The New York Times posted a formal apology on its Facebook page for a cartoon that portrayed India’s space program in manner that outraged many readers.
The cartoon depicted a thin man dressed in traditional attire with a cow in tow knocking on the door of the “Elite Space Club” where two formally-dressed men appeared rather perturbed by his presence.
Many Indians have written about the cartoon’s portrayal of space exploration as an “elite” pursuit for white men sporting dapper suits and sipping wine as just plain incorrect given their country’s recent success at putting a rocket into Mars’ orbit. But it’s the depiction of the man seeking to gain entry into this “club” that’s really ruffled feathers. By drawing the Indian representative of the country’s space program as someone who looks to be a frail farmer and that of other countries as refined and sophisticated some have gone so far as to say that the cartoon is “blatantly racist.”
Twitter users responded with a sense of humor to voice their distaste at the attire of the man in the cartoon labelled “India.” It’s not just the cow, which is, to be sure, a revered animal in much of India but by no means a must have accessory for the country’s top scientists.
“We apologize to readers who were offended by the choice of images in this cartoon,” Andrew Rosenthal, the Times’ Editorial Page Editor wrote. He added that the cartoon “was in no way trying to impugn India.”
“The intent of the cartoonist, Heng Kim Song, was to highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries. Mr. Heng, who is based in Singapore, uses images and text — often in a provocative way — to make observations about international affairs,” Rosenthal wrote.
The Times ran Heng’s cartoon just a few days after India put its “Mangalyaan,” (“Mars-craft” in Hindi) into orbit around the Red Planet. The country’s foray into the Martian orbit does put it into an “elite” club. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is the fourth to take up a mission to Mars, and notably the first to do so successfully on its maiden attempt. This is even more impressive considering how “staggeringly cheap” the ISRO’s mission compared to the funds the US, Russia, and Europe have expended on similar programs.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi got a rockstar’s welcome at Madison Square Garden on the same day as the cartoon was published. He told the 19,000 the people in attendance to roaring applause, “Our forefathers used to play with snakes, but now we play with [computer] mice. And our young people spin a mouse and run the whole world.”
Song’s sketch of India as a poor, underdeveloped country drew offense from many who were, like Modi, eager to point out their country’s growing influence in the fields of science and technology.
“While we concede that there are still many cattle-rearing citizens in our country,” Alisha Coelho wrote in the India Times, “We’re still teaching a thing or two to the ‘elite space club’, who judging by this photo, appear to be a bunch of stodgy, xenophobic fogeys.”
Indian officials have pushed back against criticism for spending at least $70 million on its Mars mission at a time when more than 20 percent of the population lives below the line of poverty – though, as some ISRO scientists have pointed out, the project just a small sliver of the country’s $18 billion budget last year when the rocket was launched.
And space exploration has quickly become a major source of national pride for many Indians — and a testament to their country’s potential even amid a “brain drain” to Western countries.
Sharanya Haridas described her concerns about the cartoon in a post for The Huffington Post. She described a photo of the ISRO staff celebrating after their Mars mission was declared a success, writing, “The male engineers are wearing Western gear, while some of the female engineers are rocking traditional silk saris, the kind usually worn on special occasions, and jasmine flowers in their hair. On regular days, they work in full suits. There are no farm animals in sight at the ISRO office. And they certainly don’t look desperate for membership into some secret elite club. In fact, their jubilance says it all.”
The success of their mission speaks for itself, she concludes: “One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that.”