From Outlookindia.com (26 September, 2016)
A magazine that challenged nationalist establishments could not hope to access the mass market.
A New Vertical
The initial idea of Himal, in 1987, was to experiment with long-form and attempt ‘cross-border journalism’ when the term ‘cross-border terrorism’ was gaining traction. From our Kathmandu base, we covered the Himalaya-Hindu Kush region—from Balochistan to Yunnan, including the Tibetan rimland and adjacent areas. We realised soon that the Himalaya was hard geography being presented as a unitary Shangri La. For, while the 2,500 km chain spreads east-west, the political-economy runs mostly north-south—Himachal to Punjab, Nepal to UP-Bihar, Darjeeling/Sikkim to Bengal and so on. The journalism we sought was about longitude rather than latitude, unless we wanted to evolve as a magazine of nature and adventure, a National Geographic of the Himalaya.
The One-Word Solution
To try and give life to the historical continuities of the subcontinent, we decided to apply the ‘extra-national’ journalism developed in the mountains, and in 1996 Himal became Himal Southasian. The socio-political rationale for South Asian regionalism is that it is a social justice project—soft borders lead to economic growth that benefits the poorest the most. To generate ownership for an alien term first thought of by American strategists, Himal’s style guide spells ‘Southasia’ as one word. When we did trial sales of Himal Southasian in some stalls in Delhi’s Defence Colony, the magazine sold out, and we were excited at the possibilities—a news magazine that sought to go beyond the ‘nationalist establishmentarian bias’ in each capital. Because of its perceived neutrality in a fraught region, Kathmandu was the natural base, while India was the largest readership market.
Does the Map Look Right?
Nikhil Chakravartty inaugurated Himal in its South Asian avatar at the India International Centre in Delhi, opening a suitcase full of magazines that we had brought in on a Royal Nepal Airlines flight.
In retrospect, there were two potholes in our vision. One was the logistics of it all. I can see now how naive we were, trying to sell all over India for starters. Enormous energy had to go into surmounting the customs barriers. Outlook had launched around then, and I remember Vinod Mehta’s indulgent, encouraging smile.
The other pothole—more of a chasm—was the ultra-nationalism that had overtaken South Asia. A magazine that challenged the hubris of nationalist establishments—Colombo to Kabul —could not hope to access the mass market. We were viewed suspiciously by the establishment in each capital, and so we lost distributors whenever militarism and autocracy spiked, be it in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. We should have known the dangers when our playful ‘right-side-up’ map of South Asia was seen as ‘anti-India’ at the Delhi Book Fair (and asked to be withdrawn) though every country was upside down!
But we remained confident about Kathmandu, the seat of SAARC, the best place for regional journalism. The 1990 defeat of autocratic monarchy had brought with it the exhilaration of free expression, and Kathmandu evolved as a chaotic capital where you could be critical of authority like nowhere else.
But the Maoist conflict and the endless political transition, and the heightening foreign intervention (from neighbourly elbows to Western donors bent on social engineering) had the politicians losing self-confidence. Great societal polarisations emerged; the state weakened, became less magnanimous. On the surface, Nepal remains a democracy, but it’s a country run by a revolving-door cabal of leaders. The parliament is more of a doormat than even a rubber stamp. The state has lost its confidence in the international arena, while local government elections have not happened in 18 years. A man dies while on a fast demanding justice for his young son’s murder, and even civil society stalwarts look the other way.
To take a stand on the issues that matter has meant to lose friends in high places, and so my positioning against Maoist violence, autocratic kingship, the attempted declaration of Nepal as a ‘Hindu state’, the economic blockade of last year, as well as the rise of a parallel state authority in the form of the national anti-graft body, has meant that Himal as a magazine was ripe and ready for harassment by the regulatory bodies.
The magazine has now been forced to bring down the shutters, not because of its content, but, dear reader, because of the activism of its founding editor—this writer.
We have been planning the magazine’s move to a different part of South Asia. How will we be received? We are bullish that Himal’s ‘Southasian’ sensibility can be nurtured and extended.