In October 2018, a couple of weeks after #MeToo Movement hit Indian social media and made its way into mainstream print and broadcast media, a young journalist called this reviewer to ask, ‘How did things come to such a pass in Indian media, where sexual harassment charges against senior editors were an open secret, and where silence meant complicity? Was the Indian media always so compromised?’
In an elliptical manner, some answer to this can be sought from Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s exhaustive revisiting of the transition of Indian media from its stated commitment to a greater social responsibility to a market-driven model in neo-liberalized India. Firmly locating the manner in which the media not just reflected but also actively participated in the creation of a changed gendered identity, she critically examines the effect of this makeover through the celebration of consumerism and individualism as empowerment, and ultimately spawned a new nationalism.
The book comprises twelve chapters, written and published in the span of twenty-five years. It therefore begins with a recap of contemporary historical events and arrives at the present, tracing the sea-change in the media in India with the new economic policies of globalization and liberalization in the 1990s. Hitherto, much of the focus of study has been on the growth of the media, especially of regional media, with considerable research on the ‘dumbing down’ of content in news media, the regressive programmes on television and rise of the Internet and new media. How do these seemingly disparate developments in the media contribute to the refashioning of the nation? And how central is the use of gender in the vision for a nation and a national identity?
Chaudhuri’s work examines all of this through the lens of gender as she studies the way public discourse shifts from the austere notions of sacrifice and the greater common good, pluralism and diversity in a newly independent nation to the celebration of individualistic aspirations heavily shaped by advertising. The discourse segues into aggressive nationalism with the rise of the BJP and the ideological turn towards Hindutva, aided by a media that is both pliant and actively participant.
In the Introductory chapter, written in 1995, Chaudhuri provides a fascinating account of the early years of the nation-building project through the National Planning Committee (NPC) set up in 1938. She analyses the work of the ‘Women’s Role in Planned Economy (WRPE) Sub-Committee’ and traces its terms of reference from, among others, an examination of women in the family, in employment and the ‘social conditions that preclude women from taking her full share in a planned economy’. But even as it acknowledges the role of the woman as a ‘productive worker’, the WRPE clearly asserts the importance of private property and accords women the position of repository of culture and tradition. It thus retreats from its earlier positions on marriage and divorce, adoption and the role of religion in lawmaking.
The WRPE also draws upon an identity of ‘Indian womanhood’, assigning working-class and middle-class women different economic roles and rights. The schism between the two governed the way the Indian state viewed women: as ‘agents and recipients’ of development, and as citizens with equal political rights. There was also a third identity, where women were viewed as emblems of national culture that the colonial period and the early years of Independent India sought to either reform or preserve. Indeed, as she says, this also helped mark the retreat, with the new nation coming to view women as needy of social services and as recipients of welfare, not as citizens with an equal stake in development.
Throughout the eighties and well into the period of liberalization, struggles over ‘culture, community identity and scriptural sanctions’ continued (with its precursors in the nineteenth century reform movements, the abolition of Sati, for widow remarriage, or the struggle over the Age of Consent Bill). Chaudhuri chalks out the tensions over the Shah Bano case, the burning of Roop Kanwar, and the mobilization of the Rajput community over the practice of Sati, pointing out that these ‘heightened ethnic and communal tensions’ even as liberalization was underway, also meant the negation of women’s political and economic rights, though she does not sufficiently examine the media’s role in contributing to these tensions.
The process intensified with the marked change in media post-liberalization and the author devotes a major portion of her analysis to the role played by advertising in making this change (in ‘Gender and Advertisements: The Rhetoric of Globalisation’, and ‘A Question of Choice: Advertisements, Media and Democracy’). She draws upon numerous instances of advertisements that assert the shift towards a notion of individual freedom and choice, and the increasing privatization of the economy as well as of the media. She points out that the culture of entitlement it created marked another shift in public discourse—moving further away even from the lip sympathy paid to welfare and development.
Advertising and features that extolled the arrival of globalized Indian woman and man, the comments of former Bennett Coleman and Co CEO, Bhaskar Das, casting readers primarily as objects for advertisers, the near total dependence of the media on advertising revenues—all of these add up to the vast changes in print media and its objectives. This also fed into a new brand of corporatized and market-friendly feminism, most evident in print media of the mid and late 90s, with its extensive coverage of the ‘New Woman’: beauty contests, lifestyle, coverage of celebrities and a near total rejection of the feminism of a movement that questioned patriarchy, inequality or deprivation.
Chaudhuri also examines representations of the family in ‘The Family and its Representation: From Indology to Market Research’ from the traditional notion of the patriarchal joint family to the nuclear family and the media’s fallback on a ‘market common sense’ to mark out the tradition within modernity in society. The shifting sands of public discourse was also reflected in the role played by international institutions and development-aid agencies in shaping the agenda on women’s rights, the creation of a transnational sensibility in ‘Nationalism is Not What it Used to be: Can Feminism be Any Different?’ and the articulation of a subaltern critique of nationalism.
Chaudhuri analyses the content in television channels in the chapter titled ‘The Indian Media and its Transformed Public’, to examine the ideological role of the media in shaping the dominant public discourse and for ‘legitimizing neo-liberal capitalism in contemporary India’, a process that moved steadily towards a much more powerful and all-pervasive media.
The gang rape and death of a physiotherapy student in Delhi and the protests that followed is also examined in detail in ‘National and Global Media Discourse after “Nirbhaya”’. Chaudhuri discusses the mediatization and media convergence that helped set the agenda on the entire issue, the mobilization of protests and the response of both the feminist movement and the state towards amendments to the law.
Oddly however, she does not discuss the very christening of the student as ‘Nirbhaya’ by a media house, the attempt by rival media houses to give the student another name (Damini) and the manner in which the state picked on the word to announce a fund for women’s protection. A reference to this would have only deepened the analysis on how public discourse is actually shaped by the mainstream media and which sections of the media actively engage in setting the agenda.
It would have also been useful to examine the new owners of Indian media, the corporate and political leaders who have invested into the business and have a major economic and political stake in the agenda the media puts forth. There is also regrettably little mention of the censorship that operates within the media, the erosion of the rights of media workers and the divide between the media’s star editors and its foot soldiers. Perhaps it was this hollowing out of the media’s role as a nation’s conscience keeper that provided fertile ground for the kind of rampant abuse and misogyny that marked the Indian media’s #MeToo movement.
Finally, Chaudhuri points out how the BJP, which swept the General Elections in 2014, that underlines the manner in which a state makes use of the language of feminism and women’s equality to aggressively push other agendas (the push to abolish triple talaaq and criminalize Muslim men for instance, and, one may add, the ruling party’s silent sanction of the Ghar Wapsi and Love Jihad by sections of the Sangh Parivar as well as the ongoing issue of entry to the Sabarimala Temple). In that sense, the refashioning of the neo-liberal state through gender to assert an aggressive nationalism is complete.
Geeta Seshu, an independent journalist, reports and analyses media issues. As Senior Research Fellow of the AWA Wadia Archives for Women along with Chayanika Shah and Meena Gopal she archived the campaign against sex-determination of the Forum Against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-selection (FASDSP) in 2010. Geeta tweets @geetaseshu