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A newspaper is a cheap status symbol. For the price of a cup of tea, you can impress the neighbours. "What do you do if you are unemployed?" a Malayali friend used to say about Kerala in the 1970s. "You buy a diary and go to Trivandrum." The diary suggested you were an important person, and you bustled round the state capital, looking as if you were on the way to engagements. It used to be said of the grey, conservative Daily Telegraph in Britain that you didn’t read it, but you bought it, because it made the neighbours think you were ‘deeper’ than if you bought the lower-brow Express or Daily Mail.
But what’s the fuss about? Is newspaper reading important? You bet your boots and chappals that it is. It changes the way people connect to the world. The Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan sometimes claimed that exposure to print was the necessary condition for mass production and the industrial revolution. The implication was that until people were accustomed every day to seeing ordered lines of type, in a line, in columns, with a beginning and end, they weren’t ready for factory life. Writers on ‘nationalism’ put the newspaper at the centre of ideas about the modern nation. How can a person in Chennai imagine they have something in common with a person in Jalandhar if they do not read ‘Indian weather maps’, ‘Indian sports reports’ and such in a newspaper every morning? "Newspapers," someone once said, "give the nation the chance to have breakfast together." The great Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi runs the line in English under its masthead: "The national daily in Malayalam." It’s a subtle statement about the partly unconscious role that newspapers perform.
Then there’s the ‘public sphere’, a concept often associated with the German social theorist Jurgen Habermas. The ‘public sphere’ is that ‘space’ between family life and the State or government where people in modern times carry on debate about how their world is going and how it ought to go. The public sphere and newspapers grow up together. One can’t have Habermas’ public sphere without the presence of the newspaper.
If there is any validity in contentions such as these, what does it mean for politics in India? Newspaper exposure in India is now as great as it was in Britain or the US, when vigorous two-party democracies entrenched themselves in the middle of the 19th century.
In a thoughtful, critical review of India’s Newspaper Revolution in the Economic and Political Weekly (July 27, 2002), Krishna Kumar argues that the local-content emphasis of expanding Indian-language dailies has led to "the fragmentation of the public sphere." By this he means, I think, that "some of the largest circulation dailies" ignore great national issues — "the grim implications of… the nexus between politicians and criminals, communal propaganda of the Sangh institutions and the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan." Most Indian language dailies "have parochialised the reader" by covering national issues only in the most casual, unthinking way. According to this interpretation, the spread of the Hindi daily press has contributed to trivialising public life and distracting people from the serious concerns of the nation.
I would argue a bit differently: public spheres have not so much been fragmented as created. In rural India thirty years ago, a newspaper might have reached a high-caste pensioner or schoolteacher every week or so. It would have contained translated material from English-language newspapers in the great cities or from wire services. But in the same village in the 1990s, Dainik Bhaskar and Rajasthan Patrika — with colour photos, lots of advertisements, big headlines and racy language — arrive in time for breakfast every morning.
What do such papers say and do? It is true that they cover local news, deep and wide. Peter Friedlander, an Australian-based scholar of Hindi, examined such local coverage in Punjab Kesari and Dainik Jagran after the nuclear tests in 1998. One of his examples suggests the creation of a public sphere where in the past no such possibility could have existed:
"Telephone pole: may fall down at any time
Jalandhar, 4 June (Rajendra). The residents of the Laksmipura area have demanded the removal of telephone pole number 2219 because it is half uprooted and might fall down any moment and cause an accident. It is noteworthy that it is tied up with rope."
This is the most basic sort of village-ghat journalism. What did the residents of Laksmipura do before there were newspapers to proclaim the danger of Telephone Pole No. 2219?
Such stories are repeated every day wherever local dailies are produced. Because of the indignation they can breed, and the fact that such reports endure — they are part of the public record — citizens relish them, buy the newspapers to read about them, and officials are forced to take note of them. If Telephone Pole No. 2219 falls down and injures someone in three months’ time, angry citizens will point out that it was a public issue long before. Heads may be expected to roll. Therefore, before that, the mills of the administrative gods may be expected to grind, and Telephone Pole No. 2219 may get repaired. That’s how a ‘public sphere’ can work. To be sure, these are not nation-shaking debates; but in thousands of small ways, they are nation-building and citizen-empowering.
Public spheres — abstract arenas where citizens have an opportunity to reflect on what concerns them — do not have to be liberal, positive or scientific. Indeed, the owners of Indian-language newspapers, especially in north India, come from social groups that one might expect to be sympathetic to the sentiments of the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The Chopras of Punjab Kesari, the Kotharis of Rajasthan Patrika, the Guptas of Dainik Jagran, the Agarwals and Maheswaris of Amar Ujala and the Agarwals of Dainik Bhaskar might all appear, at first glance at least, to come from the urban, merchant-caste, north Indian tradition that was once considered the soil of the Jana Sangh and then the BJP. If a number of the Hindi dailies colour the world saffron, that isn’t surprising. What may be regrettable is that there are not enough Hindi newspapers capable of painting a multi-coloured world.
In his prize-winning book Politics after Television, Arvind Rajagopal argues that India has a "split public" — an English-using big-city elite and, in north India, a Hindi-using majority in the small towns and countryside. The formulation recalls earlier suggestions that the country was divided between ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’. For Rajagopal, Hindi-language publications provide a much more potent site for Hindu-majoritarian ideas than they do for arguments about secularism, science and rationalism. This is not to say that this expanding Hindi press does not create a public sphere. Rather, it is to say that the most effective songs in the public sphere so created are those sung by Hindu-chauvinist choristers.
You can’t have a public sphere — a place where people who don’t know each other and never see each other contend about how the world should work — without media. And the print medium, especially the daily newspaper, is the original, and still a fundamental, component of such a space. For much of India, particularly rural north India, regular exposure to print in this way is an experience of the past fifteen years. It is not that people’s public sphere has been fragmented; rather, they have entered a public sphere for the first time. It is not the coffee houses of eighteenth century London (a la Habermas), or the Indian Coffee House of yesteryear’s Connaught Place; but it is a public sphere nonetheless.
For those of us who would like to believe that literacy, reading and newspapers lead to rationality, reflection and debate, the problem is that it ain’t necessarily so. A public sphere can just as easily be shaped and colonised by metaphysical bigots who advocate the eradication of all those who oppose them. In the case of Hindi in north India, the newspapers that have entered the lives of millions of people in the past fifteen years use metaphors and cadences that often have powerful Hindu overtones, in keeping with the background of the proprietors and the journalists they hire. (You are unlikely to get a steady job on a Hindi daily unless someone near the top thinks you are reliable. But that might be said to apply to senior editors on Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers too.)
Arvind Rajagopal captures these ideas of language and metaphor in Politics after Television. Hindi media, he writes, use "forms of expression, principally religious in character, that were excluded from the English language media". In "fluent and racy prose", Hindi-language newspapers transmit different information in a different way from English-language newspapers. In Hindi, at least, Hindu-chauvinist politics have an advantage because they work with vocabulary, allusions and images that are part of the cultural landscape. Translations of English language or English ideas into Hindi do not resonate in the same way. There is nothing soul-stirring in agni-rath-chalna-chalanan-niyantran-pattika; probably better to stick to ‘railway signal’.
The mass politics, which grow with mass markets and the newspaper revolution, will favour Hindu chauvinist exponents until those who have other ideas find an effective vocabulary in Hindi. It appears that not enough of those of the ‘secular’ persuasion write well enough or often enough in Hindi. I was once at a seminar where, after listening to a very distinguished scholar from one of India’s finest universities, an exasperated hill Brahmin, who was a teacher of Hindi overseas, said, "But Professor Blank, you never write in Hindi, and when they translate you, it doesn’t read well."
The newspaper revolution is part of capitalism, but it is neutral in struggles between ‘liberal democracy’ and ‘religious majoritarianism’. If advertisers can still advertise and proprietors can still sell ads, newspapers will simply reflect the contests that their readers think are important and that their proprietors therefore think should be written about. If foreigners take advantage of the new rules allowing investment in Indian newspapers (up to 26 per cent), it will be because they judge that readers, and the advertisers who pursue them, will continue to flock to newspapers. The foreign interests will be less interested in the content of the newspapers than in the revenue.
In the midst of struggles between great proprietors, and struggles for the soul of the Indian State, millions of ordinary people will use newspapers to draw attention to themselves and their concerns. In this, they are deploying a weapon their forebears did not have. This is the newspaper revolution, and it is making India a different place.
The image in my mind is the new, sparkling white production centre of Eenadu in Rajahmundri in the Godavari delta in 1993. The tallest building in the town, it dwarfed any government office, school, temple, church or mosque. And it was becoming a central institution in people’s lives. It is no wonder that powerful people want to own and operate such institutions. It is time for an Indian Citizen Kane.
p. 1 p. 2
1. Where these numbers come from is a story in itself. The Registrar of Newspapers for India and the ABC are the two sources I consult. There is an essay considering the virtues and vices of each in the journal Asian Survey for September 1994.
2. The five centres were Gwalior, Bhopal, Indore, Bilaspur and Raipur.
3. Punjab Kesari, June 5, 1998, p. 10.
4. Arvind Rajagopal, Politics After Television: Religious Nationalism and the Retailing of Hinduness, Cambridge, 2001.
Robin jeffrey is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and President, Asian Studies Association of Australia. His book 'India's Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian-Language Press' (2000) will be republished by OUP later this year