By Sugata Srinivasaraju | 1 December 2012
THE NEWSPAPER INDUSTRY IN INDIA continues its ascendant trend, even while it is known to be precariously poised in the Western world. From this year’s second and third quarter results of the Indian Readership Survey, it is clear that it is not so much the English-language publications in India that are contributing to this vibrant growth as much as it is their regional language counterparts.But even as we celebrate the foregrounding and crowning of the local, it is important to ask what constructs it. It would be a travesty to assume that the many locals shaped by a multitude of languages, histories and ethnic energies form a homogenous idea of ‘the local’ for our discussion here. So I’ll confine myself to one specific area: Kannada-language publications—one of which I edit—and some of the core ideas and influences that have shaped them over the decades. This exposition may have resonance for many regional publications in south India, shaped by similar or overlapping circumstances of post-Independent Indian history. (Before we get into this discussion, we need to remember one other nuance: when we contrast English and local-language publications, we need to view Hindi, which makes for a complicated case as a ‘national language’, as an independent category for interpretation. It does not fit into the parameters of the local that we are trying to delineate here.)
The most important point to be made with regard to Kannada-language newspapers is that even 56 years after the formation of Karnataka (initially known as the Mysore State), they treat their sub-nationalist duties as sacred and inviolable, and continue to display unswerving loyalty to Kannada causes. When it comes to certain issues, there is a structured default response, which is almost never challenged. This becomes most apparent when issues related to Karnataka’s borders or the sharing of its river waters come up, or when subsidy to Kannada films or granting classical status to the language is discussed. With these issues, the publications do not make a non-partisan, professional judgment based on ground realities. Rather, they echo an emotional line formulated nearly a century ago, when the first cries to piece together the jigsaw of the Kannada-speaking land began. Linguistically land-locked by five strong regional tongues (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi and Konkani), the old Mysore State was expanded in 1956 to bring in Kannada-speaking areas lying scattered in the Nizam’s Hyderabad and the Bombay and Madras provinces, as part of the linguistic reorganisation of Indian states. Mysore state was rechristened Karnataka only in 1973. The insecurities of this birthing process have never been fully overcome, a fact reflected in Kannada publications.
In the last couple of months, when the Cauvery river water-sharing dispute arose following a monsoon failure, the default position of the Kannada papers was to deride the “greed” of Tamil Nadu. They stood united to “protect” the interests of the state at “any cost”—even if the state government were to attract harsh contempt penalties from the Supreme Court. Although the issue concerned just four taluks across two districts of the state, the widest possible coverage in the Kannada newspapers ensured that the normal functioning of the entire state was paralysed. For close to 10 days, other than Cauvery, no other story would make it to the lead position on the front page. In the river basin area, where serial protests were organised, even journalists, who were expected to make a dispassionate analysis of the unfolding events, marched the streets to express solidarity for the Cauvery cause.
The border issue with Maharashtra also flares up periodically—most recently in July and August this year—when the state stakes a claim to a few taluks of Belgaum district at the north-western border of Karnataka. Over the decades, newspapers have sustained such hysteria over this that in 2006, for the first time, the state government decided to hold an Assembly session in the city of Belgaum and declared that it would soon construct a second seat of power (Vidhana Soudha) there, just to assert its rights over the disputed territory. This act was hailed by the Kannada papers in language befitting the coverage of war. In October 2012, the President of India inaugurated a stone structure of Brobdingnagian proportions, which cost the state exchequer several billion rupees. But sadly, now, after it has been inaugurated, the state government is clueless about putting this building to use. No government department or ministry wants to forsake the cosiness of Bangalore. The suggestions that have been made have been utterly ridiculous—such as allowing weddings to take place in the building so that it would generate revenue for its own maintenance. Kannada newspapers maintain an agreed silence over the issue—nobody is willing to say that it was a bad decision to construct this gargantuan building.
Kannada papers have also had their secular resolve tested over the past decade or so following incidents in places like Mangalore, where minorities have come under sustained attack by fringe Hindu groups (including the church attacks in 2008, the pub attack in 2009, and the homestay attack in 2012). Any Kannada paper that opts for secular neutrality in responding to such incidents—say, by condemning them—meets with a predictable hate campaign on blogs, social media and SMS. Even an avowed constitutional position taken by a newspaper is made to look like a mistake.
When it comes to Kannada films, too, an element of protectiveness becomes apparent. For instance, our paper’s allocation of space to non-Kannada films, particularly Hindi films, attracted the ire of readers—we received hundreds of e-mails asking why so much space was being forsaken at the cost of Kannada. It seemed almost like a campaign born from a hatred towards the Hindi films and film stars that found representation in the paper. The anti-dubbing debate that took place a few months ago (over allowing the dubbing of other language films and tele-serials into Kannada) was filled with similar undercurrents of hate. Every November—the ‘Rajyotsava’ month of the state’s founding—Kannada organisations even make a plea that only Kannada films should run in the state’s theatres. Some years back the Kannada film industry demanded fixed and preferential slots for Kannada films in theatres and multiplexes. These demands are heavily supported and publicised by the Kannada press.
But despite these chauvinistic persuasions, the Kannada press is also thrumming with new energy and direction—for instance, the US election campaign and Obama’s victory received unprecedented coverage at a fever pitch reserved up until now only for Indian elections. Similar coverage was given to Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to India, and more specifically Bangalore. A critical difference between the dynamics of papers and readership in Kannada and English is apparent here—while English newspapers have to retain and grow a monolingual readership, the regional newspapers have to also contend with their readers slowly becoming bilingual, as children pick up English through the schooling process.
In many ways, the spread of English in the state denotes increased jobs and upward mobility. The backwards in the state, like in other parts of India, have argued vehemently for the propagation of English over Kannada. Some Kannada newspapers have even contemplated publishing English tutorials. A recent survey conducted in four cities of Karnataka by the paper I edit showed that an overwhelming number of housewives want to learn English to improve their social image.
The English press, meanwhile, sees imitating the local as a necessary change of tack for survival—a national weekly recently published special editions in Malayalam and Bengali to register its existence in those regions and to attempt to extend the frontiers of its circulation. The local and the regional have suddenly become more important than the amorphous nation and the national. There appears to be a growing realisation—something that I have not seen take shape so concretely in my two decades of journalism—that it is the regional modules that make the whole and not the whole that accommodates these ‘bits’. This departure in thought, which is becoming more and more pronounced, could well be said to reflect a now-familiar trend in the country’s politics, where regional parties play increasingly critical roles in the coalitions at the centre.
Sugata Srinivasaraju crossed over from an English newsroom to a Kannada newsroom six months ago. He is currently the editor of Vijaya Karnataka (Times Group), the largest circulated daily in Karnataka. His most recent book is Pickles From Home: The Worlds of A Bilingual (2012).