India has a thriving media scene, it is now the largest newspaper market in the world, and a huge television market, both of which are growing at an astounding rate. Media, is obviously important not only for informing citizens but also for the creation of a public space, where ideas pertaining to the collective well-being and consciousness of the people can be raised and discussed. The multi-lingual nature of the Indian population has given rise to a very variegated and diverse media, with journalistic traditions varying along with language and state.
A close look at the top 20 newspapers in India today and their circulation compared reveals some interesting facts.
So, the more than a quarter of Indians who read their daily news in English probably dont read the newspaper in their native languages. One must try and understand how this shapes the understanding and attitudes of the English speakers.
One has to understand that the Indian identity is a learned identity. It is not automatic, like say the identity of Germans or Tamils. Starting from birth, Indians are gradually socialized into becoming Indians through newspapers, national symbols and schooling among other things. So the exact processes of this socialization are critical in understanding how urban, English speaking Indians will behave in adulthood. My claim is that the peculiar nature of Indian mass media in English, stemming from its roots in the independence struggle is geared more towards mitigating ethnic/linguistic differences and worrying about the nation as a whole (in a pan Indian sense) rather than creating a citizenry that feels strongly about local governance and local issues.
The evidence for this can be seen by observing the headlines and the reactions from readers on the major English dailies, The Indian Express, Times of India, The Hindu. For eg, Chinese border incursions are reported heavily (and they should be) but a UN report about rising hunger in India hardly finds a mention on the front pages. This is in large part due to the fact that from their reading infancy, the issues of border security, religious/ethnic harmony are constantly emphasized by a pan-Indian English media, and the reader grows up believing that these are the core issues India faces.
Suketu Mehta’s book, “Maximum City”, has a line that says, “No one sleeps hungry in Mumbai”. For a newspaper out of a city that doesnt face hunger, whose journalists never had to venture into the countryside, the motivation to go out into the country and relentlessly pursue this issue is weak. Thus when stories about starvation and hunger appear in the English media, they are posed as shockers, or ‘reminders of the other India’ , the key point is that they are clearly not part of the normative discourse of the English media. They are reported, but reported as if they somehow lie outside the ambit of normal Indianness.
It is known that for the Indian language media, which now makes up the vast majority of India’s media space, the priorities are vastly different. Unfortunately, they dont have the reach to the English educated elite, who have much of the knowledge and resources to clamor for a more responsive and responsible government. The middle class did not simply secede one day, it has been socialized and programmed to be in a state of mental secession. The only solution that the coming generations follow news (just like they follow entertainment) in Indian languages as well as English. Otherwise, the prospect of collective action between the middle and oppressed classes to influence the government looks bleak. Middle India will keep judging the state by how many flyovers and NITs it builds, while the vast underclass will keep scrambling for food.