Before moving to New York in August 2006, I met with fellow journalists and writers in New Delhi. The conversations always veered to an irritatingly familiar topic: Where is the space in Indian journalism for serious, detailed reportage? It is a bizarre conversation in light of the tremendous expansion of media in India. The economic liberalization in the early 1990s produced scores of nonstop television news operations and a number of new newspapers and magazines. Marie Claire now has an India edition; Time Out Mumbai and Time Out Delhi, even Scientific American India are all new additions to the countrys newsstands. In 2005, Random House launched its India operation. Foreign Affairs, Time, and The Economist have all recently published cover stories on the ”rise of India.”The opinion pages of leading Indian newspapers talk about the twenty-first century being the Indian century, about imminent superpower status.
But as in the U.S. and elsewhere, an expanding media market is no guarantee that it will be filled with the best journalism. Young television anchors and reporters breaking news to millions of Indian viewers in their faux American accents try hard to ape Fox News and cnn. Pamela Andersons silicone implants, Paris Hiltons escapades, and sexiest-people lists are mainstays in the daily fashion and entertainment supplements of the leading English-language newspapers. Last year in a town near Delhi, a child fell into a well and soldiers from a nearby army base came to rescue him. TV news broadcast the drama live for two days, hyping what their marketing folks tagged the ”Prince of Life.”The story was on the front page of most newspapers.
Meanwhile, there is another side of the ”rise of India.”It is a darker side, brimming with complicated stories that demand detailed reporting and spacein print or on airto be told properly. In the rural areas of India, for example, thousands of cotton farmers have committed suicide after falling hopelessly into debt. It is a continuing tragedy, which has yet to find its James Agee and Walker Evans. With the exception of the detailed reporting on the subject by Palagummi Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, a Madras-based English-language daily, the story has been largely ignored. The effects of the industrial expansion on traditional, tribal-dominated rural areas are invisible in magazines and newspapers; they are mostly not interested in such grim subjects.
The unwillingness to allocate resources and time for deeply reported, long-form writing is visible even in the Indian presss coverage of the new economy, business, and the fast-growing Indian fashion and movie industries. There are news reports on the rising number of billionaires in India, about businessmen-turned-legislators flying in private jets to gatherings of the Indian parliament, Indian girls being crowned Miss World or Miss Universe, about the Indian stake in the call-center industry, or the burgeoning ranks of Indian software professionals in America and elsewhere. But for a handful of exceptionssuch as Tehelka, the crusading Web site that became a print magazine in 2004, the biweekly Frontline magazine, and an English-language daily, The Indian Expressthere are no outlets that attempt to map, contextualize, and explain these billionaire public servants and peripatetic techiesand through them the journey India is making.
I have experienced this frustration firsthand. After the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament by a Pakistani militant group that operates in the disputed region of Kashmir, India and Pakistan almost went to war. Three men from Kashmir, including a Delhi University lecturer, were arrested and charged under a controversial law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows a suspect to be detained up to 180 days without being charged; the burden of proof is on the accused, the identity of witnesses is withheld, and confessions made to police officers without a lawyer present are admissible as evidence.
Most leading newspapers and magazines described the lecturer as the ”mastermind”of the attack. I covered the trial for a news portal called Rediff.com. Except for the day the three men were sentenced to death, only a few other reportersnone from TVjoined me in the courtroom. The attack was described as the Indian 9/11, and most newsrooms, in the grip of a strong nationalist sentiment, chose to ignore the trials of the accused.
I wanted to write about the trial in some detail, but Rediff.com is basically a daily news site that doesnt publish longer, explanatory articles. Through some London-based journalist friends, I got in touch with the editors at the Guardians Weekend magazine; they liked the idea and published a detailed piece titled, ”Victims of December 13,”in July 2003. A few months later, in October 2003, a higher court acquitted two of the three accused in the attack, including the university lecturer.