Borderline madness: Sajan Venniyoor



Now that government agencies in India — some half a dozen of them working with the exceptional coordination we have come to expect from government agencies — have blocked Facebook accounts, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos supposedly originating in Pakistan, perhaps we could contemplate other trans-border electronic transgressions committed by our neighbours.

In August 2011, The Times of India reported that Punjab border farmers still tune into Pak FM radio stations. According to villagers on the fringes of Ferozepur, the limited range of India’s “national radio” broadcasts and the absence of any local FM station have made radio services from Pakistan the most popular source of entertainment in border areas.

About the same time last year, the Indian government had become alarmed by the popularity of Nepal’s FM radio channels in Bihar along the Indo-Nepal border. According to various sources, some half a dozen Nepal FM radio stations are broadcasting programmes – “anti-India advertisements and vulgar songs”, according to one outraged newspaper report – into Bihar, especially Madhepura, Supaul, Madhubani, Kishanganj, Araria, Sheohar, Saharsa, Muzaffarpur, and East and West Champaran districts. 

Some of those districts, incidentally, were badly hit by the 2008 Kosi floods and the Community Radio Forum of India had proposed setting up emergency radio stations in the worst affected areas. The proposal was turned down. One of the government worthies whose approval was required, a corpulent civil service Noah who sat on the file till the floods receded, told us, “You may broadcast flood-related messages on the surface, but how can we know what you will broadcast below that?”, giving us a fascinating scientific insight into hitherto unknown capabilities of FM radio.

But back in present day Bihar, all those ostensibly anti-Indian Nepali FM channels seem to thrive, for some odd reason, on Indian support. According to one report, “advertisements by traders and industrialists belonging to Indian markets form the lion’s share of revenue for the channels, but,” it adds bitterly, “it is spent otherwise.”

“Spent otherwise” is explained as “anti-India broadcasts that are fake and concocted and misleading”.

And it’s not just traders and industrialists who advertise over these sinister cross-border radio stations: Bihar elections are a windfall for Nepal’s FM channels, with candidates for Bihar’s assembly polls “finding the FM radio stations of neighbouring Nepal quite handy in wooing voters.”

During the 2010 Bihar polls, a JD-U leader pointed out that “there are no such homegrown FM radio stations in Bihar’s bordering districts. We have no option but to use the services of Nepali FM radio stations to reach out to our voters.” These are stations like Jaleshwarnath FM, Rajdevi FM 93.2 in Gaur Baxzar, Radio Mithila, Madhesi Radio, Radio Today and Janakpur Radio which run advertising campaigns for Bihar’s candidates (which, at Rs.250-350 for a forty second jingle, is admittedly a steal).

While Intelligence Bureau officials in Bihar spend sleepless nights worrying about the misuse of Nepal’s FM radio “by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Nepal’s Maoists for propaganda in villages bordering the Himalayan nation”, their colleagues in Arunachal Pradesh are an even more harried lot. “Chinese radio blares in Arunachal Pradesh” screamed one headline in 2007, pointing out that the “people in border districts of Arunachal Pradesh have easier access to Chinese radio and TV than Indian” and that “border villagers are accessing information and entertainment from Chinese radio with greater efficacy than AIR.”

With our border areas leaking radio waves like a sieve, what does the Indian government do to counter the popularity of Pakistani, Chinese and Nepali FM channels along the frontier?

In Bihar, for instance, they set up AIR relay centres in border districts, which relay AIR Patna’s programmes in chaste Hindi while Nepal’s FM channels along the border continue to broadcast (anti-Indian propaganda interspersed with vulgar songs, no doubt) in Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithili, Magahi and other local dialects spoken in Bihar and Eastern UP as well as the Terai.

And, resolutely, our government refuses to allow any local radio station to come up on the Indian side of the border.

Recently, the Ministry for Information & Broadcasting held a community radio (CR) awareness workshop in Raipur (Chhattisgarh), where a senior ministry official apparently made the breath-taking announcement that “more than 130 community radio centres had come up in interior villages where hardly any development had taken place.” That this particular statement, which is more than a little economical with the truth, should have been made in Raipur is especially poignant, for Chhattisgarh then had exactly one ‘community radio’ station, licensed to an Agricultural University in the state capital (and not in an interior village ‘where hardly any development has taken place’).

In fact, one could visit pretty much any village in India without fear of bumping into a community radio station. Of our 135 so-called community radio stations, probably less than ten are in villages, interior or otherwise. The majority of CR stations, some 80 of them, have been licensed to universities and colleges which, as we know, are not always situated in interior villages. Another ten are licensed to government-run agricultural organizations, including Krishi Vigyan Kendras.

Of the remaining 40 odd CR stations which are licensed to civil society organizations, the vast majority cluster around urban centres. The city of New Delhi, for instance, has more ‘community radio stations’ than the North East, J&K and Chhattisgarh put together.

For reasons the government is unwilling to disclose – and no prizes for guessing what they are – no CR station has been licensed in the Kashmir part of J&K, or any of the North East states except Assam. (There are two in Guwahati, both licensed to universities.) A dozen CR applicants from Jharkhand have been turned down and probably as many from Orissa and Chhattisgarh and other ‘disturbed areas’.

Since India’s relations with its neighbours are uniformly disturbed, the chances of CR stations coming up in border areas any time soon are pretty slim. Nepal’s FM stations are in no immediate danger of losing their Indian audience.

There is a theory, popular in government circles, that enforcing a media and communications black-out in ‘disturbed’ and border areas will stir patriotic feelings in the local population. This is an interesting but potentially flawed theory. As one of the young farmers along the Punjab border said, while humming cheerfully — and unpatriotically, one must assume — ‘to the lyrics of famous songs sung by Pakistan’s’ singers, “Despite the service by Prasar Bharti, we have never had the opportunity to regularly listen to any of the famous Punjab singers. […] It’s high time the government had an FM station here or some private channel for us. We want to listen to our own legends as well.”

As for cross-border electioneering, we are told the Election Commission has “not taken kindly to candidates using the Nepali air waves”, and that the EC is requesting the Information & Broadcasting ministry “to restrict Nepal from airing poll advertisements on FM radio”. This presumably will have the same electrifying effect as recent demands by the Home Secretary that Pakistan cease their unseemly scare-mongering on social media that caused tens of thousands of people living in Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai to flee to their homes in the North East.

Given the somewhat fragile nature of the internet, the Home Ministry at least has the option of blocking these anti-Indian sites and thwarting their cyber-attacks. How exactly the I&B Ministry will go about blocking cross-border radio transmissions is fraught with interest.





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