Posted on / by Diksha Bharti / in Short

India’s Lunar Landing Spurs Geopolitical Narratives

Media reactions to India’s lunar landing reveal geopolitical undercurrents, question the mission’s importance, and showcase post-colonial sentiments.

Geopolitical underpinnings have increasingly seeped into global media coverage surrounding spacefaring missions. In 1969, when American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to land on the Moon, the banner headline on the front page of the German paper Bild said “The Moon is now American”. 

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully landed its Chandrayaan-3 Lander Module on the surface of the Moon on August 23. Soon after this triumph, the same paper asked “Who owns the Moon now” in a rather positive tone even as back home, the front page of The Indian Express had then declared that “the Moon is Indian ” mimicking Bild’s headline in 1969. 

However, not all Indian journalists seemed to share the same excitement and pride. Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of ‘The Wire,’ offered a critique of The Indian Express headline, deeming it as ‘crass’, raising questions on the apparent double standards and the underlying reasons for labeling an analogous action by an Indian media entity as ‘crass.’

While most Western media entities largely hailed Chandrayaan-3’s historic triumph, certain sections, unfortunately, indulged in superfluous commentary, diminishing the significance of the achievement.

Tracing the Coverage of the Western Media

Phys Org, a science journal headquartered in the UK, published an article on July 14, titled ‘India launches cut-price mission to land on Moon’ and chose to focus on some irrelevant things. 

“The Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft will take much longer to reach the Moon than the manned Apollo missions of the 1960s and 1970s, which arrived in a matter of days. The Indian rocket used is much less powerful than the United States’ Saturn V.” It is important to understand the context and the aim of a space mission rather than focusing on the number of days it takes to land on the moon. This was not a race to the moon, but rather about being the first-ever nation to land on a part of the moon closest to the Southern pole. It is interesting to note that the now-crashed Luna-25 lander mission was supposed to reach the Moon sooner than Chandrayaan-3. 

The piece also targeted Indian innovation by making a bizarre statement that India is “copying” existing space technology.

“Experts say India can keep costs low by copying and adapting existing space technology, and thanks to an abundance of highly skilled engineers who earn a fraction of their foreign counterparts’ wages.”

In another piece published on August 5, titled ‘Indian lunar landing mission enters moon’s orbit’, Phys Org resorted to the exact same tactics. It is bemusing to see that this story has the exact same sentences as quoted above. 

“Experts say India can keep costs low by copying and adapting existing space technology, and thanks to an abundance of highly skilled engineers who earn a fraction of their foreign counterparts’ wages.”

This is not a joke. 

Another news agency, the Guardian makes some irrelevant notes on the speed of the Chandrayaan-3 lander. It reads that it took Chandrayaan-3 “much longer to reach the moon than the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 1970s, which arrived in a matter of days” and “India is using rockets much less powerful than the US did back then.” The reason these comparisons are so unnecessary is owing to the fact that frugal innovation by ISRO is what first helped the world, including NASA officially confirming that there was Ice present at the Moon’s poles. The M3 (Moon Mineralogy Mapper) instrument of NASA was aboard Chandrayaan-1 in the 2008 mission and this helped confirm the presence of Ice on the moon. 

Reuters on the other hand compared the budget allocation of ISRO with that of NASA. This is a very naive way of reporting a scientific achievement. Firstly, ISRO has nowhere officially quoted the overall value of these projects. Secondly, the raw materials, and the supply chain all matter when it comes to putting together such a grand project. None of these are considered when it comes to approximating the costs involved. 

On September 28, 2014, just as India celebrated the rare feat it had achieved just days ago by successfully putting the Mangalyaan probe into orbit around Mars, the New York Times (NYT) published a cartoon that had millions across the country fuming.

Phys Org has once again reminded its readers of this cartoon in its headline by quoting “India lands a spacecraft near the moon’s south pole, a first for the world as it joins elite club“.

The Western media will have you believe that space exploration is only for a few “rich” nations. 

Connecting India’s space exploration with Political aspirations

The article also maintained a balanced emphasis on both Modi and the mission, notably underlining the potential impact of Chandrayaan’s triumph on Modi’s favorability leading up to a pivotal 2024 general election. This prompts a pertinent inquiry into the determination of the “elite club” and the underlying rationale for its consistent characterization as ‘elite,’ particularly in light of extensive colonial histories. Also, how many times have the Western media connected the electoral intentions of American Presidents when it comes to the achievements of NASA?

The phenomenon of media spotlighting space explorations as a means to project geopolitical strength, especially within Asian nations, is not novel. A recent example is evident from 2019 when India encountered setbacks with its second lunar mission, Chandrayaan 2. NPR, in its news coverage, took care to underscore India and China’s aspirations for a perception of ‘strength.’ These narratives inadvertently perpetuate a hierarchy that places the achievements of countries from the global south in a comparatively diminished position in the discourse surrounding accomplishments within the realm of Asian countries. With India being the fifth-largest GDP around the world, we must ask, who decides the ‘global elite?’

The New York Times in their piece on India’s moon landing, majorly speaks on Mr. Modi’s tenure, unemployment, secularism, alleged suppression of minorities, politics, and scheduled elections next year. Looks like they still hold onto the 2014 cartoon while covering the achievements of Indian space exploration. 

One may wonder why it was necessary to talk about the downsides of a country as big as India when the article is titled “India’s Moon Landing Offers Blueprint For Other Countries Dreaming Big“. A country this big is bound to have challenges in its steady progress, considering it has been a democratic country since its inception and when countries one-fourth of its size struggle with constant instability owing to coup d’état’s, terrorism, poverty, religious extremism, and so on.

Reuters, the international news agency, took the wet-blanket approach to a much more egregious level. Only four nations have managed to successfully reach the moon – America, Russia, China, and now, India. And yet, they actually labeled the landing locations of the first three countries by name, and labeled India, the fourth, as ‘Other’.

When this was raised on social media, their editorial team quickly changed it by adding ‘India’ to the list of labels. They were perhaps following the age-old binary of postcolonial studies of ‘Us’ and the ‘Other.’

The Colonial Hangover continues

Upon Chandrayaan-3’s triumphant lunar landing at the South Pole, the British media demonstrated an evident implicit bias. This sentiment is encapsulated in the headline of Daily Mail, the United Kingdom’s widely circulated tabloid: “NASA displays sportsmanship by extending congratulations to India for outpacing the US in reaching the moon’s South Pole – YET Russia and China maintain silence following the historic achievement of the Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft. They have perhaps forgotten that Man’s space exploration since its initiation has always been a joint and collaborative effort between countries, regions, and agencies. When there is collaboration, there is no need for sportsmanship, as everyone is on the same team. Team Earth!

Sophie Corcoran, a distinguished British political broadcaster, voices inquiries regarding the financial assistance extended to India by the UK and wants to have the money back. It appears that her sentiments stem from a sense of dissatisfaction arising from Britain’s comparatively limited or no involvement in space exploration. This frustration becomes evident particularly at a juncture when a “developing nation” that they once colonized and plundered has successfully accomplished an unprecedented achievement. The editor of the publication ‘British Muslim’ echoes this sentiment by characterizing the lunar mission as a misallocation of resources and emphasizes the perspective of poverty. 

Following the footsteps, Patrick Christys of GB News in his racially superior approach, archly asked his government why they continue to give aid to a nation that wasted its resources on vanity missions to the moon instead of eradicating poverty and also asked to return aid of € 2.3 billion sent by the UK but to his dismay, since 2015 the UK has given no financial aid to the government of India. Most of India’s funding now is focused on business investments which help create new markets and jobs for the UK. Now in 2023, when India’s GDP has already surpassed that of the UK, it goes without saying how the UK’s aid programme has become totally inconsequential. Colonial hangover much? 

With the dwindling influence of the UK in International diplomacy and Foreign affairs, it is understandable that certain sections of the UK media and society are feeling despondent to see their once-colonized nation overtaking them in terms of GDP as well as in space. Winston Churchill once said “If Independence is granted to India, power will go to rascals, rogues; all Indian leaders will be of low caliber and men of straw. They will fight amongst themselves for power & India will be lost in political squabbles”. Clearly, this is what our colonizers would have expected.

Elsewhere, leading Australian broadcaster ABC pointed out that the mission is “also a win for Mr Modi’s government which is showing off India as a leader in technology and an assertive global superpower.” This comment is as absurd as it gets. India is one of the highest exporters of Information technology services and high-end technology software. Indian-born and Indian-origin experts lead many of the top technological firms in the world, including Google and Microsoft. India, in 2023 does not need to “show off” its technical capability to the world. 

The ABC also uses the familiar line of questioning the need for such a pursuit. 

“Critics of the mission have questioned its importance while hundreds of millions of Indians are still battling rough living conditions.”

Avani Das, correspondent at ABC News in Australia, asserts that Prime Minister Narendra Modi strives to establish his image as a technological pioneer. She directs scrutiny toward India’s lunar mission by raising concerns about the allocation of resources to space endeavors while a significant portion of the population grapples with poverty. Evidently, the theme of ‘poverty’ emerges as a shared thread linking critics of the mission. It is noteworthy that the reporter has subsequently opted to make her personal account on Twitter/X private.

It is a rare occurrence when first-world countries truly rejoice in the progress of a third-world country. The attempt to overshadow the historic feat with insignificant juxtapositions highlights the same sentiment.

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this are those of the author and not necessarily WeThePress.



Leave a Reply