Posted by: Vikram | October 20, 2009

The trouble with reading India in English

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.


  1. Indians also refract technology through their ancient social lenses and let the light that falls on the other side reflect their old prejudices and insecurities. — Ajit Balkrishnan.

    Vikram,English is just a medium which is used by elite Indians to cast their authority over illiterate country. So whole rise in the journalism and telvision goes in vain as rich and elite Indians already english educated have captured the market. There is even 2 india inside english reading country: the majority talking about GDP as their status symbol of the country and minority lamenting over low HDI overall.

    You point it correctly that “The middle class did not simply secede one day, it has been socialized and programmed to be in a state of mental secession. ” Rise of middle class is good event as help in redistribution of income more even way. Still the version of our middle class is more alienation to their roots (village) than reform at ground level.

    A sense of nationalsim is taking over India powered by media. It dismisses its poverty, hunger and slums with eyeing towards america as model of democracy and power. Things are pretty savage at the grassroots level and quite neglected by armchair journalism by news channels in India irrespective of language. The chaos in the society is always caused by group of persons who had hardly travelled, and relied for information on policy documents and the reports of media personalities sitting interviewing elite or middle-class contacts in big cities. Hence, their narrow idea of the world never captures the whole scenario. Despite the Internet and the revolution in communications, there is still no substitute of foot soldier work needed for journalism. A blogger Sunil Mukhi point it quite easy way:

    “The person who brings inconvenient facts to our attention is frequently a foreigner. Being extraneous to the system, foreigners can expose our hypocrisies quite easily. Moreover, people from continental Europe have been schooled on “liberty equality fraternity” and naturally find our social contrasts shocking. ” for more

    • Yayaver, whether English is a tool of oppression in India today depends on access to English education. This access is, generally poor, due to neglect of the education system in general and not realizing the economic importance of the language.

      So I guess one long term solution is eventually, almost all Indians speaking English and I guess that what we seem to be heading towards, although this will take generations.

  2. I am really not sure that ‘India’ is an identity that is an acquired one in all cases. Nor has English got everything to do with it.

    People of the generation that I have seen knew no English or even Hindi. But I do not remember not knowing my Indian identity ever. It was given to me at home. Freedom fighters led by Mahatma Gandhi, who rarely spoke in English, did not have to be told that they were Indians.

    I, in fact, learnt of other identities and the boundaries between them much, much later, thanks primarily to the kind of political system we have, and some obnoxious social practices that I experienced.

    Today there is big divide between India ad Bharat, as you have rightly observed. And that has been caused mainly by the English speaking elite which identifies with the West rather than poor Indians in the hinterland. It is this lot that does not want to look within, is even ashamed to do so. Many of India’s ills are due to the mental secession of this lot.

    • Sharmaji, the key point here is that you spoke of people of your generation. But I think things are different today, English speaking Indians have created their own India, in mind and space. This comprises media, entertainment and a whole set of social practices. I am trying to understand the roots of the elite’s mental secession here and I feel that English has a lot to do with it.

  3. I find the style of reporting inane and the priorities of the English media highly skewed.

    I can’t help but feel shocked when English newspapers refer to our poor as belonging to some foreign country.

    My experience with regional channels has been better though, (Not referring to the lousy Hindi channels.) but I confess I’m not much into news in languages other than English.

    A Marathi news channel once had this very informative talkshow on the importance of veterinary professionals, with actual veterinary science students. Very interesting.

    Such discussions are rarely seen on English news channels. Their “debates” consist of middle-class people crying with their journalists :P, rather than focussing on solutions.

    It’s the middle-class’ shunning of responsibility and their useless criticisms. We blindly ape the west and seem to be smitten by the US. The point about Bollywood movies being more about the Indian diaspora and the Indian elite is also quite interesting in this regard.

    Good post, once again.
    Do you study social science??

    My area of research is Computational Science. But I have a keen interest in Social Science, I read a lot of papers and books on the subject. Also, this blog is an effort to share what I have learnt and learn from others.

  4. One more thing, I find most English newsmedia lack objectivity and they’re highly biased, brazenly pro-Congress and almost anti-Hindu !

    Real issues are seldom discussed during election-time. It’s always the “secular” Congress Vs. “Communal” BJP

    It’s almost propaganda.

    During the runup to the Lok Sabha elections this year, I saw not a single news channel focus on issues like education, poverty, internal security,etc.

    As always, it was the “secular” congress and the “rabidly communal” BJP and the stupid Ram Temple and Babri Masjid tamasha all over again. The 2009 elections again became a farcical ideological war again only because of the “liberal” English media and its “secular” leanings.

    All this is again because of their inability to identify with the rural poor, as you rightly pointed out.

    • “During the runup to the Lok Sabha elections this year, I saw not a single news channel focus on issues like education, poverty, internal security,etc.”

      I am getting the feeling that elections are almost becoming some kind of reality show for the country’s elite. Some kind of pathetic show thats entertainment of a kind. Its really a sad reflection on the state of things.

  5. English newspaper readers are a different lot as compared to vernacular papers. Possibly because the English newspapers are not confined to a region alone, they are national newspapers with different editions. Whereas the vernacular papers have a more local flavour. More than the circulation of the newspaper, the readership data reveals more about the reader. It may not be a true picture since the sample size is so small and it is extrapolated to the larger population, however it does give some insight. The readership classification based on the SEC and his lifestyle rather than the income group probably answers the question as to what makes the front page of the english newspaper. I once heard a TOI editor stating that each edition has its own editor and he has the liberty to decide which news item makes it to the front page. A fire in a slum, he declared, may not be the news item an English newspaper reader is interested in, so it is tucked away to some inner left hand page.

  6. @ Everybody, I apologise for the late replies.

    • Don’t appologise for such minor delay. I think that You are doing these followup on weekends.. Great more sense of attachment to problems than to chill out 🙂
      I am making to make my future in rural development in coming years shifting from IT field. If you change your sides from Computational Science to social sector, I will be ready to work with you in coming times (3 years or more)

      • yayaver, will send you an email about this soon.

  7. Vikram, although it is worth thinking about the points you have raised I do not think the regional language media is doing such a great job and talking about the real India and the English media is not. I think mainline newspapers can be compared to mainline cinema, whichever their language and they cater to a certain kind of audience.

  8. I am trying to understand the roots of the elite’s mental secession here and I feel that English has a lot to do with it.

    Vikram, Pankaj Misra’s ‘temptations of the wests’ may shed some light on this. Indian middle class’ roots start out in our erstwhile bourgeois British Raj and the middle class they needed to govern Indians.

    Vikram, Yayaver – I am also considering a change of line – something more along legal advocacy- to human rights.

    • Vinod, are you thinking of doing this in India or Singapore ?

    • In India.

  9. While the English media does seem to be alienated from the rest of India, I don’t think the vernacular papers are doing a great job either. I don’t want to generalise because Tamil newspapers and newschannels are the only Indian language ones I read and see and my experience is that English newspapers are far more responsible (except TOI ) than the vernacular papers.

    Often these papers tiilt towards sensationalism and carry gory pictures only to increase their market. They carry unsusbstantiated and unverified news and show very less restraint when compared to national papers.

    Yes,they do cover local issue better but not necessarily issues about poverty and other important subjects. Sometimes outright trivial stuff would come up in the front page and you’d be left wondering if this was the most important issue for the day..

    But yeah, I do agree, English newspapers are mostly concerned about national security and integrity more than about reporting issues about rural India.

    Things will start to change once the hegemony of urban, upper caste people in the newsmedia and newspapers break down and more journalists and news reporters come from rural areas and the lower castes. I wonder if we even have a single dalit news reporter in any of the major media houses..

    • Rags, in a system where the most intellectually gifted enter fields like engineering and medicine, by default, one must not be surprised that the quality of journalism and journalistic studies remains low. And in a society where the best education is given to those taking it in English, it must come as no surprise that the quality of journalists and editors in the local language presses is not very good.

      There are a few Dalit journalists, Chandra Bhan Prasad is one example I can think of.

      • I was quite impressed by this piece discovered your blog through twitter.
        I think its right that the intellectually gifted go to productive professions otherwise we will become another america with no quality engineers, and only managers and lawyers!!(and an economy that is imaginary !)

        Journalism in its original form is dead, as they have shown themselves to have no integrity.

        our only hope is that local groups make grassroots movement like the mynetainfo site
        That was a great move.

        Thanks Jayanth. America does face a crisis in labour, but the real problem is importing everything from its chief political and economic competitor.

        And yes, local grassroots groups are on of our biggest hopes.

  10. news paper publishing is a is owned by industrialists to further their cause.If it is published on a smaller scale the publisher is busy collecting advertisements,not real news.

    If hunger pays it will be published.if poverty pays it will be published. i have become quite cynical about news items. Even if it raises an issue i tend to suspect the motive behind its publication.

    I have yet to come across a genuinely unbiased news paper in hindi or english.

  11. Hi,

    Its rare to find bloggers of this quality writing such meaningful posts. Three cheers for all your posts man!!!


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  12. […] 4: See, […]

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