“Sensation prevailed after four persons of a family were murdered over illicit relations at Khairlanji village…” read the blatantly false lead of the article of a Nagpur based paper a few days after the Khairlanji atrocity. “School, colleges and shops shut down in Nagpur on Friday during a day-long bandh,” read another. As the national media slowly took cognizance of the Khairlanji atrocity, weeks after an entire family was humiliated, raped and killed, the tenor and limits of media discourse on Dalits became apparent once more.
While expressing shock and disbelief at the sheer brutality of the incident, media pundits bemoaned the damage to public property (in this case, the Deccan Queen), the losses to the exchequer, and the savagery of the Dalit “other”. “Citizen activism takes on the textures and shades of citizens, after all,” noted a well-meaning reporter in leading weekly, before concluding that “Upper middle class India lit candles, whether at India Gate or on news websites; young Dalit India torched trains.” The simplistic and stereotypical media coverage of the month-long Dalit protests has re-ignited a debate that first gained prominence in 1996.
On 25 October 1996, news reports coming out of Uttar Pradesh suggested that Bahujan Samaj Party Leader, Kanshi Ram, and his supporters had assaulted at least five journalists outside the BSP leader’s house. While the exact sequence and severity of the event was disputed, the incident at the press conference prompted Kenneth Cooper, a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, to ask his friends in the Indian media fraternity for the contact details of a Dalit journalist. The query sparked off a chain of events that began with the publishing of an editorial by B.N. Uniyal titled “In search of a Dalit journalist”, in which Uniyal concluded “that in all the 30 years I had worked as journalist I had never met a fellow journalist who was Dalit.” Uniyal’s article and findings were condensed into a memorandum by Chandra Bhan Prasad, President of the Dalit Shiksha Andolan and Dr Sheoraj Singh Bechain, Convener of the Dalit Writers Forum, and was submitted, with no avail, to the Editors Guild of India and the Press Council of India.
In their memorandum, Prasad and Bechain pointed out that a survey of the Accreditation Index, 1996, of the Press Information Bureau of did not reveal a single Dalit journalist on their list. The memorandum further posited that the absence of Dalit journalists had lead to a sidelining of Dalit issues in the mainstream media. Prasad and Bechain’s findings were reinforced by a more recent survey carried out by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi in June 2006. The survey of 40 national media organizations suggested a complete absence of diversity in the Indian media, with 71 per cent of all key decision making jobs occupied by Upper Caste Hindu men, while the representation of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the media was zero and zero per cent respectively. An informal study of Dalit journalists in Delhi conducted by Frontline could identify only one Dalit former journalist – D. Shyam Babu who had worked for the erstwhile Observer of Business and Politics, and one Dalit columnist – Chandra Bhan Prasad himself, who writes “Dalit Dairy”, a weekly column in the Pioneer.
The dearth of Dalit journalists in the Indian media is worrying, particularly in the context of increasingly activist role adopted by the media. “The caste-bias of the media is evident from the recent debates on reservations in higher education and the private sector,” says Shyam Babu, “The line adopted by the media has come dangerously close to racism in many instances.” Babu points out that the elite consensus that the media is simultaneously a facilitator of, and party to, only serves to increase Dalit isolation and alienation from the mainstream media. The absence of a truly Dalit voice in the media results in the perpetration of stereotypes and the frequent denial of legitimate claims. In the article cited in the beginning of this text, for example, the Nagpur-based newspaper claims that the violence at Khairlanji was due to an “illicit relationship” between Surekha – one of the victims, and Sidharth Gajbhiye, a local police patil, and even goes on to state “the villagers even reportedly asked the two to stay clean, but Gajbhiye and Surekha did not pay any heed”. The tone of the article suggests that the victims were responsible in an obvious and direct way for their plight, and this, Dalit activists say, is an insinuation that is common to most reportage on Dalit issues.
The silence of the mainstream media has made Dalits seek alternative means of information dissemination. Most information is actually transmitted through word of mouth and long distance telephones. Dalit groups across the country are constantly in contact with each other – passing on information and formulating strategy. The rise popularity and falling costs of cellular telephony in India has given resulted in the formation of “sms-lists”, wherein a few individuals compile exhaustive sms chains of up to a thousand recipients. News is then flashed from cell to cell phone across the country, and then enters local information networks at the level of the district, the village and the basti. The internet is also slowly acquiring importance among Dalits, with college students accessing information though mailing lists, and online communities. Online portals like www.ambedkar.org and Zestcaste provide regularly updated digests on news published on Dalit issues. Benjamin Kaila, a software consultant and Dalit activist based in Los Angeles, explains that the internet allows non-resident Dalits to keep track of events in India and organize occasional interventions. Kaila for instance, runs a project titled “The Ambedkar Scholarships” that provide bright Dalit students with financial support to further their education. In fact, news of the Khairlanji incident first broke on a mailing list on the internet. Till date, a collaborative blog titled Atrocity News has the most complete dossier on Khairlanji.
So what are the reasons for this absence of Dalits from our media? In 1996, the stock answers given by media organizations sounded suspiciously like the arguments mobilized by the captains of industry today; the primary being that the employers have no idea of caste of their employees. The second argument follows the well-worn path of “merit” versus dilution, where at least one editor of a paper in Lucknow defended their hiring policy by saying that there were no qualified Dalit candidates. The India today finds itself in much the same situation as the American press in the late 1970s while covering the civil rights movement. While shortcomings of the American press have been exposed in the context of the Iraq Invasion, the Diversity Police of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) is something that both Chandra Bhan and Shyam Babu support. The ASNE website outlines the firm belief that ethnic, social and gender-based diversity are essential for impartial and unbiased coverage of communities. To that end, the ASNE conducts annual censes of Hispanics, Blacks, Asian Americans, Native Americans and women in the newsrooms of major media houses and establishes three year benchmarks for measuring progress. Thus far the American model has shown some progress: At the time of its inception in 1978, the percentage of representation of minorities in the media in the US stood at 4 per cent. Twenty years later in 1998, the proportion had risen to 11.5 percent.
Models like the ASNE might serve to build a constituency for greater diversity in India’s Upper Caste male dominated media, putting, for once, the onus of reform on the establishment. As Dr B.R. Ambedkar has written, “It is usual to hear all those who feel moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables unburden themselves by uttering the cry, ‘We must do something for the Untouchables.’ One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying, ‘Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu’.”