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Brills Encyclopedia of Hinduism
Politics and Media(6,626 words)
Arvind Rajagopal
In explaining how religious riots had taken place in Calcutta in 1924, the sociologist R.D. Lambert
once wrote, To put it briefly, in Calcutta, rumor has a printing press (Lambert, 1951, 98).
Communication set up through print and literacy did not always create a virtuous circle of
increasing rationality and enlightened tolerance; a downward spiral of violence could result instead.
We can extend the observation: anyone familiar with the recent history of religio-political violence
in India would know that television, the Internet, and cell phones too have often appeared to be
driven by rumor, as if innuendo shaped information rather than the other way around.
The observation is memorable because it indicates a paradox: print is assumed to be stronger, but
rumor had the advantage. Behind R.D. Lamberts coinage, we can discern familiar lines of thinking.
Firstly, the spread of print media is usually understood to supplanthearsay with more reliable
information. In this case, however, the press becomes vulnerable to older media, perhaps due to the
stratagems of communalists. Hence, and this is the second point, the forms of appearance and its
means of distribution may be modern, but this does not necessarily imply a given communication is
universalist in its content.
Media and Religion in Colonial India
In the colonial period (see British rule), those in power assumed that Hindus and Muslims could not
coexist peacefully and required the implicitly neutral presence of the British as rulers. Since religious
differences were held as the root cause of this instability, responsible forms of mediating religion
thus required a kind of reduction from the substantial phenomenon of religious life in all its fullness,
in order to prevent antagonisms from taking over and becoming dominant. Mediation, in this
context, was a process of filtration, discarding those elements that could lead to trouble. In the
British governments view, therefore, much of the native communication on religious matters was
inherently risky from the standpoint of law and order.
The colonial governments four-fold response to what it understood as the problem of Hindu religion
can be summarized as follows. Firstly, according to colonial sociology, to the degree that Hinduism
cohered, it was believed to be due to caste. It may be said that this formulation continues to be
relevant, but for apertinent discussion see L. Dumont (1970, 16). Nationalists (see nationalism)
rejected this idea for predictable reasons, but B.R.Ambedkar hasmade the same point, more
palatable once the Indian nation was a fait accompli. B.R. Ambedkar argued that an unreformed
Hinduism is an impediment to democratization since it is premised on the irreconcilability of
touchable and untouchable castes. From the colonial point of view, since caste was not only
hierarchical but also extended laterally in a range of forms across the subcontinent, its unity was
theoretical rather than moral. The absence ofsuch unity explained the need for colonial rulefor
Hindus, and for other religious groups, albeit on a secular plane. A corollary here is that anglophone
communication was believed to be more neutral, whereas communication in the vernacular was
assumed to bemore susceptible to partisan outcomes. Secondly, communication during religious
festivals could include chanting, conch blowing, and the procession of devotees to (at times) the
hurling of invective and even makeshift missiles, for example, against Muslims, requiring
anticipatory countermediation with the police on alert. Thirdly, a combination of censorship and
surveillance was required to monitor native opinion on matters religious, for example, with the
press. Last but not least, colonial policy on mediating religion focused on events, public
performances, and the press, on words and deeds, so to speak, but was less sure of itself and
consequently more permissive when confronted with images. Famously, nationalists invented new
gods as unifying symbols, such as Bhrata Mt (Mother India); although images of the goddess
Article Table of Contents
Media and Religion in Colonial
Media Theory and Practice in the
Era of National Independence
A New Phase of Hinduism?
Mediatic Differences and
Linguistic Divisions
Page 1 of 7 Politics and Media - Brill Reference
were fairly common as bazaar art, they did not excite the objection of censors, in addition to using
existing gods, as with Lord Rmin invocations by Gandhi and others of rmrjya, the lost utopia of
Lord Rms rule, as the model for independent India. Nor indeed, did orthodox Hindus object, since
in fact belief in the gods is itself not necessarily prior to religious observance, unlike say in the
Semitic traditions (Dumont, 1970, 16). To insist on the priority of gods may in fact be parochial, in
view of the variety of religious formations (e.g. see de Vries, 2008, 1-98). For the most theoretically
ambitious argument in recent years about the evolution of religion, one that argues for a
development from mimetic, to mythic, to theoretic forms in religion, see R.N. Bellah (2012).
In retrospect, the colonial government adopted an instrumental understanding of media, believing
that state power could enable control over communication through a combination of censorship,
surveillance, and propaganda. Banning things and people believed to be seditious, and providing
positive messages about the benefits of the prevailing government, Hinduism and Indians could be
kept in their place, it was assumed, and the British would in turn retain theirs. In a sense, we might
say that the prevailing media theory was shown to be inadequate to the task of colonial governance
in India. Modern modes of mediation made it more likely that things did not stay in their place and
thus, over time, demonstrated the inadequacy ofa media theorythat reflected a more sedentary
context. For example, vernacular print media allowed Indians to take their own measure of colonial
modernity even if the British had difficulty in believing this to be possible. Religiosity infused
political understandings and helped mobilize resistance to imperial rule, while national leaders
sought to manage the tensions arising as a result.
Media Theory and Practice in the Era of National Independence
Although more than half a century has passed since the transfer of power, the framework of understanding developed at this time is still an
essential point of reference for social scientists. Since nationalists own emphasis to a great extent was on the assertion of sovereignty and the
capture of state power, their political project did not accomplish very much in the way of undoing colonial epistemology and initiating new
categories and frameworks of knowledge. Rather, nationalists usually preserved colonial frames of understanding while changing the valence of
specific terms.
Firstly, the national state relied on latent or patent assumptions of interreligious harmony as the properly national mode of existence. Religious
antagonisms, in the official nationalist view, were externally induced. Communal harmony was understood to be the real prior condition before
colonialisms divide et impera and could be ensured through the secularist interventions of the national state. Secondly, the declaration of Hindi
as the national language along with English, and the subsequent formation of linguistically organized states, gave Indian languages a prestige
they had long been denied. But the government continued to rely on English as the medium of technocracy and an indispensable link language,
since Hindi was not much used by at least half the population, and there was no time to lose. Language was an instrument of national
development, but it was symbolic too; the governments plan was to switch from English to Hindi as more people learned Indias own national
language. However, English gained in importance instead, as a marker of status and means of mobility, while Hindi, as the medium of
electioneering of the cultural and economic hinterland, unexpectedly became more provincial. Thirdly, if nationalists had opposed colonial rule,
and felt justified in civil disobedience to express their dissent, they assumed that with independence, the institutions, technologies, and
procedures inherited from the British could now be applied to truly national ends. As a result, in many instances, embedded systems of colonial
governance came to be reproduced using the rationale of developmentalism.
The first step after the achievement of independence was a far-reaching demobilization of the masses, dissuading from the insurgent civil
disobedience that had until recently been extolled as nationalist. With the violence of Partition providing abundant evidence of the hazards of
communalized politics, state monopoly over broadcasting was uncontroversial, and there was little dissent to a developmental stance inculcated
in the print media in general. The All India Radio Code, formally adopted in 1968, included three key rules regarding communication policy on
religion for broadcasters. Firstly, there was to be no explicitly devotional programming except on festival days. Secondly, in the event of a
religious disturbance, communities involved were not to be named, to minimize the possibility of aggravating wounded sentiments. Last but not
least, religious communities were to be treated impartially and without prejudice. The commercial news media informally adopted these rules as
well, with the Press Council of India, a statutory body, issuing public reprimands when press conduct was found to be improper.
Most communication pertaining to religion however has been through sound, image, and the orchestration of events; firstly due to the relatively
recent growth of literacy, and secondly, due to the rapid growth of technological communication. As far as visual communication is concerned,
calendar art (see citrakath) and the cinema/filmhave without doubt been the most far-reaching and long-standing means of communicating
religion in one way or another. In calendar or bazaar art, pictures of gods, religious worship, and holy places tend to be prominent. This form of
art dates back to images used in branding bales of cotton and textiles from the 1860s onward, and they represent among the first kind of images
that were widely circulated as printed material. While the colonial government observed a policy of non-interference in religious matters, British
and Indian companies both used images of Hindu gods to brand their products and to help circulate them more widely. From time to time,
objections were raised before regional chambers of commerce in Bombay, Bengal, and the Punjab, that such use was disrespectful to religious
sentiments. In each case, it was ruled that to discontinue the use of god pictures would hurt commerce (see Masselos, 2006; Jain, 2007).
The growth of the capitalist market is usually understood to be secular in its outcomes. But in India, the growth of media and markets helped to
circulate religious imagery across caste, sect, and region. God pictures and commerce promoted each other (Jain, 2007; see
alsocommodification). Anticolonial politics also grew in this space, with religious and nationalist themes interlacing with each other in calendar
art (Ramaswamy, 2010).
Hindu and Islamic calendar art both established links between religion and nation. In the case of Hindu images, political leaders were depicted
alongside gods, receiving blessings from them and indicating that the leaders work was sanctified and worth emulating. Distinctions between
nationalist leaders who were often wide apart in their political positions such as Bhagat Singh, who believed in the necessity of violence and
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was sentenced to death for conspiring to murder a British police officer; Subhas Chandra Bose, who formed an independent army to help to
overthrow the British, with the aid of the Axis powers; and Gandhi, an apostle of nonviolence (ahis) disappeared in calendar art. Images of
virtuous violence and martyrdom were abundant in Hindu calendar art, thus presenting a striking contrast to the official account of the Congress
Party as committed to nonviolence (see Pinney, 2009, 65-87).
Until Independence or soon thereafter, god pictures in calendar art were promoted by multinationals as well as Indian companies; they
constituted respectable art. In the postcolonial period, however, such sponsorship shifted away from foreign and national to regional and local
companies. Portrayal of religious themes shifted away from artists renditions of gods and goddesses, and scenes from well-known myths, to
more abstract depictions. Pictures where elephants and lions reduced to the size of poodles, and where deities could have eight arms or four
heads, or travel in chariots pulled by owls, moved to the hinterland and away from the premium markets.
Indian calendar art shows how disparate themes and systems of representation, scientific and religious, have been treated as harmonious and
indeed mutually reinforcing. Official secular accounts have tended to downplay the prevalence of the mythological and other forms of
representation, as pertaining to ritual and symbolic realms lacking in formal authority. Such a tendency reproduces the high modernism of
developmentalism, which emphasized overcoming economic rather than social and cultural disparity. Events have shown however that these
social scientific categories appear in everyday life as interwoven rather than isolated. Moreover, the growth and spread of mass media renders it
increasingly difficult to sequester the prescribed truths of official nationalism from the more chaotic and promiscuous popular realm. The
expansion of the market and the assertion of previously marginalized electoral constituencies have also combined to render popular religiosity
both more visible and politically influential.
The role of film, radio, and television needs to be specified in this discussion. In the case of film, although it is almost as old as its western
counterparts and even more prolific, cinema was granted the status of an industry only in 1998, with its advantages of legitimate financing.
Relying on black market financing and facing high rates of taxation, film producers sought to maximize market shares. Unlike broadcasters they
disavowed any overtly pedagogical stance and instead experimented with formulas to entertain their audience. Different genres of films
developed.Among these were the mythological, which was the first genre to develop, the action-adventure genre, and "the social."Although the
mythological was for some decades regarded as a prestigious genre addressing respectable urban middle classes, this changed after
Independence. The mythological became confined to subpremium distribution markets, while premium audiences watched mainly social and
action-adventure films.
The mythological here represents filmic stories of gods and goddesses, often from the epics and the Puras, where the deities are shown in
human form, and audiences view enactments of tales that they are often already familiar with (Dwyer, 2006, 15). Such films typically presume an
affinity with religious belief and may include scenes catering specifically to the devout viewer, where deities are at times presented in postures
suitable for worship. But this is not to say that other films are purely secular or are devoid of religious elements. To begin with, every actor is
immediately identifiable through his or her name as belonging to one or other religion. The majority of films in fact depict actors who are Hindu
both on screen and in real life, and a degree of religious piety on their part is invariably assumed and is often part of the story in some way
(Dwyer, 2006, 132-161). At the same time, as the disproportionate reliance of film dialogue and lyrics on Urdu poetry suggests, Muslim presence is
far more palpable in the film industry than in most other industries, and heroes of Muslim background are among the most popular Indian film
stars. It has remained the case however that characters in films are seldom incidentally Muslim; rather their Muslim identity isinvariably salient
to the plot. In this sense, the background assumptions of films, even Hindi films that show more Muslim influence than the films of any other
language in India, tend to be Hindu.
Film plots moreover tend not to be driven by character or narrative logic so much as by chance and contingency; accidents, coincidences, and
surprises rather than necessity propel most events in the movies. In fact,at least until recently,most Indian cinema has easily accomodated, and
at times even depended,on the effects of divine intervention. Even if the films are not classified as mythologicals, miracles or deus ex machinae
may link plot segments and help resolve character dilemmas and story outcomes. Moreover, the main characters are invariably upper caste,
especially in Hindi cinema, and any treatment of issues of caste discrimination until recently have been regarded as taboo within the industry.
The idea of Hindu social reform, featuring a common religious ethic and a rationalized theology, is thus conspicuous by its absence, certainly in
Hindi cinema, which is by far its largest segment. South Indian cinema by contrast shows the influence of lower-caste assertion, although staged
and implied rather than spoken explicitly, especially in Tamil cinema (Baskaran, 2009).
In sharp contrast, the attitude of government controlled broadcast media at times suggested that religious reform was a fait accompli.A
prominent correspondent, Taya Zinkin,who had published a book on caste, was forbidden from mentioning the word "caste" in her radio
broadcast from the Bombay Station, because, she was told, the government of India had abolished caste (Awasthy, 1965, 69).While religious
broadcasts on fixed days of the week were ruled out, the morning broadcasts began with devotional music (bhajans) and were meant to
represent all religious communities but were invariably Hindu in inspiration. In the Hindi belt, daily recital of Tulsdss Rmcaritmnas was
initiated during the national emergency of 1975-1977, when V.C. Shukla was the Minister for Information and Broadcasting and continued
thereafter, with his successor L.K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), finding no fault with the practice (Baruah, 1983). To exclude
religion from programming would in any case have assumed that there existed the possibility of isolating it from the rest of art and culture,
whereas in fact there was little that answered to that description besides film music. North Indian classical music, withits courtly tradition,
could reasonably have been as secular. But the history of its patronage, which was mainly Muslim, contradicted an influential assumption of the
post-Independence era, that secularismwas, or had to be, closer to Hindu than to Muslim culture.In practice, broadcasters provided serial
representation of religious communities and sought to maintain their creed of secular programming by declining regular devotional broadcasts
except for the morning prayer song.
A New Phase of Hinduism?
Muchchanged with what was arguably the most significant event in Indian broadcasting until that time, namely the decision to broadcast the
Hindu epic, the Rmyaa, in a weekly serial format on the single state-owned television channel, Doordarshan. By choosing a format meant for
a nationwide audience, aired at a fixed time every week, Hindu programming could be identified with culture in general, rather than as
programming reflecting a specific community. At the start, the bureaucrats were unsure whether the show would do well, but in a few weeks, the
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serial proved popular, and the program was shifted to the premier spot in the schedule, Sunday mornings. Viewership grew even further, and
before long, the Ramayana serial, like the serialized version of the Mahbhrata that succeeded it, had its name on Sunday mornings, since no
other public event could be scheduled for the time without risking disaster. Public services themselves came to a halt, as bus drivers abandoned
their posts, and engine drivers made unscheduled stops, so that the show could be watched. Those at the annual conclave of the national
political party, the BJP, despite their Hindu nationalist leanings, did not anticipate an empty auditorium at their meeting. One BJP leader
disclosed that it was in a conversation that ensued among members in that empty auditorium that the party decided to use the Ramayanas
popularity as a political platform (Dubashi, personal communication, 1994; for discussion of the serials broadcast and reception, see Rajagopal,
2001, 72-150). This decision, and the popular mobilization that followed, led to the BJP acquiring the status of a national party, something that
had eluded it until that time. What was even more unthinkable at the time eventually transpired a decade later. A political party avowing the
ideology of Hindu nationalism led the winning coalition in the 1998 national elections, and again the following year, after the government
formed the first time collapsed after two weeks (Hansen, 1999).
The televised Rmyaa epic is perhaps the most prominent link in a long-term shift in the public presence of Hinduism and its relationship to
political processes. Having attempted to establish a national state that treated all religions equally, the ruling Congress Party found it difficult to
maintain this policy in practice, although it never ceased to avow it in theory. Religion had served as an unofficial medium for politicization by
centrists as well as conservatives, from the nationalist movement through to postcolonial electoral politics, albeit at a local level. With
industrialization and rising expectations precipitating a legitimation crisis in India (as in most other countries), the competitive pressure to
bolster existing methods of electoral mobilization only grew over time. It is a mark of the extent of the consensus among national political
parties that the overt resort to Hinduism was eventually sparked by the governments initiative to adopt devotional Hindu programming, rather
than emerging from the opposition as such.
If these were the reasons from on high for Hinduisms increased public presence, a parallel set of factors from below can be adduced. Firstly, the
inadequacy of a developmental policy focused on economic growth without a cultural complement meant that entrepreneurial initiatives filled
the breach, guided by commercial incentives. In a context where caste and religious reforms were as yet nascent, issues of social justice and
reversing historic practices of discrimination could not have found favor. Secondly, with the gradual increase in power of consuming classes and
electoral groups both, upwardly mobile aspirants from below began to prise open given categories of social identity, while often avoiding formal
challenges to sanctioned forms of inequality. These efforts found their anchorage in constitutional commitments to abolishing caste
discrimination and to upholding equality of religion before the law. Thirdly, rather than caste and religious differences declining in significance
over time, as Jawaharlal Nehru and other national leaders envisaged, these differences became the battleground on which struggles for
democracy occurred. As such they grew in prominence while undergoing a process of internal transformation. Scriptural sanctions for
reproducing hierarchy began to diminish their hold, and a more inclusive society and polity gradually began to be seen as a likely outcome.
Complicating such a fortunate outcome was a fourth, and more ominous factor. The terms of inclusion in an expanding polity tended to ensure
Hindu dominance. Apart from structural discrimination, after Independence there have been periodic episodes of spectacular violence against
religious minorities, especially from the 1980s onward. After the national emergency of 1975-1977, recorded incidents of communal violence grew
sharply for over two decades, alongside media growth and the expansion of consumer markets. However, violence as measured by industrial
conflict diminished substantially (see Rajagopal, 2011, 1003-1049). These incidents are invariably staged in response to allegations of minority
aggression. Informally understood as collective punishment, such events are usually undertaken by forces claiming to represent popular Hindu
reaction and are often spared rigorous prosecution. One way of characterizing this process would be to describe it as the twin growth of majority
license and minority criminalization, understanding these as two sides of a peculiarly Hindu process of democratization.
Having characterized the broad contours of religion in political communication, it is necessary now to clarify what kinds of processes are at work
in media, whose rules of operation are shaped over the course of colonial and post-Independence history, that require to be understood.
Moreover, in understanding the work of the media, assumptions about media influence based on prevalent readings of Western history can be
misleading and have to be reconsidered.
At the outset, we noted how oral media (rumor, in this case) could dominate print, reversing the direction of influence typically assigned,
whereby new media provides the form while old media constitutes the content (McLuhan, 1994). Clearly, where the majority of the population is
not literate, media effects would be distinct. In such a context, indigenous communication could thrive only if old media seemed to provide the
form, while new media introduced the content. Hence for example the proliferation of religious symbols and imagery in both commerce and
politics, indicating that religion provided a non-partisan resource to a problem of instituting impersonal systems of communication, augmenting
or supplanting native networks comprised by informers, mendicants, merchants, pilgrims, and suchlike (Bayly, 2009, 49-64).
The circulation of god pictures established that communication was possible among natives, who the British argued were irretrievably divided.
Religion in media in fact presented a new event for Indians, namelyidentical messages appearing across divisions of caste, region, language,
and literacy. Such an event, which arose from the existence of gods in common, could endure and proliferate because the terms of inclusion
within the religious community did not have to be specified. Untouchable castes (see Dalits), for example, were not admitted into upper caste-
owned temples, and entry into the sanctum sanctorum where the gods were worshipped was a privilege, not a right. Here,
moderncommunication did not confirm preexisting channels of contact among Indians, but established technological conduits where none had
existed earlier. Unlike the novel in print capitalism with its open-ended and anonymous solidarities (Anderson, 1983), however, god pictures
implicitly invoked religious boundaries and could be used for exclusive rather than inclusive purposes. Conventions of portraiture excluded the
god of Islamor Christianity, for example. Muslim calendar art portrayed holy places in Islamic tradition and featured devotees engaged in
worship; Christian calendar art, in addition to the above, featured Jesus Christ of course.
The development of communication in India thus cannot be comprehended purely in terms of the form and content of knowledge, which vary
with the medium used, as M. McLuhan has argued. Rather the event of communication shaped subjects whose interactions with the media were
historically contingent and could notbe predicted in advance. For example, the divisions within the audience addressed by god pictures in
bazaar art were less important than the overriding objective of anticolonial struggle, which served to cut across the divisions.
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After the freedom movement, the occasion when religious symbols and god pictures circulated across the nation and were harnessed to a
political cause was the Rma Janmabhmi campaign, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Building on the popularity of the Ramayana tele-serial,
and exploiting the weakness of the ruling party at the time, the BJP aimed to translate a demographic Hindu majority into a unified political
constituency. The Congress Party had itself hoped that a similar unification would occur but in its own favor. However, Hindu identity proved
more effective as an oppositional identity, and it was the Congress Partys challenger, the BJP, that gained the most. The Hindu vote itself
fragmented, however, when government-mandated reservations in higher educational institutions for Other Backward Classes were instituted in
1990, and upper castes across North India reacted in fury, with English and Hindi language newspapers largely opposed to reservations too
(Jaffrelot, 2011).
Mediatic Differences and Linguistic Divisions
Any understanding of religion, politics, and media in the contemporary context needs to grapple with something that the Rma Janmabhmi
campaign brought into focus, namely the divisions within the Indian public and the ways in which these divisions were affected by language and
Now the concept of a public, as with most concepts, entails a distinction between what Max Weber called an ideal type, and the concrete
phenomena it refers to (Weber, 1949, 90). Too often, it is taken as a descriptor. In colonial or postcolonial contexts, we can point to a further
problem. Colonial knowledge, since it claims to be impartial, tends to ignore the division between ruling and subordinate strata; that is, between
citizens and subjects. The term "split public" offers a heuristic for identifying tensions within the boundaries of a public sphere that persistently
gets identified as unitary, first under colonial rule and subsequently, under postcolonial national states. In the present discussion, we can note at
least three dimensions or angles along which splits or divisions arise, and tend to get covered over by conventional nomenclature: language (e.g.
English/Hindi), religion (e.g. religious/secular), and modernity (e.g. modern/traditional). In the context of politics and media in Hinduism, a key
split arises from the unfulfilled mission of secularism in a society where following a compromise between Hindu orthodoxy and progressive
anticolonialism, nationalist established an independent state with a secular constitution, but with a society where the writ of orthodoxy still
The distinction between an officially maintained secular public sphere and a more heterogeneous popular culture was not likely to survive the
proliferation of new electronic media, however, as political parties began to invoke the authority of faith to reinforce their diminishing electoral
credibility. The medias reliance on the state to set its own moral compass as it professed reportorial norms of objectivity then led to a crisis of
interpretation. This crisis was sparked, first, by the institution of national television, I suggest, specifically by the broadcast of Hindu tele-epics
and elaborated in the news coverage of the Rma Janmabhmi campaign.
Not surprisingly, Hindi and English language newspapers tended to understand and report the campaign rather differently. But beyond these
differences lay deeper divisions in their comprehension of news as a genre (Jeffrey, 2000). English language news emphasized the truth-value of
news, as information serving a rational-critical public. This reflected the origins of English language news as an elite form of discourse in liberal
market society. Here, any self-consciousness about the storytelling aspect of news gave way to the sense of a transparent communication that
was objective and neutral (Habermas, 1991, 57-88). For English-language audiences, objectivity and neutrality not only worked to enhance the
informational value of news and guarantee its truth content but also served as a marker of the relationship of these audiences to power.
Objectivity, as a news value, corresponded to the history of English as a language of colonial and, subsequently, technocratic nationalist rule and
rendered this history invisible, thereby avoiding a confrontation with the status of English as the language of a tiny minority. Hindi news
audiences had a more fraught and contested relation to power and could not assume a transparent, value-neutral approach to the news in quite
the same way. Even as a means of informing citizens for active political participation, then, Hindi news was written quite differently from
English news. The narrative aspect of news was much more in evidence, and perhaps understandably so, as the power relations between readers
and rulers had to constantly be assessed, dramatized, criticized, or ridiculed, rather than be taken for granted. Here I exclude the so-called
satellite press, Hindi language arms of English dailies that are partly translated from the English.
In Hindi language news, then, objectivity was one of a range of possible values in the news, and neutrality but one of a variety of possible
relationships to political power. The distinction of Hindi language newspapers was typically seen only as a failure, however, in their inability to
imitate the English language press. There were no doubt many respects in which the Hindi press could improve. But such criticisms also
reproduced a colonial emphasis on a conception of neutrality that was never defined, while ignoring the specific cultural and political conditions
of Hindi language news production. This was brought into focus in the coverage of the Rma Janmabhmi campaign but was confirmed more
than a decade later in the Gujarati news coverage of the massacres of Muslims in 2002 (Rajagopal, 2007, 208-224; 2010, 529-556).
The Rma Janmabhmi agitation brought a series of contradictions to the fore: claims of secular nationhood and abundant signs of religious
nationalism; claims of the English language media to speak on behalf of the nation as a whole, and the ostentatious incomprehension it evinced
as more people showed an affinity for popular hindutva; and state claims of religious neutrality and the indulgence it exhibited toward Hindu
militants who violated the law repeatedly. There operated a split between the ideal of the public, symbolized by the modernizing elite, including
members of the state itself, and the more compromised forms through which it actually manifested. In another sense, this also took shape as a
split between an electronic public, which represented the closest numerical approximation of the society at large, and the several print publics
alongside it. Thirdly, and in the specific sense considered here, there was a split between the English language and the Hindi language print
public, whose sudden mutual awareness due to national television created the context against which the assertion of Hindu nationalism gained
new significance.
Partly because televisions growth has occurred so recently, and since print literacy itself has been relatively recent in India, the expansion of
television has accompanied by the expansion rather than the diminution of the reading public, unlike in the West. The Rma Janmabhmi
campaign was, among other things, an expression of the politicization resulting from this combination of quantitative increase in literacy and
qualitative change in the character of the public. Arguments about a democratic public often imply that it was in the era of print capitalism that
the public achieved its highest and most redeeming expression (see Habermas, 1991, 206). The shift to electronic capitalism is registered as
vitiating this legacy, as the profit imperative overtakes more properly political impulses, and the constraints of radio and television reduce public
information into staged displays. But the public sphere, we should recall, is an ideal type, that is, a theoretical model, rather than an historical
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artifact; such an approach, therefore, seems dismissive of actually existing political formations. It remains possible, then, to think about what
kinds of publics could be shaped in other contexts where, for instance, print and electronic audiences were both relatively small in relation to
the population as a whole, and where steep entry costs and the retention of state controls ensured that print rather than electronic media
remained closest to local and regional opinion. A more market-sensitive newspaper industry at this time provided venues for articulating public
opinion, whereas television, which at this time was government-controlled, mirrored the state largely as it wished to be seen.
In the early 21st century, two issues dominate contemporary Hinduism and politics: caste and hindutva. Until the dramatic linkage effected
between these two issues by the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990, mandating central government
reservations in higher educational institutions for Other Backward Classes, much critical commentary during the decades after Indian
Independence in 1947 treated hindutva and caste as separate topics. In a sense, this represented the post-Independence evolution of the
nationalist view that caste ought to be treated as a private phenomenon, expressed for example in Gandhis response to B.R. Ambedkars
Popular and political reactions to the Mandal Commission thereafter made undeniable the caste dynamics across parties espousing either
secularism or communalism. In this sense, no purely philosophical discussion of Hinduism can be undertaken in the contemporary context;
the conflicts of politics and the institutions and technologies of communications media have impacted the debates. For example, the Manusmti
(see dharmastra), from being a scripture pronounced by the pious and proscribed to lower castes, is more often invoked today as a political
slogan, manuvd (the doctrine of Manu), used to invoke upper-caste rule now regarded as arbitrary and hence to pose questions of how caste
differences should be adjudicated today.
Meanwhile Hindu practice, which shows irreconcilable diversity across its numerous castes, creeds, and sects, and has historically had
remarkably porous boundaries, is more than ever marking distinctions vis--vis other major religions such as Christianity and Islam. New sites
and new mechanisms of religious identification have become available for Hindus irrespective of their caste status. Hitherto existing religious
exercise was seldom free of caste-divided forms of practice; to this extent, Hindu religion was as stratifying as it was unifying. Electronic media
inaugurated durable, quotidian modes of participating in Hindu prayer and ritual unmarked by caste. The effect was both to democratize Hindu
practice internally and harden its external boundaries, thereby posing a conundrum as to the status of religious minorities in a Hindu majority
We can conclude by noting three points about the character and possible outcomes of the mass mediatization and politicization of
contemporary Hinduism. Firstly, the growth of audio-visual media exposes the gap between authoritative, print-literate accounts of Hinduism
that stressed its philosophical aspects and its more complex and varied practice. Temple ritual and guru worship, of charismatic authority and
quasi-magical forms of faith, now openly contend with more rationalist religious practice. Collective practices of religious observance have
grown, sometimes affiliated to politics, but more often understood as improving and, in fact, as modernizing in spirit if not in letter. Secondly,
the authority of spiritual leaders in adjudicating legal and political disputes has probably diminished, partly due to their overuse by political
parties themselves. Reliance on courts and elections is greater, even while uncertainty is understood to attend the mechanisms at work in these
institutions. If these two points suggest a modernist optimism, about religion serving as a medium for forces and tendencies whose resolution is
ultimately progressive, the third point is a qualification. The apparent sanctity and even indispensability of coercion in the process of conflict
resolution and social and political reforms has been demonstrated time and again. The state may have claimed the monopoly on the means of
legitimate violence, but it is often reluctant to challenge violence carried out in the name of the majority religion. No easy prescriptions are
possible, except for the likelihood of a protracted and slow process of change. In this situation, however, those who wish to retain the status quo
are in a small minority, and that is positive.
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Cite this page
Arvind Rajagopal. "Politics and Media." Brills Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by: Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Brill Online, 2014. Reference. BRILL
demo user. 02 April 2014 <>
First appeared online: 2012
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