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Mirroring a democracy

Excerpts from the Introduction to Writing a Nation: An Anthology of Indian Journalism, edited by Nirmala Lakshman, published by Rupa & Co., and released in New Delhi earlier this week.

This anthology attempts to trace, through a collection of articles drawn from mainstream English language newspapers and newsmagazines, some of the discourses that define Indian democracy…

Photos: The Hindu Photo Library

Up in arms: Eminent journalists Kuldip Nayar, Khushwant Singh, Ramnath Goenka, Arun Shourie and N. Ram protest against the Anti-Defamation Bill, Delhi, 1988.

Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

John Milton in Areopagitica, 1644

Among the most cherished freedoms inherent in modern societies is that of a free press. Contemporary beliefs about the role of the media as well as the practice of journalism have been shaped by the values of humanism and the age of European enlighte nment in the eighteenth century. Liberal notions of the power of the press were also imbibed in India by those who were involved in the struggle for freedom. This included a belief in journalism’s capacity to mould public opinion, and faith in its ability to shape the destinies of nations and safeguard the rights and civil liberties of its citizens. Although Indian journalism’s early emphasis was on social reform, it soon took up the agenda of political independence.... The press in India has therefore always been at the forefront of national life. Although there has been a considerable erosion of values over the decades since Independence, the original ideals continue to inspire resistance to authoritarianism and censorship, and sustain the battles for freedom of conscience, speech and liberty in Indian society.

Range of articles

This anthology attempts to trace, through a collection of articles drawn from mainstream English language newspapers and newsmagazines, some of the discourses that define Indian democracy… and certain themes that have been inextricably bound with democratic discourse. It showcases a range of articles from journalists, politicians, activists, economists, academics, writers, film makers and others, who have sought to expand the terms of debate, express dissent and enrich the institution that is the Indian press. Beyond being mere reactions to events, these articles are considered responses to a host of issues; in some cases they are investigations that reveal the corruption that comes with power, in others they speak up for those whose voices are never heard, some unearth hidden truths and shake the citadels of power and many remind us why we are journalists in the first place.

Mirroring the progress of the Indian nation state, Indian journalism reflects the multi-layered strands that constitute its heterogeneity. Journalism’s association with the nationalist political struggle as well as its advocacy of social reform and emancipation in the years before Independence went into the creation of some of its core strengths. These included independent functioning, resistance to State oppression and censorship, a cardinal commitment to free speech and expression, as well as its role as a protector of civil liberties. The English language press’s commendable role during the 2002 carnage of minorities in Gujarat is a case in point. However, there were periods, as some articles in this anthology show, when the press compromised and failed in its duty to uphold the right to free expression, particularly during the Emergency, one of independent India’s darkest hours. How the press dealt with state-imposed censorship and other attempts to infringe Article 19 of the Constitution (which guarantees the right to free speech and expression) is an important aspect of the history of journalism in India…


Although this compilation of articles from the mainstream English language press begins after Independence, a brief look at some of the events and specific ideals that created the base upon which the tradition of independent journalism grew is worth documenting. Even before the advent of the nationalist press, newspapers like the weekly Bengal Gazette founded by James Hickey in 1780, and a few decades later the bi-weekly Calcutta Journal founded by another Englishman…advanced the cause of free speech…

The early years of the nineteenth century also saw the birth of a different kind of journalism; of reform and emancipation. It was a journalism of advocacy in the realm of social and public discourse particularly with regard to evils like child-marriage and sati. Interestingly, pioneer reformists like Raja Ram Mohun Roy did not challenge colonial governance but focussed instead on critiquing societal orthodoxies through their publications. Ram Mohun Roy’s belief in a free press was based more on the fact that it would aid good governance rather than on an intrinsic belief in the fundamental right to information or the basic right to free expression…

Decades later, around the time of the founding of the Indian National Congress, journalistic activity gained a fresh momentum primarily in Bengal, and also in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies. The great stalwarts associated with the Congress in its initial years were also founder editors of newspapers. Many of these publications were in English. Among these were G. Subramania Iyer, and M. Veerarghavachari, founders of The Hindu, Motilal Ghosh of the Amrita Bazar Patrika and a host of other journalist editors who identified with the growing movement for political emancipation. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who was one of the first nationalist leaders to demand the right to free expression, ran the Kesari at Pune…

The emergence of Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian political scene after his return from South Africa in 1915 heralded a new epoch in journalism. Gandhi’s singular contribution to Indian journalism is well documented. His call for civil disobedience, non co-operation and his message of non-violent opposition to British rule was conveyed through newspapers both in English and in the vernacular all across the country… This message was conveyed across India through newspapers…

Gandhian influence

While most of Gandhi’s writing appeared first in the papers he founded such as Young India and later on Harijan, ... the entire Indian press usually immediately picked up his articles, as his writings were considered common property and there was no copyright… From 1919 to 1947, Indian journalism was tinged with the Gandhian agenda and papers that reported his speeches and plans demonstrated higher circulation figures than others… Although differences with Jinnah and many of his younger colleagues … were widely reported, and later on his disagreement with B.R. Ambedkar particularly over vexatious issues like the Poona Pact surfaced, it was the Gandhian perspective that dominated newspaper space during these years…

Political writing, whatever the persuasion of the founders and editors, was the main staple of newspapers during this period. Editors like C.Y. Chintamani of the Leader,. .also contributed greatly to the growing perception of journalism as a vocation, and raised the standards of proofing and editing in newspapers. Other news publications started during these turbulent years included editors (like)…T. Prakasam, K.M. Pannikkar, K. Rama Rao and Khasa Subba Rao. They…also produced journalism of the highest standards — frequently controversial, but rooted in their convictions of journalism’s purpose, which they believed, was to mould public opinion. Other nationalist English dailies that came in to existence at this time included the National Herald in Lucknow, founded by Nehru, which like The Hindustan Times in Delhi...faced severe governmental repression.

…Although the passionate identification with the nationalist movement was at the core of much of journalism during this turbulent time, this is not to suggest that all newspapers held the same views or that they had all jumped on to the Gandhian or Congress bandwagon…

There were other papers like Dawn which was associated with the Muslim league, and Justice which… projected Dravidian interests… (and) were anti-Congress in their views and political positions. This diversity of opinion and ideology strengthened the pluralistic base of the soon-to be independent nation…


In the immediate aftermath of Independence, newspapers consistently reported on the tremendous challenges ahead of the nation. Jawaharlal Nehru’s efforts at consolidation of the democratic tradition…at a time when so many countries were choosing other less popularly responsive governments, was duly noted by the Indian media. News reports also focussed on some of the burning issues of the day such as the great movement of people across the two newly independent nations and the refugee crisis…but there was very little analysis in the mainstream press. The newly unshackled media that had cast off the repression of colonial rule found that it had to make up its mind as to whether to play the role of constructive opposition or continue its friendly attitude to their erstwhile partners in the fight for freedom…

…With the fundamental right to free speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution, and the Supreme Court’s frequent expansion of the scope of free speech in the decades following Independence, resistance to free reporting came in the guise of contempt laws, the Official Secrets Act, and most importantly the sections of the Indian Penal Code that dealt with communal hatred and violence, tampering with the loyalty of the armed forces, defamation, libel and material causing public disturbance. The tensions that flowed from the State’s use of legal provisions to attack press freedom in various instances in these early years, even to the point of trying to overcome judicial decisions made in the favour of the press by proposing to amend Article 19, was strongly resisted…


Two events that blatantly impinged on the independence of the press a couple of decades later were the Emergency in 1975 and Rajiv Gandhi’s notorious Anti-Defamation Bill in 1988. The Emergency was the greatest blot on Indian democracy, and although a few newspapers and their editors stood up to the pressures from Indira Gandhi’s government, many caved in and several others were forced to submit to the total censorship that was imposed, thus effectively preventing the press from reporting on any of the excesses. It was perhaps the most shameful period in the history of the Indian press…Newspapers like The Statesman and The Indian Express that attempted defiance had their power supply cut off and were harassed in other ways. The Indian Express’ courageous editor V.K Narasimhan,…later paid tribute to the courage of some of his distinguished colleagues who resisted the Emergency in whatever way they could despite great personal and financial risk. Foremost among them was Kuldip Nayar, who was placed under detention; some others included A.D. Gorwala, Nikhil Chakravarty, Romesh Thapar and V. Balasubramanian. As B.G. Verghese pointed out, independence may have been won in 1947, but freedom was won after 1977. However, when Rajiv Gandhi’s notorious Anti-Defamation Bill, the other serious attempt to gag the press, was introduced in parliament in 1988, the press was not cowed, and the Bill provoked widespread protests across the country from the journalistic community. Thousands of journalists led by the doughty octogenarian owner of The Indian Express, Ramnath Goenka, went on a protest march in Delhi forcing Rajiv Gandhi to withdraw the bill... The tradition of a free press was re-established.


… The anthology’s six themes under which articles have been collected is an attempt to pull together the diverse strands of Indian journalistic enterprise that have each in their unique and singular way contributed to expanding the terms of public discourse.

Diverse strands

The first section, ‘Constructing a Democracy’, is a collation of articles that debate and comment on a wide range of issues or events that have either impeded democratic functioning or enhanced it to reflect the aspirations of all sections of Indian society. Whether it is a matter of language, caste, gender or institutions, that promote democracy or ideologies and practices that hinder social and economic justice, the print media has largely reflected these concerns and has pushed the boundaries of debate as many of the articles in this section show…

The second section, ‘Nurturing a Free Press’, reflects some of the critical ways in which the media in independent India shaped itself and in turn affected the terms of democratic discourse. Coming from a rich tradition of independence, diversity and a commitment to safeguarding public interest, the print media’s challenges have included tensions and contradictions that have arisen from its growth as an industry and its development as a voice for the marginalized in society...

‘A Divided Society’, the next section, is a collation of articles that engage with some of the most intransigent issues that afflict the functioning of democracy in India. This includes caste oppression, particularly of Dalits, the communal divide (the worst manifestation of which was the carnage in Gujarat), the class divide and the gender divide…. The articles included in this section debate the range of issues that divide and afflict the national fabric; at the same time many of them remind us how powerfully media space and the public sphere can be used to push the agenda of justice and equity within the nation.

Interactions before independence: Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi meet the press

The fourth section deals with the issue of corruption and the culpability of those who wield power. Corruption in public life erodes the base of healthy democratic functioning. Although it is a global phenomenon, corruption in India is pervasive and its corrosiveness impacts the state of governance as well as the lives of ordinary people… The state’s complicity in trying to countermand the rule of the law and thereby contribute to the criminalisation of public life has also been frequently debated in the media over the decades. The articles in this section reveal the range and complexity of corruption and the media’s role in investigating the scams and scandals that beset Indian political and public life…

India’s stature as a global economic player may be a relatively new phenomenon, but the print media has long been concerned with the position of the nation on the globe’s stage as well as the complexity of its relationships with the community of nations. The fifth section, “India and the World”, contains articles that examine not only India’s position in the world…but look at connections with neighbours, rivals and the superpowers in a rapidly changing world...This section also examines some of the debates on globalisation...the impact of the Diaspora on national politics and the evolving sense of Indian history and identity.

The final section, “A Wealth of Spirit”, attempts to pull together journalism of a different kind: writing and reportage that does not always find space in the mainstream press with its commercial pressures, its prioritization of a particular kind of news, and its emphasis on the obvious... These perspectives celebrate individuals, public initiatives, ideas that contribute to nation building in the broadest sense in an increasingly polarized and divided world. They give the reader a glimpse into the heart of India through writing that touches the core of human experience, offering in some ways a reprieve from the narrowness of vision and commercialisation that contemporary journalism is often beset by.

Current pressures

Perhaps the greatest threat to Indian journalism at present comes from the pressures of a market-driven economy. Because of the need to maintain competitive advantage over their rivals… mainstream newspapers are increasingly turning to strategies that tend to subtly erode news values and the independence of editorial functioning. In… his classic critique of contemporary media, The Media Monopoly, Ben Bagadikian comments on this trend in the American media. “There is another landmark in the degradation of news; the increasing insertion of a news company’s own business goals as a selection factor in what news readers will be permitted to see-or not to see”. The ‘propaganda’ model of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, elaborated in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, focuses on the inequality of wealth and power and its effect on mass media. They explain how money and power can have a filter effect on news choices. This is increasingly happening in the Indian context as well. B.G. Verghese says that in the Indian media, it has become a question of loyalty to the market rather than loyalty to the values of journalism. Editors are brand managers instead of content managers. The impact of advertising-led content also means that there is less and less room for the concerns of the marginalised, powerless and disadvantaged in society…


As India’s larger newspapers grow in financial muscle, fierce turf wars have become a frequent occurrence, with price-cutting being the most common strategy for incursion into a rival’s territory. This will often result in one of the combatants being subject to severe fiscal strain, which will make them all the more inclined to compromise news integrity…

Nehru addressing a press conference in September 1946, shortly after assuming office as Vice-President of the Interim Government.

In such a scenario, it is imperative for journalism practitioners, whether they are editors or reporters, to be vigilant about the direction and nature of their own craft. Sociologist Andre Beteille points to a serious decline in news values, the lack of analysis of real issues that affect society among journalists as well as superficiality and monotony in the production and presentation of news and issues. Journalists must recognise how vital diversity and pluralism in the press are to the survival of Indian democracy. What is at stake today, against the backdrop of increasing globalisation, where media monopolies take charge of the lives and destinies of people around the world, is the cause of liberty itself, about which Tom Paine said, “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth”…

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