Style Over Substance

Despite India’s media boom, its journalism is shrinking.
June 12, 2007

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 country’s 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 Anderson’s silicone implants, Paris Hilton’s 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 space–in print or on air–to 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 press’s 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 exceptions–such as Tehelka, the crusading Web site that became a print magazine in 2004, the biweekly Frontline magazine, and an English-language daily, The Indian Express–there are no outlets that attempt to map, contextualize, and explain these billionaire public servants and peripatetic techies–and 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 reporters–none from TV–joined 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.

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I wanted to write about the trial in some detail, but Rediff.com is basically a daily news site that doesn’t publish longer, explanatory articles. Through some London-based journalist friends, I got in touch with the editors at the Guardian’s 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.

The typical cover story in an Indian news magazine does not exceed 2,000 words. When President Bush visited India in March 2006, op-ed and editorial writers celebrated the U.S.’s acceptance of India’s nuclear energy program. Stories of the ”Indo-U.S. Nuclear Deal”dominated the print and broadcast media. But no one was writing, for example, about the unusually high rates of cancer and birth defects among the people working in and living near India’s biggest uranium mine at Jadugoda in the northern state of Bihar. I told my editor I wanted to write about this. But Tehelka, where I was working by then, had a small staff and meager resources and could not spare a reporter for such a story. I never went to Jadugoda. Nobody went there. About two months later, I left the magazine and resumed freelancing for some British and American magazines.

It is no coincidence that foreign journalists produce much of the best journalism about the difficult issues facing India. A few years back, Matthew Power, a contributing editor for Harper’s, wrote the best piece linking the indiscriminate use of pesticides by plantation owners in the southern Indian state of Kerala to a rise in the rates of cancer and birth defects in the villages adjacent to the plantations. The finest explanation of the banality of the competing nationalisms of India and Pakistan was in a 9,000-word piece titled ”The Coldest War,”by Kevin Fedarko in Outside magazine. Fedarko spent months at the Siachen glacier on the India-Pakistan border, a region over which India and Pakistan have been fighting for decades at a cost of millions of dollars and hundreds of lives.

Indian writers who are serious about doing in-depth journalism also must look to foreign venues to find a home for their work. The foremost Indian nonfiction writer and essayist, Pankaj Mishra, for instance, publishes either in The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, or the British literary magazine Granta. Most Indian readers saw most of his pieces of reportage and essays only recently, when they were published together as his latest book, Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond. I asked Mishra how he felt about that, and he mentioned a story he wrote in October for the Times Magazine, ”China’s New Leftists,”about the debate in China over economic growth and its costs. ”The debate in China has much relevance for us in India,”he said via e-mail. ”I wish there was a forum in India where I could publish an article like that.”

I came to New York on a journalism fellowship, and suddenly had access to various journals and magazines that published long-form writing. I was impressed, for instance, by the space devoted to the coverage of torture by American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Bush administration’s policies on torture. Yet the American media were severely criticized for their failure to dig into this story earlier. The criticism was justified by American standards, but I had my own reasons for celebrating what the U.S. press did, however flawed.

I grew up in Indian-administered Kashmir, where a separatist rebellion against Indian rule broke out in 1989 and where, to date, some 70,000 people have been killed. In the early 1990s, Indian troops routinely tortured both the separatist Kashmiri militants and civilians whom they suspected of supporting or being militants. One morning in 1991, when I was in high school, Indian soldiers herded all the residents of my village onto the grounds of the local hospital, and then searched our houses. We were subjected to identity checks, and many teenagers from my neighborhood were taken into the hospital and interrogated. I still remember hearing the cries of boys being tortured inside the hospital, and later seeing bruises and cuts on their bodies.

Papa-2, the most infamous torture center in Kashmir, was housed in a colonial mansion on the banks of Dal Lake in the main city, Srinagar, and hundreds are believed to have been tortured there from the early to mid-1990s. While working on a book about the conflict in Kashmir, I interviewed many young men who had survived Papa-2. They carry deep scars on their bodies, some have lost kidneys, and many believe that because of electric shocks to their genitals they have become impotent, and as a result refuse to get into intimate relationships or marry. I knew one of those tortured men; he was the poetry teacher at my school. During the last seventeen years of the conflict in Kashmir, I have read many Indian newspapers and magazines but have yet to see a single magazine piece or detailed newspaper report in the Indian press examining the issue of torture.

Privately, editors in India will say that cover stories about how Indian men and women behave in bed after age thirty sell more copies than cover stories about torture. Marie Claire rules. Maybe it isn’t relevant to talk about sad things, such as the suicides of farmers and radiation sickness, when India is about to be the next superpower. Maybe 400-word news articles detailing the list of Indian billionaires in the leading English-language dailies–the Times of India and the Hindustan Times–are enough, and nobody needs to connect any dots.

Maybe that is why, in all the reports I read last fall in Indian newspapers about a delegation of Indian politicians that visited UN headquarters in New York in November to discuss ways of resolving the Kashmir dispute–a delegation led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, a former federal home minister of India and a native of Kashmir–nobody mentioned that Sayeed lives in a refurbished colonial mansion on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar that used to be Papa-2.

Basharat Peer is currently a fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and working on a memoir of the Kashmir conflict. Snowmen and Kalashnikovs: Dispatches from Kashmir, a collection of reportage he edited, will be published by Picador in India this summer.