Vikram Seth: Flagship without a fleet

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The Independent Online

I was absolutely amazed to find out from a series of recent questions in parliament that the BBC hadn't even consulted the Foreign Office when they made their decision to axe their shortwave Hindi programmes, which resulted in such a great loss of goodwill for Britain in India - and concomitant increase of mistrust.

They would have had to consult the FCO if they were closing the Hindi service completely, but by calling the loss of 10 to 20 million listeners on shortwave a mere "platform change", they were able to pass their decision quietly and present it to everyone as a fait accompli. They were surprised by the reaction; they shouldn't have been. You can imagine, in this world where "soft power" is being touted everywhere, and in the almost immediate wake of the first ever cultural memorandum signed between Britain and India by David Cameron on his recent visit, what an appalling own goal this was.

Now the management of the BBC, forced partially to backtrack, are saying, in the rather grudging words of their announcement, that they've granted their "flagship" evening programme a respite for a year - but what does a flagship mean without a fleet? They've axed the remaining three substantial news programmes, including both morning transmissions. The rest of the surviving flotilla of BBC Hindi consists merely of one-minute FM feeds to other channels – plus BBC twitter, with an audience of fewer than a thousand.

In addition to the evening flagship, at least one of the morning programmes should be brought back very soon - for the following reasons:

(i) Many people want their news in the morning. (I do, and indeed I used to get it on my computer from the excellent BBC Hindi broadcast. Well, no longer, by the time this article is printed.)

(ii) In poor, isolated, often electricity-less (therefore battery-operating) and often Maoist-affected areas of the country, th e rivals to the shortwave BBC Hindi transmissions are the Hindi transmissions beamed at us from Russia, Iran and of course China. Listeners of the BBC's balanced and informative morning news will now be forced to turn for their morning news to these.

(iii) Students (many of whom listen to BBC Hindi) get their information about what’s been going on in the world in the morning, before they go to school or university, where they will very likely discuss things with their friends. The educational effect of the BBC has resulted in large measure from its morning transmissions.

(iv) Hindi is the third most-spoken language in the world. Politicians from Hindi-speaking North India interact with the BBC mainly through its Hindi rather than its English programmes on news and current affairs – often as interviewees. It is important that their views and reactions be part of the day’s news in the morning as well as the evening.

(v) The marginal cost of saving a morning programme, now that it has been agreed to save an evening programme, would not be prohibitive. Anyway, the total cost of retaining all BBC's Hindi programmes, given its vast and appreciative listenership, is a pittance in the scheme of things. That is part of what makes this decision appear so pathetic.

BBC Hindi is a wonderful and rather astonishing thing. (I’ve just listened, this last month, to programmes about a pipe band set up in a jail to give prisoners both hope and a future profession, about corruption in Bihar, about the experiences of a reporter who spent a month with Maoist guerrillas.) We don't get this sort of stuff elsewhere. All India Radio is seen as the somewhat boring and biased voice of the government. The disinterested and interesting voice of the BBC needs to be maintained, not brutally cut.

This has been a very bad incident, and many millions of people, including poor listeners for whom BBC Hindi on shortwave has been their only link to the wider world, feel uncertain about what is to come. Before listeners have given up or turned away, a morning programme should quickly be reinstated, and it should be affirmed in no uncertain terms that the BBC intends to keep its shortwave Hindi programmes going - not merely for a year.

A 17th century Hindi poet put it well:

Don't break the thread of love, Raheem has said.
What breaks won't join; if joined, it knots the thread.