Radio has been an integral part of Zareef Ahmad Zareef’s life since childhood. Today, he listens every morning and considers it a “mandatory indulgence” in the evenings. A Kashmiri poet, Zareef has contributed as a cultural and literary commentator on radio. He has also written programs for children and believes that the medium is deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. “In Kashmir, it has preserved our heritage, literature, culture,” he says. “We are indebted to it in the way that it has recorded our history.”
Starting in August 2019, the Indian government all but shut off telecommunications in Kashmir during a political crisis. Zareef relied on radio to stay informed about events.
This year marks a century since the first radio broadcast was made in India. Despite the rise of social media, radio has endured, with hundreds of millions of people still tuning in across the country. All India Radio, the state broadcaster, operates 262 radio stations reaching almost every part of India and broadcasting in 23 languages and 146 dialects. There are over 388 private FM stations spread across major and smaller cities. However, the significant reach of radio has a major limitation. Individuals seeking diverse news sources cannot rely on their local radio stations due to the Indian government’s complete monopoly on radio news. Instead, they must turn to foreign broadcasters.
“I listened to BBC, Voice of America, and others on my radio when I wanted an alternate source of information about what’s happening to us and around the world,” Zareef says. While he questions the motives of international channels, he emphasizes the need to hear alternative perspectives. “Until there is criticism of an idea, it doesn’t become respectable,” he says. “Perpetuating a singular point of view is not democracy.”
With a national election approaching—and a government that has been widely accused of censoring unfavorable coverage, arresting or harassing journalists, and shutting off the internet during moments of crisis—free speech activists, journalists, and opposition politicians worry that control over radio will hand the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party a significant advantage, limiting negative coverage of its candidates and providing a platform for its talking points.
“In the context in which we are living, which is a unipolar government, the concern is amplification,” says political journalist Anuradha Raman. “Because you’re not giving any news on private radio at all, it just amplifies the government’s voice.”
The roots of government control over India’s airways trace back to colonial rule. In the early 1930s, the British colonial administration acquired the bankrupt Indian Broadcast Corporation and relaunched it in 1936 as All India Radio. After independence, the Indian and Pakistani governments inherited the notion that “news on radio can be very dangerous and can easily lead to the spread of rumor, more than newspapers and others, and that it needs to be absolutely controlled,” says Isabel Alonso Huacuja, a historian at Columbia University and author of Radio for Millions, a book about radio’s development in the Indian subcontinent.
Post-independence, the government even attempted to control the music played on the airwaves. For a period, popular music from the Bollywood industry was banned in favor of more classical music. People found a way around the blockade by tuning in to Radio Ceylon, based in Sri Lanka, which developed a dedicated audience in both India and Pakistan.