Jawed Naqvi in The Dawn
A FRESH Cobrapost sting operation has shown a number of big media outfits accepting money to spread fake news and whip up religious hysteria to boost the BJP’s chances in the 2019 elections. The Cobrapost is held in high regard and its exposés in the past have helped the interests of Indian democracy. This one, however, has left one a bit confused. Did we need to bribe Goebbels to do what he was already good at doing and was likely to do anyway?
Another way of seeing the matter is through the ideological affinity and collusion that exists between most media houses and Hindutva, which makes them predisposed ideologically to align with the BJP. Congress has elements the coterie can support, mainly with regard to business leeway. Otherwise, Indira Gandhi’s nationalisation of the banks, which they owned, and her initial flirtation with the left in a Nehruvian romance won her the clique’s disapproval. Even Rajiv Gandhi went for their jugular when he exhorted Congress workers to shake the moneybags off their backs. The business clique’s preference for a non-Gandhi Congress leader makes eminent sense.
A straight reading of Akshaya Mukul’s well-documented book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, for example, would nudge the reader to see the Cobrapost’s media sting — available on its website — from a different perspective. A key question flows from the operation. Would the media barons not work for the BJP or, worse, work against it, if they were not offered huge sums? One is not excluding the mercenary angle in the projection of a political idea and there are good arguments to see Hindutva as a business investment too, but more of that another time.
Mukul’s book is about India’s business community of Marwaris — who happen to own much, possibly most of the so-called mainstream newspapers and TV channels — and the coming about of the Gita Press in Gorakhpur. The right-wing press was to become the fountainhead of reactionary Hindu political and communal discourse and also a platform for mobilisation 1926 onwards against India’s Dalits, assorted minorities, but chiefly targeting the Muslims. The book also prompts an unintended question as an aside. Why is it that nearly all the exposés involving Marwari business houses are carried out in the form of books?
The answer lies in another question. Who owns the press? Consider the fact that William Caxton’s induction of the printing press in England in the 15th century was put to use in subsequent eras by capitalists, communists and evangelists alike. It served the purposes of colonialism via Macaulay and it also fashioned a mode of anti-colonial upsurge. Muslim and Hindu communalists harnessed the technology to vend their own venomous messages.
Interestingly, the first challenge to the Marwari hold on news dissemination came from a leftist public-minded intellectual, one Debjyoti Burman, in 1950 in the form of a book. He wrote the Mystery of the Birla House as an exposé on the Calcutta-based business group. But the Birlas reportedly bought all three editions and eventually the copyrights of the book.
Mr Burman, however, presented his book to Purushottam Das Tandon, president of the Nasik session of Congress. In the foreword, he expressed the hope that Mr Tandon “will hear the tears falling and throw his weight on the side of the masses to save the country from ruthless exploitation”.
Burman told Tandon that “the health, wealth and happiness of our people are being butchered” by the business group. A copy of the disappeared vignette exists in the ‘rare textbooks’ section of the Nehru Memorial Library in Delhi. Other books on Marwari business houses have been made to disappear mysteriously. In fact, in his quest for material on the Gita Press, Mukul found that copies of a rival journal that wrote detailed profiles of Indian communities were available for most groups but not the one that covered the Marwaris. He retrieved it anyhow with the help of a private archivist.
While the books that have either disappeared or failed to find vendors dealt mostly with financial exposés and the dark backstage of businesses, Mukul’s work deals with the Marwari pursuit of a religious and cultural platform to propagate their worldview, which invariably waded into politics, usually of a scurrilous kind.
“I wanted one of the issues of the journal Chand, which used to come out in the early 1920s — a particular issue on Marwaris, which was banned in that period,” Mukul has been quoted as saying in an interview. “Chand was taking on all castes. It brought out issues on Kayasths too so it was an equal opportunity offender. They did it to everyone; they were quite a gang. I was looking for this ‘Marwari Ank’ but all the libraries in Allahabad and Banaras had all the issues of Chand but not that one because it was banned at that time and the community had bought up all the issues and destroyed them. But one antiquarian in Banaras dug up this copy of ‘Marwari Ank’ for me! So there are people who helped a lot outside the archives.”
There was a time when Marwari-owned newspapers ran professional outfits with editors valued for their integrity. That seems to have been more of an enforced discipline to conform to the political climate of secularism firmly tethered to a mixed economy driven by socially driven five-year plans.
The Cobrapost’s revelations are important to palpably feel the extent of the rot in the Indian media. But any suggestion that the newspapers and TV channels owned by the Gita Press-minded businesses were driven by the profit motive alone is to stretch the point.
“The idea [behind the Marwari publication] was that Hinduism should speak in one voice just like Islam does,” says Mukul. “According to them, Hindus were in big trouble because they didn’t speak in one voice.”