Watching Indian primetime TV news from Kathmandu

The Nepali public sphere’s shocked and frustrated encounter with Delhi’s primetime television was one major fallout of the diplomatic debacle between the two countries.

ByShubhanga Pandey
Watching Indian primetime TV news from Kathmandu
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Sometime last week, a two-year-old online petition to ban Republic TV suddenly began to make rounds on Nepali social media. After remaining dormant for months, the change.org petition saw a marked surge, thanks in part to Nepalis who had recently seen Arnab Goswami’s coverage of the Nepal-India border dispute.

In the days following his primetime show, the campaign saw tens of thousands of new supporters, not all of whom might have realised that the 2017 petition had a rather domestic complaint in mind; it was protesting the channel’s Islamophobia – and its star host’s spreading of “false information and hate amongst Indians”.

The Nepali public sphere’s shocked and frustrated encounter with Delhi’s primetime television was one major fallout of the diplomatic debacle sparked off in early May by India’s inauguration of a road to Kailash Mansarovar, which passes over contested lands in the western Himalayas. The roots of the dispute go back to British manipulation of maps in the 19th century, and the Indian army’s unilateral presence in the area since the 1950s. However, Nepalis began to articulate these claims only under the newfound democratic atmosphere of the 1990s, claims which have grown stronger with scholarship and archival finds.

Meanwhile, for journalists and pundits in India, the issue is an occasional irritant, casually explained away by Nepal’s anti-India nationalism.

Everything but news

Poor coverage of Nepali affairs in Indian media is neither new nor unexpected for most consumers of media in Nepal. From frequently imputing Pakistan-sponsored anti-Indian activities on Nepali soil to the self-congratulatory messaging during the 2015 earthquakes (of the #GoBackIndianMedia fame), Delhi-based news channels have often ranged from inaccurate to absurd in their Nepal coverage. What many Nepalis experienced this time, however, was not merely patronising, but adversarial.

It was something Indian viewers have encountered for years: choreographed misinformation and hostility.

The border row really caught media attention in India after Nepal revised its map on May 20. For most media outlets in India, this was clear evidence of Chinese design, an anxiety that has become increasingly visible in the country’s international coverage.

So, it was unsurprising that for its primetime debate, Republic TV’s hashtag of choice was #ChinaUsesNepal. On Zee News that evening, Sudhir Chaudhary offered an “explainer” on how a Chinese wall came between millenia of India-Nepal dosti. More creatively, anchors at ABP News asked,“Toh Cheen ke ishaaron pe kya Manisha Koirala kar raheen hein acting?” – Is Manisha Koirala acting on Chinese cues? – shocked that the Nepali-origin Bollywood actor had tweeted in support of the Nepali claim.

For many Nepalis, the hectoring mode of the news channels was as offensive as the misinformation. “If you think you’re squaring off with India on border issues, you should be dreaming, it’s never gonna happen. We’re not going to talk to you about it,” thus began Goswami’s question to Minendra Rijal, a former minister in Nepal, on his Republic TV show. The puzzled guest, unsure when or if a question would come, asked, “Are you asking me a question or giving me a message?” He added, “That's certainly not the style how television interviews are done in Nepal.”

Less noted was another problem that ails international affairs reporting in India: the near complete absence of credible expertise. While the compromised relationship between foreign affairs editorial desks and the government has been documented by some, less has been written about the soundness of pundits that are trotted out in diplomatic coverage.

This is a cast largely composed of retired generals, civil servants and diplomats – as well as the occasional name from a think tank – many of whom present recycled news stories and second-hand information as expert insights. As many in this group have either worked for the state, or see professional advantage in developing close links with the government, the input they offer is more useful for gauging how the defence and political establishments think than for assessing facts on the ground.

Sometimes, even that analysis is questionable. One former ambassador, for example, recently suggested the use of Indian “assets” in Nepal to effect a change in government.

This is, of course, true not just of India, but of international relations punditry around the world. The presence of people like Major General GD Bakshi in that mix is only an exaggerated strain of the malaise.

New media

Critical reactions in Nepal also illustrate a shifting relationship between Indian journalism and its Nepali consumers. For the generation of Nepali readers who came of age in the decades before satellite TV, Indian press and opinion makers were an important source of information and ideas.

Nepal’s first experiment with democracy in the 1950s was led by individuals who copiously read, and sometimes wrote for, publications in North India. In the three decades of partyless autocracy that followed, Kathmandu’s politically interested readers looked forward to newspapers and periodicals that flew in from India every afternoon.

For a generation that remains enamoured of Nehruvian liberalism, and might have read everything from Dinaman and Sunday to Outlook and Frontline, the primetime performances on Zee News or Times Now must betray India’s loss of soft power and the decline of an enviable public sphere.

But that was always a tiny group. Ever since cable TV entered middle class households in the 1990s, for most Nepalis, Indian news media has largely meant Hindi news channels. With its easily consumable news, soundbites and theatrics, it entertains as much as it informs, giving its viewers an unearned appraisal of Indian state and society. Despite the digital revolution, this relationship with Indian news media more or less remains true.

Interestingly, in the spirit of competitive nationalism, some viewers in Nepal were angered by the absence of high-pitched nationalist response by Nepali media. The border dispute has been vigorously reported in the Kathmandu press, with particular focus on testimonies and historical documents that favour Nepal’s case. But a hostile rejoinder to the Indian media never really came about.

Journalists in Nepal have followed the decline of journalism across the border – one editor recently noted that Indian news channels do everything but news – and written about the pitfalls of imitating their success. Primetime debates of the decibels we see in Delhi have not yet arrived in Nepal. But that is more likely a function of the country’s ad industry and media market, which hasn’t reached the size to make such a model of news broadcast financially tempting.

But it would be wrong to assume that the far-right transformation of Indian media will leave Nepal untouched. Many more Nepalis today know the refrain “Godi Media”, but there is no evidence that criticism of Indian media today will translate into skepticism of all news from those outlets.

If the surge in Islamophobia in Nepal following the Tablighi Jamaat episode was any indication, such stories and narratives can still find their way into the bloodstream of Nepali society and politics. There is also an active right-wing ecosystem in Nepali social media, largely around a number of YouTube channels that trade in nationalist anxieties about interventions by the Christians, the Americans, the Europeans, or the Indians. United in their resentment over the secular, federal and republican turn Nepal took over the last decade, they are more likely to be open to the methods and materials of the “Godi Media”.

Editors in Kathmandu’s newsrooms may say they have resisted the tide, but the crosspollination of far-right ideas and the rise of alternative platforms could gradually make such claims irrelevant.

Shubhanga Pandey is deputy associate editor at Himal Southasian, a digital publication of Southasian politics, history and culture. The opinions expressed in this piece are personal.

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