A recurring theme on this blog has been the connections and disconnects between English speaking and ‘vernacular’ India. The recent expansion in Indian language news channels and media, preceded by the expansion in the Indian language newspaper market has brought television to the fore, as a powerful new force in the evolving Indian society. It is the implications of this expansion that journalist and scholar Nalin Mehta, brings out in his book chapter “Breaking News, Indian Style” in the book “Popular culture in a globalized India.”
Mehta starts off by talking about this interesting scene from the Deepa Mehta movie, “1947 Earth” (starts at 3.30 in the video),
Describing the scene Mehta writes,
the helpless expressions on the faces of the silenced protagonists say it all:they do not understand a word of what is being said but …. do not seem to want to admit their ignorance …. until they decide that there is no point in listening further.
Mehta then describes his own experience in Mumbai in the wake of the arrest of MNS chief, Raj Thackeray. When he went to Congress MP Sanjay Nirupam’s office, every policeman and party worker had an opinion to share with each other when the TV was showing the coverage of the arrest on a Marathi news channel. But, the moment it switched to an English channel all the discussion stopped. When someone switched back to the Marathi channel,
It was like someone had switched on a light in the dark.
Of course, nobody wants to hear news in a language they can barely understand. But what is to be noticed is the discussion that accompanied the Marathi coverage. People are not simple consumers of news, they absorb the news when it is presented in a familiar and appealing manner, not when it is delivered in the anglicized mannerisms of the English anchors. The difference between English and Indian language news channels is not simply in language but also in the culture of news presentation, correspondingly their impact is also very different. Indian language news channels have, in Mehta’s words,
engendered a transformation in India’s political and public culture, the nature of the state and expressions of Indian nationhood.
The English news channels have created new programming and expanded the understanding and knowledge of a class of people who were already part of India’s deliberative sphere through newspapers and other print media. But Indian language channels seem to have created a brand new deliberative space with space for citizens who were previously unable to participate in the debates of Indian democracy.
Mehta provides specific examples to illustrate his ideas and provide evidence for his claims. He starts with Vidarbha in Maharashtra, where the daily coverage of farmer suicide stories irked an MLA (whose constituency was also covered) into calling the channel’s head office and wanting the story pulled off the air. Mehta quotes the channel’s managing editor,
We have done many similar stories on farmer suicides on our English and Hindi channels but never have I received a phone call from any minister or elected representative. ….. If you show something to people in the language that they speak then it percolates down to the grassroots.
Mehta then moves east, to Kolkata, where he describes the debates initiated by the Star Ananda channel before the Kolkata municipal election. The debates, conducted by an anchor from the channel in the city’s open space attracted upto 10,000 people on site and,
unleashed political passions and for the first two weeks, mini-riots broke out during virtually every one of the daily events.
This even prompted the police commissioner of Kolkata to ask that Star Ananda pull off the debates from the air, but the channel editor instead appeared on air and appealed to the city’s democratic ethos and the Bengali tradition of deliberation.
The public appeal to democratic principles and Bengali-ness worked and the political violence ceased within two weeks. Many localities in Kolkata began to invite the channel to hold similar debates
These episodes highlight the impact and reach of the Indian language media, not only in terms of providing previously uninformed voters with information but also behaving as an independent political actor, capable of influencing people’s actions based on the attitude and utterances of the channel editors.
From Bengal, Mehta moves to Chhattisgarh, where he describes the shadowy tactics employed by supporters of the incumbent Chief Minister Ajit Jogi to ensure his victory in the 2003 Assembly elections,
Every time any of the news channels broadcast a news item that was even mildly critical of the then chief minister Ajit Jogi, it was blanked from the air, …. supporters of the CM had set up a state-wide private televison network, Akash TV that bought over, or took control of, cable distribution networks across Chattisgarh and this provided an easy mechanism for controlling the broadcast
This abuse of media by Jogi was an important issue in the election campaign of the BJP and on his defeat, BJP supporters took over the studios of Akash TV. Media, thus not only became a political tool to influence an election but an election issue itself. Patronage (or even control) of news channels by local political actors is quite prevalent in India, with Tamil Nadu being the most quoted example. But Mehta says that ‘independent’ news channels continue to thrive, answerable to no one except their owners.
It is interesting at this point to compare Mehta’s evaluation of the Indian media to that of Daya Kishan Thissu, that I had brought forward in a post almost a year and a half ago. Thussu had talked about the English language media and lamented its lack of quality and integrity,
It could have been a different story: globalization could have elevated Indian television news to an international level, given the advantage of having emerged from a vigorously autonomous, critically informed and English-fluent journalistic culture, ….. However, the market, Murdoch and Murdochization seem to have militated against such a prospect.
Thussu’s point still stands, the Indian media is still driven by ratings and profits, however Mehta’s on the ground experience leads him to conclude,
in a local language channel important stories that are cut out of national networks – due to commercial constraints – do find space. This is not because of any altruistic reason but because on this platform, local stories make imminent commercial sense. … Indian television thrives on programming genres that marry older argumentative traditions with new technology and notions of liberal democracy to create new hybrid forms that strengthen democratic culture.
It is now upto India’s civil society and well meaning citizens to utilize the power of local media to improve their lives and Indian democracy.