only to the USA, it does not tell the full story, it does not tell how well India has managed the pandemic. India’s recovery rate is one of the highest, and the fatality rate is very low. Although the Shramik Special trains did contribute to spreading coronavirus, it was not at the scale the New York Times is trying to say. The Indian states most hit by Coronavirus remain the states with large number of migrant workers, not the native states of those workers. Therefore, calling the Shramik Special trains as Virus trains is also not correct.

The full conversation between New York Times journalist Suhasini Raj and Sanjeev Sanjyal can be listened on YouTube below. Please note that around 1.30 minutes at the beginning of the audio has no sound, hence you may skip to the 1.30 minute mark to listen to the audio.

It is also notable that although the audio recording is over 40 minutes long, the first half an hour has nothing to with the Shramik Special trains. They talk about the lockdown in general first, and it was towards the end where the journalist came to their point, and tried to put words in his mouth. In the entire conversation, the journalist sounded entirely disinterested in what Sanyal said and hardly bothered to ask follow up questions.

The entire saga by the New York Times is a classic example of how the western media manipulates facts when it comes to India. It is also a classic example of the strategies employed by the western media to ensure that no matter what the facts are, the narrative that they publish is not only pre-determined to deride India, but every attempt is made to ensure that the facts are not provided to the readers. When the media is not twisting words, insulting India or misquoting experts, they craftily leave out any comment, or even 40-minute long conversations that don’t suit their narrative. What is refreshing, however, is to see a government functionary not fall for these tactics. The fact that Sanjeev Sanyal recorded the conversation and refused to give the New York Times journalist a ‘controversial statement’ for them to use, shows that perhaps dealing with the media knowing fully well the strategies than can be employed to catch them on the wrong foot, should be a mandatory part of training, for every individual who wishes to. speak on behalf of the government of India, especially to the western media.

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Nupur J Sharma
Editor, OpIndia.com since October 2017

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