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8 March 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 1:56pm

“I wish there was competition”: the executive editor of the Caravan on India’s troubled media

India is an increasingly hostile environment for free press. Vinod Jose and his team report anyway.

By Emily Tamkin

Last month, Vinod Jose, executive editor of the Caravan, a small English-language (though there is a Hindi variant) magazine in India, and his publishers were charged with sedition over coverage of the ongoing farmers’ protests in the country. Sedition as a legal charge dates to the colonial era; the punishment could be life in prison. In a statement, Jose called the charges an attack on free reporting. 

The Caravan has for a while been seen as the little magazine that could; intellectually influential and unwilling to follow the party line or stay away from political critique. This is notable at a time when India’s press is under legal threat for coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, its press freedom has dropped in the World Press Freedom Index, and reporters find themselves pushed to parrot the Hindu-nationalist line. Furthermore, the sedition cases and the fact it was briefly booted off Twitter earlier this year, also in connection to its farmers protest coverage, have constituted a tangible escalation in pressure. The Caravan did not fold; once back on Twitter, it encouraged more people to read it.

It isn’t that Jose as champion of a free press is unlikely: the Caravan is known across India and around the world for its rigorous reporting, its investigations and its insistence on speaking truth to power. A recent look at the publication’s website shows reporting on the ruling party’s mobilisation of Hindu-nationalist mobs; on police persecution of members of the most marginalised caste; and how a major TV channel acts as a mouthpiece for the government. 

But Jose didn’t become editor with the intention of trying to take on the government. He had already been working as a journalist for several years in India when he went to get a master’s degree at Columbia University’s journalism school. And it was there that he became more exposed to, and got more interested in, long-form journalism. In digging deeper into stories.

That passion for long-form journalism – for craft and narrative-driven stories – found a home in 2009 when he met Paresh and Anant Nath. They were the son and the grandson, respectively, of the Caravan’s founder, who had launched the publication in 1939. It ran until 1988, when it closed. Now editor, Anant Nath wanted to know if Jose wanted to be involved in relaunching the publication. 

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“I said all right,” Jose told me on a WhatsApp call. “I wrote a vision document for Caravan as a serious long-form journalism outlet and came back to India.”
***

That period of time, during and around 2009, as Jose put it to me was, at least on the surface, a good one for India in the world. A few years earlier, India’s former prime minister Manmohan Singh and US president George W Bush signed the civil-nuclear deal. The narrative was, “this former colony is doing very well”.

But there was so much that Jose felt was not getting the attention it deserved. Coverage was “hollow”, Jose said. “Poverty, corruption, violence against women, discrimination … somehow that was not getting adequate [coverage] in the press.”

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During this period, Narendra Modi, then chief minister of the state of Gujarat, was also becoming an increasingly important political figure. Modi has close ties to the Hindu nationalist group the RSS and was banned at the time from entering a number of countries – including the US – because of the massacre of Muslims that took place in that state in 2002 on his watch. In his later bid to become prime minister, Modi vowed to eradicate corruption, a significant problem in India, and took on the ruling Congress Party in the 2014 election. He won. His brand of Hindu nationalist politics won too. 

Increasingly it was the subject matter, not just the love of the long-form craft, that dictated Jose’s interest and the Caravan’s coverage. Jose and his team saw very clearly that there were stories to be told in India that went against prevailing narratives which claimed that India was thriving, that it was coming on to the world stage, that there was more cause for optimism than criticism. “I didn’t have to force it,” he said. “It was there.”

[See also: How a farmers’ protest evolved into a mass movement]

A scroll through the Caravan archives tells the story well. The cover story in March 2012 was written by Jose himself. A man’s face is photographed under red light. The headline is, “The Emperor Uncrowned: The Rise of Narendra Modi.” It would be another two years until Modi became prime minister.

In the decade since, there have been covers on India’s big business families, on caste, on violence and on the connection between media and government.

The overriding sense one gets looking at this progression of content is that power and ideology are increasingly used to further one another in India, and that the Caravan has been saying so longer, more consistently and more forcefully than many others both within the country and around the world. (In May 2019, for example, Ian Bremmer wrote in Time that Modi was the country’s best hope for economic reform, a take on which he offered something of a mea culpa half a year later).

“The transition to investigative stories happened slowly,” Jose said. “Maybe that’s because that was the need of the hour.”

It helped – or hurt, depending on how one sees it – that there were not many other publications answering the call. “I’d learned how part of the Indian press stood up to Indira Gandhi,” Jose said. But there wasn’t a similarly strong push-back against Modi’s government.

“You do it because nobody else is doing it, and also you believe you should be doing it.”

***

Today, the Caravan has a staff of 45 and about 100 freelancers. The pressure that the publication is under has increased over the past decade. That’s true for the Indian media in general, but arguably especially true for the little publication that has been among the most vocally critical of the Modi government. Those who do not tow the government line on television have found their broadcasts being cut. Modi, before announcing the coronavirus lockdown, asked print publications for positive stories (we know this because of a Caravan report).

Yet the magazine’s stature has increased, too. They’ve switched from an ad-based model to a subscription-based one. They put the stories that take months to write behind a paywall and people pay to read them. Journalists who can’t get stories run in legacy outlets, Jose told me, bring those stories to the Caravan (he declined to specify which). 

For Jose, though, the extent to which the Caravan punches above its weight, and the size of the niche that it fills, is bittersweet.

“I wish there was competition from the legacy news organisations to advance a story, to dig deeper,” he told me. “It’s good for the country. It’s good for the conversation.”

[See also: Claims of conspiracy behind India’s farmers’ protests carry a warning for the world]