India’s paradox

Prasun Sonwalkar

‘The frustrating thing about India is that whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true’1. It is a conundrum most researchers face while navigating contemporary India’s sub-continental size, deep diversities, stark inequalities, 1.3-billion-plus population with over 65 per cent below the age of 35 and a large middle class. The growing numbers of the super-rich co-exist with abysmal poverty' as a globalised India continues to face major challenges in issues such as health, education, food security, environment, energy and rural development. At the time of independence from Britain in 1947, the unlikely' nation-state was not expected to survive long due to many fissiparous tendencies, yet democracy has flourished for over 70 years, consolidating India’s position as a modern nation-state, unlike others that gained independence around the same time. Underpinning the turbulent decades since independence is a diverse, raucous and largely' free news media, aiding the state’s development initiatives in the early' decades and increasingly holding power to account with effective examples of investigative journalism since the mid-1970s, particularly' after the Indira Gandhi government-imposed Emergency (1975—1977) that included press censorship, curtailing civil liberties and suspending elections.

The general election of 2019 presents a convenient backdrop to explore the contemporary context of Indian journalism and recall the paradoxical story of its investigative genre: highly' effective at its peak but tamed in recent years as part of news discourse to the point that it has become increasingly' anodyne by' a combination of extreme examples of political economy of news and governments intolerant of criticism imposing overt and covert curbs. India presents a rich menu for investigative journalism: ideological conflicts, gaps between policy and implementation, corruption, imperfect application of the rule of law and serious deficiencies in practices at various levels, among others. Ministers have been forced to resign, top politicians shamed, new laws enacted and corporate illegalities exposed by' telling examples of investigative reporting that rocked India, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s and some in the 1990s and later. Indian investigative journalists and newspapers are increasingly' part of global networks such as the International Consortium of Investigative

Journalists and WikiLeaks and access information abroad to bring to light anomalies in the country.

However, such examples have dwindled in recent years, particularly after the phenomenon of ‘Murdochization’ entrenched itself in Indian journalism and posed a serious challenge to the news media performing its role of holding power to account, particularly since the early 1990s (Sonwalkar, 2002, 2013, 2016). ‘Murdochization’ is based on the corporate culture devised by Rupert Murdoch to drive profits and involves privileging the ‘marketing* or ‘business’ side of journalism over the ‘editorial’ and thus catering to the lowest common denominator, tabloidisation, pricing wars, non-unionised workforce, journalists employed on short-term contracts and censorship to suppress negative news about business partners, advertisers or political parties. The trope of ‘manufacturing consent’, set out in academic literature, may have reached its extreme in India since 2014, when overt and covert curbs ensured the dominance of one political party and its government and the marginalisation of the rest in news discourse, with newsrooms openly pushing propaganda or journalists selfcensoring material to avoid offence to those in power.

Blurring the lines between advertising and news in the form of advertorials and stating it as such is a common practice, but one of the manifestations of ‘Murdochization’ in India is ‘paid news’, which refers to paid political advertising passing off as news without stating that it is sponsored. ‘Paid news’ itself became the subject ofa series of investigative reports in the 2010s by P. Sainath, one of India’s leading journalists. Identical ‘news’reports, plugging a candidate or party, appear in various newspapers on the same day during elections; television news channels have their versions. In the context of feverish competition for revenue, ‘paid news’ has become a normal, if officially undeclared, source of income for news organisations, even though it is seen by many as a threat to the democratic process, since readers and viewers are misled into believing that editorial content has been produced by independent journalists. By the 2014 general election, ‘paid news’ had ceased to be a surprise, as parties, candidates and news organisations devised ingenuous ways to push claims to electoral success and power. Given the vast news media infrastructure in the country, ‘paid news’ became one of the key ways to influence voters.

In India’s increasingly corporate-driven news mosaic, in recent years, journalists and media groups critical of the party in power have faced raids by official agencies, threats to life and employment or lack of access to sources of news. As news content increasingly turned anodyne, investigative journalism was almost non-existent. The role of the editor has been downgraded since the early 1990s as media owners place a premium on their own proximity to the party in power. In 2017, Arun Shourie, one of the icon of investigative journalism, compared democratic India’s news media to that in North Korea (Bose, 2017).

This chapter explores the story of India’s investigative journalism by situating it in historical and contemporary contexts, with major examples that hadimpact, and dwells on reasons for its recent neutering to the extent that reporters’ instincts to probe an issue deeply have been virtually annihilated. ‘Newspapers no longer invest in investigative journalism, not because they have no money but because they are afraid to antagonize the rulers’, says Arun Sinha, one of India’s most-known investigative journalists, who broke the infamous ‘Bhagalpur blindings’ story in 1980.2 After a brief overview of Indian journalism, three examples of investigative reporting are recalled before focusing on some reasons for the decline in recent years of what Protess et al. called journalism of outrage’ (1993).

Indian journalism: an overview

India’s ancient oral tradition of argument and debate (Sen, 2006) was reinvigorated when the British introduced their energetic style of public debate through print journalism in the late eighteenth century. The printing press arrived in Goa with Portuguese missionaries in the mid-sixteenth century, but it was not until 1780 that the first English-language journals were launched in Calcutta (the first was Hicky’s Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser, by James Augustus Hicky), followed by journals in Bengali, Persian and Hindi in Calcutta and in other Indian languages in colonial Madras and Bombay. By the early nineteenth century, a ‘multifarious culture of the print medium’ had come into existence, which quickly became the first fully formed print culture outside Europe and North America, distinguished by its size and a large number of languages (Dharwadker, 1997: 112). Print journalism soon emerged as a key site of public discourse, as leading Indians of the time such as Rammohun Roy presented arguments from Indian perspectives and countered colonial measures (Sonwalkar, 2015). It went on to play a crucial role in the long freedom struggle before independence in 1947, as nationalist newspapers took on a distinct anti-establishment posture against the British and British-owned newspapers. One of them, Indian Express (founded 1932), continued the posture after independence, establishing itself as the foremost forum of investigative journalism in contemporary India.

Press laws enacted during British rule continue in amended form today. After independence, the press was left largely free, with the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, insisting that he would ‘rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press’. The first governments of free India tolerated criticism in editorial pages; there were rare attempts to muzzle the press or the expression of dissent, which aided the creation of a professional culture in which Indian journalists aspired to reach the (then) standards of British journalism.

However, subsequent governments sought to curb press freedom, particularly the Indira Gandhi government that imposed the Emergency. The press fought back, often exposing leading politicians and corrupt practices that also influenced elections. As Sen has famously argued, the principal reason 2 to

3 million people perished in famines in China in the 1950s and 1960s while only thousands died in India, in spite of there being no major differences in agricultural growth rates and food-grain supply, was the existence of a relatively free unofficial media in India and its absence in China. The press played the role of an effective advance warning system. It became a major agency of communication, information dissemination and public debate; newspapers contributed to raising public and governmental awareness on a range of issues, from changing social values, to poverty and starvation, to policy and programme failures.

Figures reflect the scale and diversity of the Indian press: as of 2018, the number of registered publications was 118,239 (17,573 newspapers, 100,666 periodicals). The largest number of publications are in Hindi (47,989), followed by those in English (14,626). The circulation of publications was 43,00,66,629 (Hindi: 19,56,21,990, English: 5,34,53,564). English is one India’s 22 ‘official languages’, and given its aspirational and historically privileged status in the country, English-language newspapers published from New Delhi are considered the national press, often setting the agenda in parliament and exerting influence in the public sphere. Technology has transformed India’s media universe, providing new tools for investigative journalism. Since the mid-1980s, television has opened new avenues of information, entertainment and connectivity for individuals, institutions and regions. There are over 400 twenty-four-hour news channels in all major languages. But, as in other countries and aided by rising literacy, television did not obliterate the position of the press as a mature, reasonable and sober forum of public debate. The news discourse includes exponential growth in the use of the Internet and growing numbers of citizen journalists with smart-phones providing audio and visual footage to mainstream news organisations during times of crisis.

Investigative reports that rocked India

The most-known examples of investigative journalism are from Indian Express, which describes itself as practicing journalism of courage’. Its focus on antiestablishment reporting peaked from the late 1970s until the mid-1980s, when its publisher, Ramnath Goenka (1904—1991), allowed significant freedom to his editors: Arun Shourie, B. G. Verghese and S. Nihal Singh, who went on to acquire legendary status in Indian journalism. The newspaper led with several exposés after the Emergency, when the news media increasingly asserted itself against the government. Three examples published in Indian Express from the period are: a series on the purchase of a young woman, Kamla, by Ashwini Sarin (1981); the gory blinding of suspects awaiting trial by the police in police custody in Bhagalpur, by Arun Sinha (1980) and the plight ofjuvenile suspects in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, by Sanjay Suri (1985). The first two became the subject of Bollywood films: ‘Kamla’ (1985) and ‘Gangajal’ (2003). A summary of the three in the following sets out how they held up a mirror to Indian society' beyond its feel-good narratives of democracy, culture and diversity.

Buying Kanila

Ashwini Sarin, an unassuming man of 29 in 1981, was known for his investigative reports in the aftermath of the Emergency. He learnt of trafficking in women in the Agra-Morena-Mainpuri-Etah area near New Delhi, where they were sold as servants or prostitutes under the patronage of the local police and politicians. He, along with his editor, Arun Shourie, decided to probe further but realised that a straight story would not have the necessary impact. They decided to actually buy a woman. After months visiting the area known for its gun culture, Sarin, posing as a doctor, bought a young woman named Kanila for a little over 300 dollars and brought her to his home in New Delhi.

Sarins series on the purchase on the front page of Indian Express began thus:

Yesterday' I bought a short-statured skinny' woman belonging to a village near Shivpuri in Madhya Pradesh for 2,300 rupees. Even I find it hard to believe that I have returned to the capital this morning after buying the middle-aged woman for half the price one pay's for a buffalo in the Punjab. . . . There were not many customers for Kanila, so I decided to emancipate her.

(April 27, 1981)

Sarin recalled the effort behind the series in 2018:

It took me almost a year to penetrate the racket. It was an area where country-made pistols were bought like packs of cigarettes. Arun Shourie, my editor, knew the project we were embarking upon could land us in trouble with the law. We worked out a strategy. He wrote letters to three prominent persons, including the then chief justice of India, setting out our intentions in participating in that crime of purchasing a woman. In sealed envelopes, along with covering notes requesting them not to open the letters until they' were requested to do so.

(Sarin, 2018)

As the story unfolded, officials were shown in a bad light, and the police promptly' filed a case against Sarin, who had committed the crime under the Indian Penal Code of buying the woman. Shourie approached the Supreme Court and got a stay on Sarin’s arrest, while the government ordered an inquiry' by three states adjoining New Delhi, which confirmed the existence of large-scale trafficking of women.

Shourie, who oversaw several such exposes as editor, said at the time:

We will ask the court if the law can be broken for a legitimate investigation and afterwards approach the court with a request to initiate steps to mitigate the evil laid bare by the investigation and thereby enlarge the scope of the citizen’s rights. ... I can’t change the society'.

It will change when people will want it. I am just holding a mirror to society. I am using the Gandhian technique: pick up small issues, remove fear, try' and educate people about the evils in society, and coax his contribution out of every individual.

(Gupta, 1981)

S. Nihal Singh, who was editor-in-chief, added:

Nothing was done by the authorities to check this organized crime spread over three states. Kamla is the symbol of slavery still prevalent in that area. Our action was the only effective way to tell our readers what was happening around them and that something must be done to get rid of the evil.

The story raised questions of ethics and law, but Sarin insisted it was appropriate for a journalist to participate in a crime to show it exists. He wrote in 2018:

It boggles the mind that it’s almost 40 years now. But why' is it not surprising to realize that the issues have not changed one bit? Should an aberration, an abnormality, a wrong, be allowed to exist unreported? Is it more intolerable that a crime is committed, every minute, silently, or that it is reported? Which is worse? That a grievous flaw exists? Or that it is demonstrated to exist, so that something can be done about it? Should a journalist push the envelope by' participating in a crime to show it exists? My answer, after all these years, is still yes.

Kamla has since become the foremost example of investigative reporting in India.

The Bhagalpiir blindings

The town of Bhagalpur in the economically backward eastern state of Bihar rarely' makes news in the national press. The state has long grappled with issues of caste, crime, gun culture, left-wing extremism and extra-judicial killings. Arun Sinha had acquired a reputation for investigations into Bihar’s social and political problems when he dug into an innocuous single-column report in the inside pages of the newspaper of October 11, 1980, by' the newspaper’s legal correspondent. The report said a lawyer had moved a habeas corpus petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of 10 individuals in the Bhagalpur jail awaiting trial for suspected crimes, adding that they ‘alleged that the police deprived them of their eyesight by using acid’. Two Calcutta-based publications followed it up with detailed features for their early November issues, but printing problems delayed publication by two weeks. Sinhas account was the first to appear, narrating gory details of over 30 jail inmates blinded by the police, who inserted metal spokes in their eyes and poured sulphuric acid on them as extra-judicial punishment for their alleged crimes. His report was splashed on the front page with a photograph of one of the victims and the headline: ‘Eyes punctured twice to ensure blindness’ (Indian Express, November 22, 1980).

The story and Sinhas follow-ups soon had impact. The policemen were suspended from their jobs, while human rights groups and others approached the Supreme Court, which ordered compensation for the victims, including monthly pension, in the first such case in which the court ordered compensation for the violation of human rights in India. But that was not the end of the story. The polices illegal act was widely welcomed by the local population that was weary of growing crime in the town. Journalists who followed Sinha s expose were harassed and hounded by the local people, who saw the blindings as an act of instant justice, instead of the long, drawn-out proceedings in courts.

Sinha recalls:

I heard of it in early November 1980. I made initial inquiries in Patna and went to Bhagalpur to find out more. Fortunately, the superintendent of the Bhagalpur jail, where the blinded under-trials were lodged, was a conscientious officer and he showed me documents that clearly suggested the police were directly or indirectly irresponsible for the barbarous acts. I returned to Patna (the state capital) and wrote a report which was carried on the front page. It was after the report was published that my editors asked me to do a detailed investigation.

I went back to Bhagalpur and conducted detailed interviews with the jail officials, the families of the victims, some victims who were on bail, police and administration officials and common people. The documents and facts did not come to me in one basket. I had to get pieces of information from various sources — jail officials, police officers, officers of civil administration, lawyers, human rights activists and in the villages and small towns of the district where the incidents took place, as well as sources in the departments of police and prison in state headquarters. There was risk to my life as many policemen were suspended and the public had come out on the streets to support them, saying they had done the right thing. I had to go around Bhagalpur with a disguised identity. I found it puzzling to hear lawyers, teachers, doctors and other middle-class professionals residing in Bhagalpur town and other parts of the district justify the blindings as ‘an excellent method’ of crime control. Most of the district police officers echoed their feelings, some even acquitting their juniors manning police stations who were involved in the blindings as ‘innocent’ as they had only done what the people wanted - in short, they had acted in ‘public interest. I met very few people from the middle class who still remained committed to the rule of law dealing with people accused of violating the law. The height of barbarity of the perpetrators of blindings and the height of irrationality of the middle-class champions of the horrendous campaign was evident from the fact that most of the victims were not even hardcore outlaws but suspects. Some were picked up only because they were members of the lower social classes who defied local elite power and stood up to their excesses.

The story raised awareness about human rights and exposed the reality of extra-judicial killings in police custody. It was followed up widely, but instead of stooping such acts, it also inspired copycat acts against suspects elsewhere. Sinha’s exposé was published in 1980, but recent developments suggest such illegal acts continue. Filmmaker Amitabh Parashar produced a documentary in 2017 titled The Eyes of Darkness, presenting contemporary evidence, decades after the Bhagalpur blindings (Ramnath, 2017).

Children in Delhi’s Tihar Jail

Sanjay Suri was a reporter on the crime beat in Indian Express in the 1980s. He was known for his reporting of the separatist ‘Khalistan’ movement in Punjab and of the killing of a large number of Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October 1984. One of his exposés, published in 1985 under the headline, ‘The Shame of It’, highlighted the plight of children and juveniles detained for alleged crimes in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, the largest prison complex in south Asia. They were lodged in cells with hardened criminals. Using opportunities provided by lax supervision during visiting hours, Suri met and interviewed several children. His reports led to an inquiry and eventual transformation of the jail’s infrastructure that now includes separate cells to house children and juveniles accused of crime.

Suri recalls:

A single thought runs through my recollection of the stories: how little we reporters were managed. It is the memory of an enabling freedom. That freedom gave me room to visit Tihar Jail several times over the course of about six weeks to interview children that I had learnt from a source in jail were being sexually abused and enslaved into hard labour by senior convicts. Most of the children I met one by one as a visitor were visibly sick, many of them seemed to have skin infections. Something extraordinary happened the morning my first report appeared. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, P.N. Bhag-wati, admitted it as a petition in his own court and ordered an inquiry by the chief judicial magistrate of Delhi, who confirmed what I had reported and amplified it. That led to a court order to restructure the jail to build in an entirely separate section for juveniles. This brought institutional protection for children who had been abused for years.

Journalists such as Suri and Sinha who made an impact recall the support they enjoyed from their editors, without which, they admit, their catalogue of exposes would not have been possible. As Sinha observes, ‘1 had full support of the editors’. In 1986, in a newsroom culture of what Suri calls ‘enabling freedom’, I did a three-part investigative series on the front page of the Patna edition of The Times of India on corruption and anomalies in the Bihar government’s computerisation drive, titled ‘Bihar’s Computer Muddle’, which led to an inquiry and action.

Suri reflects on the contemporary situation:

Fighting oft'the usual urge of assuming that the self always does great things and all who follow are lesser, it does still seem that barring the occasional exception, the days of investigative reporting of the kind we did so much of and at such length, are mostly gone. The reporter’s story needs a supportive editor to be what it is. The reason this culture of reporting has dwindled is pressure to be frequently if not constantly productive, and not be seen for long stretches as having, on the face of it, ‘done nothing’. In some leading publications editors are now are undisguisedly managed by managers. They in turn do not commit enough resources over what they fail to see as immediately visible returns. Ad budgets have been swallowed substantially by television, and much of that finds flash and noise a cheaper way of offering allegedly lively content. Television can be a great medium for investigations but its logistics demand a great deal of time and money. We are into a culture of quick turnaround. Journalists work now with expectations of early career arrivals and not of launching into painstaking investigations. This is why we get so much by way of lazy offerings arising from relatively little work.

Besides the three examples, some investigative reporting in recent years had impact. N. Ram, editor of The Hindu, and Chitra Subramaniam, his former colleague, relentlessly investigated the Bofors arms purchase controversy that later contributed to the defeat of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Congress party in the 1989 elections. Other journalists whose reporting made an impact include Sucheta Dalal, Aniruddha Bahai, Rana Ayyub, Murali Krishnan, Ritu Sarin, P Sainath, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Chitra Subramaniam, Neha Dixit, Tarun Tejpal, Amitav Ranjan, Manoj Mitta and Josy Joseph.

Besides newspapers such as Indian Express and The Statesman, until recently, news magazines India Today and Outlook also devoted resources for investigative journalism.

Journalism, particularly its investigative genre, does not exist in isolation but is part of a complex matrix of laws, core values and practices in a democracy. The default position in a democracy is for the idea, ideology and idealism of journalism to flourish, so that it can diligently perform its normative role, but to what extent it can do so when powerful political and corporate forces steer it to one partisan extreme is open to debate. As I have shown, investigative journalism in India has a glorious record, but that is increasingly in the past. The contemporary text and context are different. There has been a proliferation in the last 30 years of what I call the ‘hardware’ of journalism (enabling factors such as technology, capital, rising literacy, training centres), which offers new potential and opportunities for the ‘software’ of journalism to flourish: by ‘software’, I mean the quality of the editorial content that empowers citizens, holds those in power to account and strengthens democratic institutions. Online journalism is increasingly making its presence felt, providing new spaces to reclaim credibility, but, as the now-embedded idea of ‘Murdochization’ acquires ever more extreme forms in India, the genre of investigative journalism faces a serious challenge, when mainstream journalism itself is facing a crisis of trust.

News media itself as focus of investigative journalism

The support from editors that enabled exposes declined progressively after the early 1990s, by when Indian journalism had been well and truly ‘Mur-dochized’. Josy Joseph, whose catalogue of investigative reporting since 2001 in leading newspapers featuring high-profile individuals and corporate houses created ripples and won him awards and lawsuits, penned a lament in a piece titled ‘The Byline Is Dead: How Indian Newsrooms Became Morgues for Investigative Journalism':

More than a decade ago, I opened a folder in my email called ‘Morgue’. I began saving in it stories I had written that met journalistic standards but still failed to see the light of the day. Stories have continued to pile up in that folder even as I have changed jobs. . . . In the mortuary of these dead stories, I have a collection of reporting on some of our biggest political leaders and corporate giants that, in a country with robust media, would have been celebrated, and in a law-abiding society, would have triggered major criminal investigations. But in India, these stories have found few takers. There have been times when I have seen individual editors stand up for journalism, but they have been rare exceptions. The culture of the newsroom has degenerated slowly, and self-censorship has become second nature to young journalists.

(2018: 12)

Josephs words marked a new low. In May 2018, in an ironic twist to the story of investigative journalism in India, top news organisations themselves became the focus of a series of sting operations, which exposed their willingness to consider ‘news packages’ to further a particular ideology, defame politicians and create a religious atmosphere to help a political party in the build-up to the 2019 general elections — for a big price (Rowlatt, 2018). The revelations disappointed many and spread more cynicism about the state of Indian journalism; one leading commentator saw the news media as a ‘principal threat’ to India’s famed democracy (Mehta, 2018).

As mentioned previously, some governments in independent India sought to curb press freedom, but the contribution to journalism of the Narendra Modi government, which has been in office in New Delhi since 2014 (it was reelected in 2019), has been significant in the history of media-government relations. Leading figures in the government fuelled public distrust in journalism by referring to journalists as ‘presstitutes’ and ‘news traders’ or restricting their access to news sources and forcing journalists and news organisations to censor news that may be critical of the government (the 2019 World Press Freedom Index ranked India at 140). Prime Minister Modi does not address press conferences, prefers scripted interviews and addresses the people through twitter and the state-owned media. The fear of reprisals from those in power among news media organisations and journalists has effectively prevented investigative reporting in recent years (Rao, 2019; Subrahmaniam, 2019).

Journalism, particularly its investigative genre, does not exist in isolation but is part of a complex matrix of laws, core values and practices in a democracy. The default position in a democracy is for the idea, ideology and idealism of journalism to flourish so that it can diligently perform its normative role, but to what extent it can do so when powerful political and corporate forces steer it to one partisan extreme is open to debate. As I have shown, investigative journalism in India has a glorious record, but that is increasingly in the past because of the present text and context: there has been a proliferation in the last 25 years of what I call the ‘hardware’ of journalism (enabling factors such as technology, capital, rising literacy, training centres), which offers new potential and opportunities for the ‘software’ of journalism to flourish. By software, I mean the editorial content that empowers citizens, holds those in power to account and strengthens democratic institutions. Online journalism is increasingly making its presence felt, providing new spaces to reclaim credibility, but, as the now-embedded idea of‘Murdochization’acquires more extreme forms, investigative journalism faces a serious challenge, when mainstream journalism itself faces a crisis of trust.

Notes

  • 1 Reportedly said to Professor Amartya Sen by his supervisor at Cambridge, Professor Joan Robinson.
  • 2 Quotes from Arun Sinha and Sanjay Suri are from personal communication, 2019.

References

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