India’s Vibrant Vernacular Press

From India: The Rise of an Asian Giant, by Dietmar Rothermund (Yale U. Press, 2008), pp. 223-224:

The rise of the vernacular press would have pleased Mahatma Gandhi. He disapproved of advertising and printed no ads in his papers. But perhaps he would have relented if he had realized that advertising revenue is the lifeblood of the vernacular press. When Gandhi reorganized the Provincial Congress Committees along linguistic lines in 1920, he did so because he was convinced that people must conduct their political debates in their mother tongue. The thriving vernacular press proves this point. Gandhi would also have been pleased by the national orientation of the vernacular press: none of the papers mentioned back any kind of secessionism. This is also due to the fact that the ‘print capitalists’ who control the papers are very much aware of the benefits of an integrated national market. Another encouraging feature is that none of these papers are ‘party papers’ to the extent of being owned and operated by a political party. The private owners of the papers may sometimes back a particular party, as Ramoji Rao backed the TDP, but such alliances are temporary with the party depending on the ‘print capitalist’, not the other way round. In earlier times parties controlling the government could exercise considerable influence on newspapers by placing advertisements or withholding them. Nowadays revenue from commercial ads is far more important than that derived from government advertising and this has greatly enhanced the freedom of the press.

India’s lively and free press is of great importance to the country’s democracy. It is significant that the first big spurt in growth of the vernacular press was witnessed after Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’ had been terminated in 1977; her attempt at gagging the press by means of her emergency powers led to a pent-up demand for information. Many people became avid readers when they had access to a free press once more. There is, of course, the more subtle method of influencing the press by co-opting journalists: giving them official importance or letting them know that their careers may depend on adopting certain political views fits in with this method. By now journalists earn good salaries and enjoy many perks, so the threat of forfeiting them might influence their views. But the large number of journalists would make it difficult to co-opt all of them: in 1950 there were only about 2,000 in India but by 1993 there were 13,000 officially registered journalists and there may have been many unregistered ones. At present there are probably more than 26,000. As there are no powerful unions for journalists in India Indian journalism has no collective voice; but the large number and the great variety of journalists are in themselves guarantees of the freedom of the press.

Most Indian journalists are urban people who only occasionally show up in the countryside. But they have rural counterparts who are really behind the newspaper revolution which has swept India in recent years. These rural stringers are often graduates engaged in various activities in their locality. They may own some land or a repair shop and also serve as distributors of newspapers, as advertising agents and as part-time correspondents. They usually are not paid by the editors but send in their news items free of charge. If their contributions are printed, this enhances their reputation in the village and helps to increase the circulation of the paper which they distribute. In their own way, these people support the freedom of the press and it is mainly down to them that huge numbers of newspapers are sold in India every day.

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Filed under democracy, India, language, publishing

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