Shekhar Gupta will deliver the annual Dhahan Lecture at Carleton University on Tuesday, Oct. 25
By Dan Rubinstein
India is the most diverse society in the world, says Shekhar Gupta, the country’s prominent English-language journalist.
Its 1.3 billion people represent a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, religions, languages and social classes.
Yet, over the decades, as other nations have broken apart, India is becoming more cohesive, says Gupta. Drawn together by rapid advances in digital connectivity and a thriving media culture, as well as improved road, rail and domestic air traffic networks, Indians are ambitious, politically engaged and impatient for change.
Even in rural areas, people now have a sense of what life is like in big cities and other countries, and are increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo.
“That’s why I travel overseas less and less and for shorter and shorter spells,” says Gupta, who will deliver the annual Dhahan Lecture at Carleton University on Tuesday, Oct. 25. “Any time you’re away, you think you might miss something.”
Shekhar Gupta: Focusing on India in transition
The lecture, presented by Carleton’s Canada-India Centre for Excellence, and supported by centre board member Barj Dhahan, will focus on “understanding India in transition.” And considering Gupta’s unique vantage point over the past four decades, reaching millions of readers and television viewers with his columns and interviews, there is perhaps no better person to share their insights and perspectives.
Shekhar Gupta hosts a pair of shows, “Off the Cuff” and “Walk the Talk,” on NDTV, India’s top English news channel. His guests have included India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.
He also writes an influential column for India’s National Interest, and is the former editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, where he led one of the country’s largest networks of journalists.
Now Gupta has turned entrepreneur as well, launching an online publication called The Print that will cover politics and policy as well as “things to snack on,” like sports and popular culture.
The new publication’s ironic name was purposeful, says Gupta. “We’re maintaining the standards of print media,” he says. “We’re not lowering the bar.
“That’s how you create a space for yourself in the journalism business,” he continues. “There’s a lot of trivialization and dumbing down online.”
The audience for Gupta’s writing and broadcast work is largely comprised of English-speaking Indians — “English is our commonly spoken language, the closest thing we have to a lingua franca” — as well as foreign Anglophones who live in the country. His columns are also translated into Hindi and other languages, further extending his reach.
Literacy in India
Forty million more people become literate in India each year, he says, and people turn to journalism to help understand the changes occurring in their “big, diverse and messy democracy.”
The national appetite for print media is increasing, says Gupta, bucking the trend in other countries. He expects this to continue for at least another decade, and notes that — again, bucking the international trend — media companies in India are expanding and hiring.
This growth can be partially attributed to the country’s huge audiences and dense cities, which make printing and distributing a newspaper or magazine a viable proposition. But it’s also a sign of broader social change.
Shekhar Gupta, who has only visited Canada once before, a short trip to Toronto for a conference a couple years ago, has submitted a request to interview Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while in Ottawa.
“In India, politicians tend to be old,” he says. “I’d like to find out how a young leader with a young cabinet governs a country like Canada.”
Canada’s relationship with India has the potential to grow
The relationship between Canada and India has the potential to grow and develop, says Gupta. Most Indians see Canada through the lens of the Indo-Canadian community, which, at 1.2 million, comprises Canada’s second largest non-European ethnic group after Chinese Canadians.
“We haven’t quite placed Canada in a distinctive slot in our worldview,” he says. “It’s north of America, people know, and there’s much less concern about the risks of Canadian influences than for American or British influences.”
Carleton’s Canada-India Centre, with a mandate to help build trade partnerships as well as scientific and cultural links between India and Canada, can help increase collaboration between the two countries, says Harry Sharma, the centre’s manager.
“India is an important priority for the Government of Canada,” says Sharma. “Canadian policy-makers, academics and businesses need to better understand how this huge percentage of the world’s population thinks, lives and behaves so that we can form a true long-term sustainable partnership.
“Canada has a lot of expertise we can export, and there is demand in India,” says Sharma. “Carleton and the Canada-India Centre can conduct research to look at what opportunities exist, and whether there are specific projects we can start piloting in India. Our niche is bringing everybody together.”
Adding Shekhar Gupta’s voice to this conversation is another step in that direction.