From Politics to Linguistic Battles – the Ghosts and Triumphs of Hindi Media

Taberez Ahmed Neyazi's book 'Political Communication and Mobilisation: The Hindi Media in India' presents an impressive study of the role of Hindi media over the years.

A dynamic democracy is impossible without a vibrant and independent media. Scholars have presented perceptive histories of journalism, and print and television media, ranging from the works of Madan Gopal, Arvind Rajagopal and Robin Jeffery. However, there has been relatively little theoretical work on the politics of Hindi media particularly. 

Taberez Ahmed Neyazi’s book Political Communication and Mobilisation: The Hindi Media in India presents an impressive study of the role of Hindi media as a mode of political communication and a key mobilising agent for India’s democratic transformation. This wide-ranging study moves chronologically, often in a linear narrative.

For the author, the most compelling points of entry into this world are how Hindi and English media framed colonial rule, its role in political mobilisation in independent India, the ‘micro politics’ of Hindi newspapers that have facilitated grassroots expressions from marginalised groups at local levels, the political economy of Hindi press, and the performance of a hybrid media environment through case studies of the Anna Hazare movement and Narendra Modi’s elections of 2014.

The broad conceptualisations of the book deserve appreciation as the author explicitly situates himself in diverse theoretical debates around the entanglements between media and politics. Neyazi also provides rich empirical and ethnographic data, particularly from Madhya Pradesh, to substantiate his claims.

Political Communication and Mobilisation: The Hindi Media in India
Taberez Ahmed Neyazi
Cambridge University Press, 2018

The book begins with how Hindi and English press helped mobilise public opinion in colonial India. It divides the growth of the Hindi print culture in this period into three distinct phases – 1854-1900, where the focus was on social, religious and cultural issues; 1901-18, which saw the growth of Hindi dailies; and finally 1919-47, where Hindi newspapers overtly aligned themselves with the nationalist cause.

Yet, it needs to be underlined that these phases not only overlapped with each other, but social issues and political mobilisation often criss-crossed, particularly in north Indian Hindi media. Thus, unlike Bengal, here social issues focusing on women and caste arose and were discussed in tandem with political mobilisation, as reform movements reached here a little later.

The chapter also overwhelmingly talks of the national character of the Hindi press, while downplaying its communal character, which was particularly visible in the 1920s-30s, as there were strong linkages between Arya Samaj, Hindu Mahasabha and Hindi journalism.

As has been argued, almost all owners of Hindi newspapers at that time were closely aligned with these organisations. It is thus interesting to reflect on how the Hindi media contributed to the formation of a pan-Indian national ideology, but also on how it equally played a significant role in the construction of a pan-Hindu identity, which also aided in sharpening divisions between diverse linguistic media.

Making the shift

This brings me to the next chapter, which underscores the shifts in Hindi newspapers from 1947 to the present. The author persuasively argues that while earlier there were “sharp divisions between Hindi and English media in terms of power, prestige and influence”, the period from the 1980s to the present points out that “Hindi newspapers are now increasingly influencing political decision-making”.

It richly documents the language politics in terms of the differences between Hindi and English newspapers. Hindi failed to become a national language as it was marginalised by English.

However, it may be equally fascinating to mark the tensions between Hindi and Urdu press in the north Indian heartland, as linguistic arenas came to be deeply tied with religious identities. Hindi’s linguistic nationalism and hegemonic ambition was deeply problematic for other Indian languages and for the forging of a larger unity.

The book richly documents the language politics in terms of the differences between Hindi and English newspapers. Credit: Reuters

The history and growth of Hindi, including the Hindi media, cannot be separated from the firming up of a Hindu nationalist identity and the marking of distinct and demarcated communities. A section of Hindi media implicitly constructed a homogenous nation, marginalising the south, and its linguistic and religious symbols often seriously overlapped. The entanglements between language and nation are thus diverse, contradictory and complex.

One of the central arguments of the book is that Hindi newspapers have facilitated the creation of a new space, whereby marginalised groups can participate at the local level, thus triggering social and political transformations in local society, aiding grassroots mobilisation, and contributing to the consolidation of democratisation.

In the most fascinating fourth chapter of the book, Neyazi shows that Hindi newspapers are active participants in decentralising production, distribution and consumption, while also connecting localities with regional, national and global spheres. He persuasively and pertinently writes of the rise of the vernacular media that grew due to localisation, and expedited grassroots mobilisation of marginalised groups. However such grassroots propelling by the media often witnesses inroads of elite interventions, refurbished through control over language, form, content and discourse.

Equally, when one talks of the role of media in political mobilisation, one cannot ignore its circuitous meanings in an age of paid news and Cobrapost revelations. Political hegemony at times overtakes political mobilisation, aligning with markets and ruling classes. Localisation has to be viewed in tandem with globalisation, corporatisation and the integration of Hindi media with the global economy.

Further, besides localisation, it is also perhaps equally critical to focus on regionalisation of the Hindi media, which has its own pitfalls and challenges, as it often loses wider perspectives. The crisis of Hindi media is also a crisis of thought in a larger, interconnected context. More significantly, the story maybe more accurate the other way around, i.e. it was education, democratic expansion, subaltern and Dalit assertion that gave rise to the expansion of Hindi media.

Taberez Ahmed Neyazi. Courtesy: National University of Singapore

The chapter on the political economy of the Hindi press relies on fieldwork and interviews focusing on two leading Hindi dailies – Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran.

Covering patterns of ownership, advertising, marketing and consumerism, I was particularly impressed with the engrossing account of everyday life of Dainik Bhaskar in Itarsi, which takes advantage of the rising market economy, while also aligning with issues of grassroots mobilisation. The use of images from advertisements in this section makes it very engrossing.

The book would have been further enriched through more use of images and cartoons. At present, it is full of tables, which are of course very useful, but they do not fully offer the colourful kaleidoscope of the Hindi media.

Though the book touches briefly and intermittently on the gendered, caste, religious, ethnic and class character of the local Hindi newspapers, one wishes to read more on this, and its linkages to those who own and run the Hindi print media, including proprietors and journalists, and the diverse participation and readership constituted by such imprints. Also ignored are reflections of the Hindi press on the politics of labour and ecological movements in contemporary India.

A hybrid media

The last two chapters of the book move away from traditional Hindi print media to interfaces between the traditional and the new, what has been referred to as the rise of a hybrid media system by scholars like Chadwick. Its implications for Indian protest politics and political mobilisation are explored by Neyazi through new media discourses on corruption and the Anna Hazare movement on the one hand and the hybrid logics of Modi’s election campaign of 2014 on the other – both of which heralded a new era in political communication practices. For example, he attributes the mobilisation of public opinion and the significant participation of disengaged citizens in the anti-corruption movement to the media.

The book concludes by underscoring the continued growth of digital media. The chapters are well written and remarkably documented.

Missing chapters

Nonetheless, issues of political communication and mobilisation in the Hindi media at present are different from the 1980s and 90s. The past two decades have brought forth a new set of issues. Certainly, the efflorescence of digital media is one of them but those of ownership, people’s right to information, democratisation and media governance are equally pertinent. I also missed references to people’s media, alternative media, counter media, Dalit press and citizens’ journalism in Hindi.

Overall, it is an impressive book, providing a panoramic view that has substantial merit, as it looks at Indian political processes and changes through the prism of Hindi media. What the book presents is significant, but what it omits is equally critical. After all, media does not only play a key role in politics, it itself has become a political entity. Media, of course, has been meaningful in making Hindi a lived language, providing it with a degree of flexibility and openness.

But does the Hindi media provide political communication and mobilisation or partisan, parochial and pragmatic communication? Can it truly provide a language of democratic citizenship is a question yet to be fully answered.

Charu Gupta is a historian of Modern India, and teaches at the Department of History, University of Delhi.