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Pukka Press

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THE NEW INFORMATION ORDER [image, unknown] Anglo-Indian journalism

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Pukka Press
Although 64 per cent of Indian men and women cannot read, the country's newspapers still sell. The combined circulation of dailies and weeklies tops a staggering 40 million. Yet despite the impressive quantity, the quality is abysmally low. Owned by large industrial houses wishing to promote their interests, or reliant on state advertising, most newspapers conform timidly and become obsessed with the trivial. Mohan Ram looks at one of the alternatives.

Photo: Claude Sauvageot
Photo: Claude Sauvageot

When William James launched his Bengal Gazette in 1781, it was the beginning of the Indian press. It was also the beginning of what was known as Anglo-Indian journalism: part of the white man's burden that survived until after the Second World War. Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill were both part of that tradition. The Civil and Military Gazette of Lahore, The Times of India of Bombay, The Statesman of Calcutta, The Pioneer of Lucknow, and The Madras Times were among the pillars of the Establishment when the British Crown took over the rule of India from the East India Company in the wake of the 1857 Mutiny.

The only alternative to the Anglo-Indian press was the nationalist press, inspired by anti-colonial sentiment. To begin with it was in Indian languages; the 'vernacular press'. The British tried to curb it through censorship laws which did not extend to newspapers published in English. One newspaper ingeniously switched overnight from the vernacular to English to skirt such regulations.

With Independence in 1947 both streams of Indian journalism were overcome by a sense of anti-climax. The Anglo-Indian press was something of an anachronism, pickled in whisky and dreams of the pukka sahib. The nationalist press knew nothing but campaigning journalism and with power transferred to Indians, their mission was complete.

Now the structure of India's newspaper industry has changed. Big industrial houses have acquired control of papers formerly owned by British interests and started papers in English as well as in Indian languages. The connection between big business and the press means newspapers are used as instruments for furthering corporate interests. In India a newspaper monopoly is not the concentration of scores of newspapers under the ownership of a single press baron. Instead, it is the firm extension of financial interests from cement and construction, through iron and steel and on into publishing.

The big newspapers set the style and pace for smaller publications who look to state patronage for subscriptions and advertisements. The result is a depressing conformism. There is no formal censorship; there doesn't have to be. By and large the Press is behind the status quo and supports whoever is in office.

Most significant among the alternative papers was the Economic Weekly founded by the late Sachin Choudhury in 1949, two years after independence. It reflected the editor's combination of analytical ability and practical concern and was a unique amalgam of comment on current affairs and serious research in economics, sociology and politics. To be sure the Weekly staggered from one financial crisis to another.

But it stayed away from big money throughout. India was still an exuberant democracy when the Economic Weekly was launched. And its early existence was schizophrenic, ideology clashing with heritage. In its economic thinking, it was liberalism spliced with collective ideas. But the Weekly soon became the focal point of the search for solutions to the country's problems. After its closure in 1965, Sachin Choudhury founded the Economic and Political Weekly, this time backed by a trust and relatively free from economic straits. He edited it till his death late in 1966.

The new Weekly is a journal of rare kind, essentially one of opinion, for the unfashionable minority. It is an outlet for research findings least likely to please the establishment.

In these pages the official claims of the much ballyhooed Green Revolution were first torpedoed by the Polish American economist, Wolf Ladjensky. In the early 1970s he showed in a series of articles how the benefits from increased food production in rural Punjab, north India, had been cornered by a handful of farmers, leaving the poor high and dry. It set the trend for challenging the Western recipe of high-yielding seed varieties and expensive farming machinery as the panacea for hunger in poor countries.

Another first for the Weekly was the investigative reporting by Lawrence Lifshultz on the behind-the-scenes manoeuvering in Bangladesh by its present ruler, Zia-ur-Rahman, supported by the Central Intelligence Agency. A popular uprising was suppressed, its leader executed and Zia emerged from the fracas indisputably in control.

Finally, on one of the major issues of debate in India, population control, the Weekly has consistently projected an alternative view. Opposed to the official line of stressing and sometimes enforcing family planning for the poor, it has repeatedly emphasized that the preconditions for smaller families are an improvement in living standards, reduction of infant mortality and expansion of village-based health care.

All pioneering stuff, showing that despite the odds, The Economic and Political Weekly takes its place aiongside the best of the world's alternative press.

Mohan Ram is the Indian correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review.
The Economic and Political Weekly is available from 'Skylark', 184 Frere Road, Bombay, India.

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New Internationalist issue 100 magazine cover This article is from the June 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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