Private television networks in India are turning to religion to tap a massive Hindu viewership but say their religious channels are neither a platform to grab votes for India’s Hindu nationalist rulers nor an attempt to peddle faith.
Private television channels Aastha (Faith) and Sanskar (Tradition) beam 24-hour Hindu religious programs to millions of Indian homes, especially in states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh which are undergoing strong Hindu revivalism.
“India is a democracy and we are free to air religious opinions and discourses by learned gurus. But we do not have any political content in our programming,” said Lalit Purohit, marketing chief of Sanskar TV.
“We do not have any stand on issues like the Babri mosque or Ayodhya temple,” added Purohit. “We stay clear of all such issues.”
Hindu zealots led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, World Hindu Council), close to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s BJP party, demolished the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 setting off nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots that left more than 2,000 people dead.
Rightwing Hindus have warned they will renew their campaign to build a temple on the disputed holy site, in the northern town of Ayodhya ahead of key state and national polls.
Five states go to the polls in November, including four heartland and politically prestigious states that are currently ruled by India’s main opposition Congress party.
Parliamentary elections, meanwhile, are scheduled for September-October next year.
Aastha says on its official website that it eschews politics and its “chaste blissful viewing” only portrays India’s “strong heritage which has sustained and outlived various onslaughts while emerging stronger.”
“Today, when the whole world is under the dark clouds of terrorism, spirituality is the only flame that can throw light on world peace and hope,” said Santosh Kumar Jain, director of Aastha TV in a statement.
“I am glad that the Aastha channel is playing an inspiring role... An Aastha TV team was specially invited to cross the border into Pakistan to cover the 135th year celebrations of Sant Satramdasji, the highly revered saint of Sindh,” added Jain.
Aastha TV telecasts two Sindhi-language serials for the Sindhi-speaking population of India and Pakistan.
“These religious channels are not purveying a militant Hindu line or polarization of Indian society. There is no evidence of a party or ideological line,” said Iqbal Malhotra, director of Delhi-based AIM Television. “There is a revival of spiritualism both in India and abroad. These niche channels are tapping into a lucrative market where there is a search for blending eastern spiritualism with western precepts.”
“People want their daily fix of spiritualism and yoga and these channels are catering to this. There is so much money to be made through niche channels that I won’t be surprised if Murdoch starts an evangelical channel.”
“After all, Murdoch’s Star TV started in India with entertainment in English, then moved to Hindi-language entertainment, news in English then news in Hindi. And, religion definitely sells, especially in India,” said Malhotra.
According to media circles, Australian TV mogul Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV has just bought a stake in Tamil-language channel “Vijaya” (Victory) which wants to beam Hindu mythological serials along with local content.
Critics say that religious channels, which have huge viewerships in the Hindu hinterland, will turn into vote-catching instruments when India’s Hindu nationalists take on the opposition in the do-or-die national polls.
“These channels may not be party to poll pandering but our rightwing parties will discover ways to use them to legitimize their ideologies and propagate their own version of Hinduism when the time comes,” said political analyst A.S. Ohja.
“They have a political slant because when these channels talk of promoting Indian heritage why do they promote Hinduism and not any other religion? The focus is on one religion despite India being multi-religious,” said television producer Kiran Mittal.
Hindus form the vast majority of India’s billion-plus population. There are 135 million Muslims while Christians form roughly two percent of the population.
Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and Zoarastrians make up the rest of the minorities. India does not have any official religion.