A journalism student, working on a paper on religious columns in Malayalam newspapers, recently sought my answers to a questionnaire. Below are the answers I gave.
The appearance of religious columns in the daily newspapers is a recent phenomenon. The Malayalam media appear to have borrowed the concept from elsewhere. The Hindu has been a pioneer in this respect in India. Reports based on Hindu religious discourses started appearing regularly in that newspaper more than 50 years ago. The daily feature was introduced at the instance of Kasturi Gopalan, who was its Publisher in the 1950s and his brother, Kasturi Srinivasan, its Editor. Later on the newspaper started publishing write-ups relating to Islam and Christianity to coincide with festivals observed by followers of these religions.
Many Malayalam newspapers have now a set pattern of religious coverage. The Ramayana figures prominently in the mass circulation papers during the Malayalam month of Karkkadakam and discourses on Islam appear during the month of Ramadan. They also take note of the birth and death anniversaries of persons revered by large caste groups.
It cannot be said that the newspapers are devoting space to religions at the expense of hard news. Now some television channels have also started taking interest in religious material. They also run serials based on Hindu and Christian religious themes. Prohibition of representation of the Prophets appears to stand in the way of Islamic serials. Some years ago Doordarshan was forced to abandon a serial based on Biblical stories since an Islamic group objected to the portrayal of Jewish and Christian prophets who are Islam’s prophets too.
I suspect that, while the columns may be popular with devout people belonging to the religions concerned, not many readers may be taking an interest in writings about other religions. The television serials are probably able to transcend the religious lines. The media’s interest in religion must be seen as a part of its marketing strategy.
The columns convey ethical messages but there is nothing to suggest that they make a beneficial impact on the public.
The religious columns do not pose any threat to communal harmony. However, they seem to weaken the secular fabric to the extent that they strengthen fundamentalist ideas. Some studies have pointed to a clear link between Doordarshan’s Hindi serials based on the Hindu epics and the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in the north. The problem lies not in the themes that the media picks up from the religious texts and traditions but in the way it treats them. Instead of interpreting the stories in a manner suitable to the present times the media unthinkingly revives and reinforces antediluvian ideas.