A. S. PANNEERSELVAN
HEADLINES FROM THE HEARTLAND — Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere: Sevanti Ninan; Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B1/11, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 395.
“We need a Hindi version of Citizen Kane. The time is right for it. The Indian newspaper industry throbs with the buccaneer capitalism, Himalayan egos and desperate politics of New York in the 1890s. India is transforming itself, and the print revolution — and especially the daily newspaper revolution — of the past twenty years is helping to propel that transformation,” wrote Robin Jeffrey five years ago. Sevanti Ninan’s book is, in a sense, a part validation of Jeffrey’s view and a part revelation that there are already many Hindi cousins of Charles Foster Kane redefining the mediascape in the seven north Indian states.
Following the opening up of Indian economy in 1991, much has been written about the rapid expansion of television, the FDI flow into the growing Indian media market, the internet boom, and the cable and satellite penetration. But a less visible revolution was, and is, taking place outside the English media and outside the realm of the urban middle class. It was a huge explosion in the Indian languages print media. Quoting from the National Readership Surveys 1999, 2002 and 2005, Sevanti points out the huge jump of rural readership to 98 million in 2005 which is nearly 50 per cent of the total readership from mere 29 percent in 1999. And in absolute terms the current readership—200 million — means that the print media is available to one out of the five people in the country.
But the change was not restricted to the numbers alone. The notion of public sphere as understood by the academics has undergone a sea change. The Hindi Press no longer represents the larger, pan-Indian interests but specific, localised interest. It is alive to the fact that the modern Indian identity of any citizen is a collage of identities — linguistic, gender, class, caste, and locational (urban/rural). The Habermasean notion of single Public Sphere has given way to multiple public spheres. At one level, the quantitative growth in the Hindi media reflects a larger democratisation process. But before we could pat on our back of seeing rural India having its own voice and own media, Sevanti highlights the content deficit in this growth. The rural reporting has blurred the line between the reporter and the advertising manager, as in most cases both responsibilities are vested with the same individual. And in some cases, the same individual has to function as the local circulation agent too. Thus, news relating to landless labour, migrants, poor dalits and poor backward classes, victim of hunger and indebtedness generally misses the radar of part journalist, part advertisement seeker’s radar in most of these newspapers. This phenomenon was neither documented nor understood by a vast majority of media studies specialists. Sevanti brings it out with a rigour of a serious scholar and the lucidity of a good story teller.
The emerging local news universe defies the logic of a conventional newsroom; what many would have considered no news becomes news because it has some resonance with the local population. Sevanti recollects a report in Punjab Kesari titled “Tigri gaon cricket ke bukhar mein duba hua hai” (Tigri village is immersed in cricket fever). The villagers were doing a “havan” to celebrate Indian team’s success against Pakistan. The village headman watched the match on television wearing a pad, a guard and a helmet. And he was planning to rename the local Shiv temple as Cricket Shiv. Surely, the definition of news is fast changing.
In the highly decentralised news production that has characterised the growth of the Hindi print media, one would have imagined that agriculture would have been a major sector covered by these local news hubs. Sevanti’s content analysis brings out that agriculture remains one of the most neglected areas. She observes: “though some farmers reported for newspapers and other delivered them, yet others said that in a rural agricultural economy newspapers provided little information of relevance.” However, the local news universe has become gender sensitive in its own way.
Sevanti explains in detail, with enough empirical evidence, the fundamental shift that took place in the Hindi print universe — depoliticisation of the news. “A concomitant of greater dependence on reader opinion was a decrease of reliance on editors to shape the newspaper,” she notes. And depoliticisation does create an information universe that is value free, and no one really knows what is going to be the long-term impact of this politics free information universe.