The Emergence of the Indian Public Sphere

IndianPubSphereNalini Rajan in The Hindu:

As citizens of a nation in the making, Indian scholars have been deeply interested in the writings of Benedict Anderson and Jurgen Habermas. Anderson has discussed the ways in which print capitalism allows a literate monolingual population to imagine the nation through the newspaper and the novel. Habermas, for his part, has delineated his notion of the public sphere as a realm of free debate and rational argument.

In a country where, even today, one in every three does not have signature literacy, it is hard to straitjacket the complex idea of nation-building into the phenomenon of print capitalism. Some of the essays in this book pertain to pre-colonial India when barely six per cent of the population was literate. What is exciting about the descriptions of the colonial era is that they uncannily mirror the post-colonial state’s obsession with a strong law and order paradigm (see Rajeev Dhavan’s essay). If nationalist struggles and an emerging free press were seen as an infectious disease (because it spreads quickly) by the British colonialists, revolutionary movements and the free media are viewed with suspicion by the Indian state even today, as Ranajit Guha points out.

Undoubtedly, the Indian public sphere has rarely been based on the force of better argument. It has often assumed symbolic, non-constitutional forms of politics (see Francesca Orsini’s essay), like salt-making, drum-beating, horn-blowing, and bazaar gossip. Arvind Rajagopal dubs this dual nature of the public sphere as a ‘split public’ — a term that calls to mind Partha Chatterjee’s distinction between the ‘us’ of civil society and the ‘them’ of political society. C.A. Bayly calls the indigenous public sphere as the “Indian ecumene,” or the form of cultural and political debate that was typical of north India, before the emergence of the print media.