VOL I
December 2000

ISSN 1473-219X

 

 

 





Robin Jeffrey, India's Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian Language Press, St Martins Press (2000), ISBN 0312232535, 256pp, $47.45.

While working as a journalist in London, a fellow scribe was surprised to see me reading a book of poems by the late Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Pakistan's best known progressive poet. The book was in Hindi but the poetry – in Devallagiri script – was in Urdu, by one of the greatest poets of that Iyrical language. My Nigerian colleague was surprised – he had always seen Indians read English-language books and assumed that 'every' educated Indian read and spoke English.

The reality is that only three per cent of India's one billion people speak English as the first language – although it carries a disproportionate degree of social and intellectual prestige, perhaps a reflection of the colonial hangover. In a multi-lingual country like India (400 languages are spoken across the country, while the Indian Constitution recognises 18 languages), language is a crucial element of cultural self-expression. Reflecting its colonial history, In India, English remains the favoured language of the national judiciary and bureaucracy, higher education and the corporate sector, while Hindi, with its regional variations, is the most widely spoken language. Based on the 1991 census figures, Hindi is spoken as a first language by nearly 40 per cent of India's population – more than 337 million. The usage of English in India signifies a particular social class, with its attendant power and influence. Competence in the language privileges the user in the most important social areas – for example in acquiring top jobs in government and commerce.

Despite the influence of the English language in India, the biggest media growth is in regional languages – the 1999 National Readership Survey in India showed that not one English-language daily could be found in the top ten newspapers in terms of their readerships. The non-English and therefore non-elitist media have largely been ignored by academics in India and abroad.

Now Robin Jeffrey has produced the first comprehensive study of the extraordinary growth of newspapers in Indian languages. Jeffrey, Professor of Politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, has had a long relationship with India. He was a schoolteacher in the country and has also studied the Nayyar community in southem India. Before this study, he had written a series of articles in 1997 on the various language newspapers in India for the Economic and Political Weekly, and the feedback that he received made an important contribution to enriching the book.

Jeffrey takes a historical perspective in analysing what he rightly calls 'India's newspaper revolution.' The book is based on extensive research, including detailed interviews with journalists, managers and owners of India's myriad newspaper chains. As Jeffrey observes: 'The content of successful Indian-language newspapers was subtlely local and rarely dull. In some circumstances, they could powerfully bolster political parties and movements opposed to the central Government of the day. But the overall thrust of their news-gathering and dissemination was to propagate subliminal ideas about the existence and legitimacy of an Indian state and an Indian nation.' (page 9)

Most Indian language newspapers have their roots in the anti-colonial movement and, therefore, it was scarcely surprising, notes Jeffrey, that journalists working for these newspapers saw their task as following the developmental agenda set by an activist state. For its part, the Government subsidised these newspapers through providing them with cheap newsprint and public-sector advertising. There is little doubt that the relative autonomy of the print media significantly contributed to the evolution of multi-party democracy in India. It has been argued that a proactive press also contributed to the evolution of an early-warning system for serious food shortages and thus a preventive mechanism against famine – in Independent India there have been no cases of famine, though malnutrition continues to be a scourge among the poorest Indians.

With the growing population and an increasing, albeit slowly, rate of literacy, the print media experienced unprecedented growth. This, Jeffrey shows, was demonstrable in the daily circulation of newspapers which showed a fourteenfold rise over four decades – from 2.9 million in 1956 to more than 40 million by 1996. According to the 1999 National Readership Survey, the print media reached 242 million Indians. However, there remain significant regional variations in the use of print media, given that the growth in newspaper circulation has a close relationship with literacy levels. In Kerala, a province with near-total literacy, 71 per cent of the population read at least one newspaper or magazine (it is no coincidence that India's largest-selling weekly, Malayala Manorama, is published in Malayalam, the dominant language of this southern Indian state), while in Bihar, one of India's poorest states – with just 45 per cent literacy – only 15 per cent of the population read newspapers or magazines. The changing contours of national politics, with regional parties taking centre-stage, has given a new impetus to newspapers in Indian languages. In 1997 there were 16-864 newspapers and magazine titles in Hindi, compared to 6-277 in English, according to Government figures. Other major Indian languages with more than 1000 publications were: Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati and Malyalam. According to the Indian Newspaper Society, newspapers and magazines in Indian languages sell four times more than India's English language publications.

Jeffrey demonstrates how India's major media houses have traditionally dominated newspaper circulation, with the top ten newspaper groups accounting for nearly half of the total national newspaper circulation. All the major groups also have strong presence in Indian language publications. For example, The Times of India Group, the most powerful, accounting for nearly 10 per cent of daily circulation, has apart from English, publications in Gujarati, Hindi and Marathi, while the Indian Express Group publishes newspapers and magazines in English, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu.

Jeffrey believes that, given the size of the market for Indian languages, the future for such newspapers is secure. However, some analysts do not share his optimism. With the entry of transnational media corporations into India in the wake of globalisation, there are concerns about the independence of the Indian press. The incumbent pro-business coalition government in Delhi is encouraging foreign investment in the print media, hitherto jealously guarded as a national asset, prompting one senior journalist to comment: 'If the concept of the fourth estate is accepted in relation to the press, there are as many good reasons for not opening it up to foreigners as in the case of the other three, executive, legislature and judiciary. Imagine foreigners taking part in the country's politics, floating parties, contesting elections and finding representation in the legislature or a place in the executive!'


Daya Kishan Thussu,
University of North London

 


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