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Mainstream, VOL LV No 13 New Delhi March 18, 2017

Modi Government’s assault on AIR, Print Media

Sunday 19 March 2017



by Krishna Jha

In a calculated move to not only muffle the freedom of expression, but to make the entire media subservient to finance capital, the government has come out with its plans to gag the print media as well as All India Radio.

Crushing the diversity in our compossite culture, an initiative has been taken by the BJP-led NDA Government to streamline the media and force singularity in the multi-lingual news services division of the All India Radio. Such steps have always been taken whenever the NDA has come to power.

It has not been done without reason since the entire blueprint is almost ready. The attempts to shift the language bulletins get a fresh lease of life whenever the NDA Government is in power. Sindhi, Kannada and Telugu bulletins in Delhi were killed in 2005 as planned by the then NDA Government, and again the unfinished agenda has been vigorously taken up. From March 1, 2017, Assamese, Odiya and Tamil bulletins will stop broadcasts from Delhi, only to be followed by other languages as they too will be stopped from March 15, 2017.

The policy has its own contradictions. One of the possible factors leading to such a destructive step could be an effort to hand over news broadcasts to the Hindusthan Samachar, the RSS controlled news agency. It was quietly given an opportunity to run the Hindi and English News Rooms of the News Services Division of the AIR on a trial basis for three months from July to October. There was no competition for such a trial and the trial was conducted without any immediate reason or justification. The agency has already announced its plans to train 2000 persons in the news-making process in all languages over a period of two years. It could be expected that Hindusthan Samachar would finally take over the Radio news in the States before the 2019 General Elections.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Bhasha Samooh organised a meeting on February 21, the day of the Mother Languages, and decided to fight the closing down of the language bulletins in the national telecast of the All India Radio

The Bharatiya Bhasha Samooh, announcing its inauguration on February 21, declared that it would focus the rights of languages in India. The BBS has brought to the notice of the people the recent decision of Prasar Bharati to move its language news broadcasts and the argument given is that they are regional languages and they could very well be managed regionally. But all these languages have the status of national languages and to address them as regional languages not only amounts to an attempt to diminish their importance, but also points towards a plan to crush the diversity of languages, imposing singularity in thr national broadcast..

It is silencing the speakers of the languages who live across the country. It is also true that languages like Sindhi, Bengali, Punjabi and Tamil are spoken in other countries as well and hence have the status of international languages. These attempts to reduce the status of national languages and to turn them into local has to be resisted.

There have to be steps to fight for the protection of multi-lingual character of the country’s ethos and to oppose any step to end the diversity in languages. It is also imperative to make the people aware of the imminent threat to their languages.

There are 22 major Indian languages, consti-tutionally recognised as national languages and then there are the so called dialects, or languages without scripts. But they are being downgraded and removed from the national scene by pushing them back to particular regional boundaries. The worse part of it is that languages spoken in the south of the Vindhyas are getting step-motherly treatment just because their basic structure is ‘non-Aryan’, as the RSS explains. Recently Prasar Bharati has taken the decision to shift its language news broadcasts from the national Capital to different regions of the country. The argument is: the news bulletins in a language are being listened to only in a particular region. This shows that the govern-ment thinks that these are but local languages.

The excuse given is staff shortage. This is unacceptable because the staff can always be recruited if the government decides to do so. There has been no new appointment to the language news set-up in the last 20 years. Languages are made to suffer the artificial staff shortage and manage with empanelled Casual Assignees who are booked for a limited period of, say, 72 days in a year. Since the language bulletins are managed by the casual and contract staff for so many years, one must presume that there is a sufficient number of people available within the framework of the employment decided by the government. After all, States are not independent sovereign nations that follow different recruitment policies. Staff shortage is the creation of the government.

The other excuse given is dearth of talent. They also argue that there is a dearth of talent in languages in the national Capital and by shifting bulletins the AIR would be able to use local talent for its news bulletins. It is inconceivable that the talent was in abundance in the past but has dried up in 2017! Rather, there is now greater mobility resulting in various languages being spoken in a region. 

They also take help from a myth that listeners are confined to the main language area. This myth is being deliberately spread to justify the attack on languages. There are people speaking languages other than the main regional language in a particular State. People now do not confine themselves to the areas where the only language spoken is their mother tongue. The government policy completely ignores these listeners who reside outside their mother-tongue areas.

In fact the only reason for shifting the regional languages could be the government design to have one national language for the entire nation.

Sindhi, Bengali, Punjabi and Tamil are cross-border languages.

Sindhi enjoyed vast following in the Sindh of Pakistan, Bangladesh speaks Bengali, Tamil bulletins were listened to in the Jafna region of Sri Lanka and Punjabi bulletins are being listened to in Lahore. Instead of downgrading them, they should be promoted as cross-border languages.

The government has also decided that Punjabi is not Delhi’s language. However, Delhi has a vast population of Punjabis. But ignoring this segment, Punjabi bulletins are also being shifted to Chandigarh. Already, Doordarshan has stopped telecasting a Punjabi language programme, Punjabi Darpan, which was running for the last 32 years.

The News Services Division of the All India Radio shifted three languages, Sindhi, Kannada and Telugu, to particular regions in 2005. Though the Sindhi-speaking people do not have their
own State, the Sindhi bulletins were sent to Ahmedabad. The Sindhi population is spread over different regions of the country: They are in Kutch and Ahmedabad in Gujarat, in Mumbai in Maharashtra, in Jaipur in Rajasthan, in Indore in Madhya Pradesh. If there was ‘dearth of talent’ in Delhi, what is the condition in Ahmedabad? The fact is: had the government properly evaluated the listening area of the Sindhi news bulletins, these would have been retained in Delhi.

The same applies to Kannada and Telugu.

These bulletins were shifted to Bengaluru and Hyderabad. There is more regional content now in these bulletins than in the national or international, and the authorities have never bothered to correct the situation. Those who want to know more about the other regions of the country have perforce to change over to Hindi or English bulletins. The shifting has thus reduced the listening of language bulletins.

Language bulletins were started in Delhi in the wake of the Second World War and later, during wars with neighbouring countries. This is the history which records the first footsteps of none other than Sardar Patel who had launched six national language bulletins from Delhi as the first I&B Minister and made talent available in Delhi. His admirers are making an about turn. As a result the quality of language bulletins is also going to suffer.

There are some specific terms used in a particular culture, like Lavni, Jallikattu, Ghallu-ghaara, Kaar Seva, Onam, Pongal, Lohri, Bisu. These are not prevalent among the people outside that specific frame of culture. India has many cultural and linguistic traditions. Presently the language news staff exchanges notes when required but now we should expect a language editor in one place to call up his counterpart at some other station and learn such cultural nuances. Even e-mails and internet cannot be faster than the direct access which is available now in Delhi where all languages work together. Ultimately, it will reduce the status of languages from the national to the local. People will stop thinking in terms of a broader cultural perspective. 

Attempts are being made to create diffusion in Delhi, and concentration in States.

Simultaneously with this diffusion, the government is also moving towards concentration of bulletins broadcast from different regions of a State. There are local stations that cater to the local population of a region in a State. Almost all States have more than one originating station. All will be brought to the State capitals under one roof.

After radio, now it is the newspapers. They are pushed to opt for a single source of news-feed, guided by the RSS, called the Hindusthan Samachar, a languishing news agency, revived for the purpose. Bhaiyyaji himself officially inaugurated the new offices on June 1; on June 10, Sangh sahsarkaryavah Dattatreya Hosabale paid a visit to offer the news team pointers on journalistic objectivity: “Give preference to
positive and growth-oriented news, not violence-, crime- or terrorism-related reports.”

On the same day another announcement was made about a new policy by the Union Ministry for Information and Broadcasting that is primarily to boost the RSS’ Hindusthan Samachar project with new prominence and revenues.

Also was announced a new policy by the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) setting a new criteria for assessing the newspapers’ eligibility for lucrative government ads, rating them on a scale of 0-100. Newspapers have to earn ‘marks’ to increase their DAVP ad tariff that are 25 for providing RNI/ABC certificates; 20 based on their employees’ enrolment in EPF; 10 for printing in their own press; 10 on payment of annual subscriptions to the Press Council of India; 12-20 depending on the number of pages. And then there is the addition that says 15 points for subscribing to the UNI, PTI and the hitherto little-known Hindusthan Samachar.

These shifts in the policy have already boosted both the profile and subscriptions of the Hindusthan Samachar. The agency, founded in 1948 by RSS pracharak Dadasaheb Apte to provide ‘nationalist’ news in regional languages, had an an insignificant existance for years in Delhi’s Gole Market and then there was also a ‘data centre’ in Nagpur. Obviously the HS had to contunue despite problems, though could never recover from its enforced ‘merger’ (along with the UNI and PTI) with the state-controlled Samachar agency in the Emergency years. The UNI and PTI got back their independent status in 1978. The HS passed into receivership in 1982 and then back into the RSS hands after a lengthy court case in 2002. The changes that its status underwent since then are reflected in the words of the CEO and editor-in-chief, Rakesh Munjal: “We are on the verge of an agreement with a large IT company, which will assist us. A large number of brands will be joining us very soon.”

On the ‘mystery’ that the independent media finds in these policy changes, the Akhil Bharatiya Prachar Pramukh of the RSS, Manmohan Vaidya, says: “The Sangh never instructs directly, it only provides guidance. We wish that all news pertinent to national concern—which the media have tended to overlook—should now come to the fore and the institution should work professionally. That is why it has been entrusted to a corporate leader.”

There have also been efforts to make a public display of shedding off its image of ideological bias but its new Board of Directors consists of stalwarts of the Sangh-affiliated Right, notably Achyutanand Mishra, Jagdish Upasane, B.K. Kuthiala and Rambahadur Rai.

Despite all these steps to boost the HS taken by the RSS itself, the future still appears uncertain. The ambitions are grand, but it is acceptability that decides the course, and so far that still appears elusive.

The author is a senior journalist and writer.

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