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Setting the Agenda – Role of the Vernacular Press

January 19, 2011

A look at the website of the Registrar of Newspapers flummoxed me. There were innumerable languages and thousands of newspapers and magazines that are registered with the Registrar of Newspapers. I concede that a good proportion of them are not regular in their publications and others are not published at all. But there are newspapers in Chhatisgarhi, Bodo, Khasi, and god knows how many other languages.

The recent spurt in television news channels which mostly are affiliates of some newspaper or other has given rise to an information explosion. These news channels are out to compete with one another and have a high decibel level. They believe that they are the conscience keepers of the nation. It is but another matter that these so called conscience keepers sometimes go haywire and collude with those who they are supposed to keep a check on.  The most vociferous news channels are in English and in Hindi. Those who watch these news channels are the elite of the billion plus Indians. These are the people who hate to venture out on the polling day to cast their votes. But these are the same people who at the drop of a hat pick up some issue or another and think that the world goes around them. The fact of the matter is that they are on the fringe and those who do mold public opinion and set the agenda are those that not many know of or care for.

A positive development is that regional language television channels have sprung up in impressive numbers and they not only have entertainment programs but also have news bulletins that are watched by the people with much interest. What they dish out to the people is at variance with what the ‘national’ news channels offer. For one, their focus is on the state or the region they represent. A Tamil channel may mention national news but their focus will be on regional events. Kannada news channels had gone live without any interruptions at the time of Dr. Rajkumar’s death. Regional language TV channels are being watched with much interest and when you have captive audience the news clippings are also watched with as much interest. People tend not to look at the bigger picture. If Alfa TV Punjabi says that price rise of onions is due to bad policies of the Punjab government, people will listen with attention. Some may even believe what is being propounded. If a Bengali channel talks about illegal construction in South Kolkota people will tend to believe.

Whether one like it or not, English is and will remain a foreign language. We have taken to English in a big way but the sweetness of one’s own language is something that will remain unsurpassed. People tend to listen to their own and when things are said in their mother tongue even some outlandish claims are sometimes taken as gospel truth. Vernacular languages have a power that the so called ‘national media’ can never compete with. The one reason why the so called ‘national media’ (read English language media) invariably gets poll results wrong is because they are sitting in metropolitan cities and do not know the ground realities. These are couch potatoes who have read a few pieces here and there, heard some gossip and think they are ‘experts’.

What is true for the visual media is also true for the print media. Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Hindu may all claim to be ‘national newspapers’. I agree that their circulations are also impressive. It is also true that they are doing a yeoman service in getting news to the people from one corner of the country to another. But do we know that a regional language newspaper like Malyalam Manorma has more circulation than any of these newspapers. Newspapers like Dainik Jagaran, Amar Ujala and others are more widely read in the Hindi belt than any of these English language newspapers. The printed word has a credibility and impression of its own. What one reads stays in the mind more than what one sees, unless the visuals are extremely gory or eye catching. The printed word therefore has its own importance. What the Gujarati daily Gujarat Samachar, the most widely read newspaper in Gujarat, writes  has more impact on the people of the state than what some far off English language daily has to offer in a foreign tongue. The political and social stance of these newspapers is also keeping in view the local trends and sentiments and they cannot write something that is totally at variance with the public perception. They have a market to cater to and therefore they are not swayed much by jingoistic liberalism that is the flavor of most ‘national dailies’.

Pratidin Assam in Assamese has an impact in the North East. Anand Bazar Patrika’s Bengali edition is the most widely read newspaper in Bengal. Dainik Jagaran,  Amar Ujala and Dainik Bhaskar are most read newspapers in Bihar, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. Punjab Kesari has an audience in Punjab,, Haryana and Delhi. Both their Hindi and Gurmukhi editions are lapped up here. Rajasthan Patrika also in Hindi is widely read in Rajasthan.

Gujarat Samachar & Akila, both in Gujarati are popular in Gujarat. Lokmat and Loksatta are the most widely read Marathi newspapers. The Konkani newspaper Vauraddeancho is most read in coastal regions of Maharashtra and Karnataka. The newspapers of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala of course have a fanatical following and understandably so.  In Orissa there is Dharitri, Odisha and  Orissa Sambad. Eenadu and Andhra Jyoti are the papers of choice for most Telugus.

The Urdu language press is also very vocal and one that has a prominent role to play in molding public opinion not only in Kashmir valley but also in parts of Delhi, Hyderabad, UP and Bihar. Kashmir Times is popular in the Valley. Nai Duniya and Inquilab are the newspapers that have impressive circulation in parts of UP, Bihar and Mumbai. Urdu language newspapers have their own viewpoint which is at variance with what the national dailies dish out.

If one were to take the combined circulation of the vernacular press it will be many times over that of the English language newspapers. In that the English language newspapers come nowhere near the regional dailies. This is not to discount the impact of the English language press that has its own role to play but to keep in perspective the importance of the vernacular press in setting the regional, local and sometimes even national agenda. Many of the scoops picked up by English language dailies first appear in the vernacular press.

India is a varied country. There are national issues and then there are some regional issues. While the English language press has the good sense of looking at the national from a bird’s eye view the regional language news sources give a more micro approach to things. It is debatable as to which has more impact on the agenda of the nation. If one were to look at many of the decisions taken by the ministers and those in position of power one would believe that it is the English language national press that is calling the shots. If this is true it is a sad reflection on the state of affairs of the nation. A macro approach is essential but one would be a fool to ignore the details which the vernacular press offers. It was with good reason why the British were wary of the Indian vernacular press. They knew their power to sway people. What was true then is true now. My hunch is that the Indian vernacular press is only going to get stronger and more effective with time. This nation is a sum of many parts. Each has a role to play. The devil is in the detail. Detail that no one can offer as well as the vernacular press in India.

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