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Lessons for Indian journalism from Dalit mobilisation online

Missing The Story

On the evening of 17 January, the journalist Dilip C Mandal, one of the most formidable Dalit voices on social media, wrote to his over 20,000 followers on Facebook of news from the University of Hyderabad—“perhaps the most terrible news of our times.” A few hours earlier, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar suspended by the university in a manner that reeked of caste discrimination, had committed suicide. Vemula’s death immediately sparked large-scale protests on his campus, and, as the news spread, five student unions called a state-wide bandh on educational institutions in Telangana. Later that night, Mandal posted on Facebook that protests would be held the following day at three venues—the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, and outside the office of the minister of human resource development, Smriti Irani, in Delhi.

But on 18 January, none of this turmoil was reflected in the Delhi editions of the country’s four biggest English-language newspapers. The Times of India summed up Vemula’s death in a small, single-column report on page 13. The Indian Express gave it one paragraph in its news digest, on page 10. The Hindu gave it a single column on page 13, with a small blurb on its front page pointing to the story. The day’s Hindustan Times didn’t cover the story at all. Meanwhile, the protests, which had been mobilised on social media, fed television news channels the kind of spectacles they relish most. Throughout the day, channels carried videos of the police showering lathi blows on young women and men, and yanking them around by the hair. That night, all the primetime debate shows discussed Vemula’s suicide.

On 19 January, Mandal, a former managing editor of the Hindi edition of India Today, again took to Facebook, writing that he had been invited to appear on a number of these shows but had turned them down, because he didn’t want to lend the channels any credibility. “Before the channels first aired it, and before the newspapers first published their stories, the crores of social media journalists made Rohith’s murder a national issue on their own,” he wrote. “This is where journalism is happening. Channels and newspapers are only following it … I’m here despite TV. Not because of it.”

There is strong justification for Mandal’s resentment of the mainstream media. Its coverage of Scheduled Castes and Adivasis, who constitute over a quarter of India’s population, has historically been inadequate. Mostly, it appears only after heinous atrocities: when Dalit children are burnt alive, when a panchayat orders a low-caste rape victim’s nose chopped off, or when an entire family is hacked into pieces. This was true in Vemula’s case too. But for a section of the internet—primarily a handful of online forums on caste issues—Vemula was news well before he killed himself. For instance, Round Table India, a portal for news and thought on the anti-caste struggle, had carried as many as eight articles on his suspension since it came into effect, in August. In those forums, it was also made clear that caste oppression is rampant in higher education, and that Dalit suicides in academic institutions have long been a recurring phenomenon. But the traditional media remained deaf to those voices. Vemula’s case is a reminder that the issues raised in these forums are not being brought into the broader societal discourse that the mainstream media informs.

It’s not hard to explain why this is so. Indian journalism has a long record of excluding journalists from disadvantaged castes. Even today, media staffs are almost exclusively upper-caste. (This magazine, which has no Dalits on its staff, is no exception.) If the mainstream media is to fairly cover disadvantaged caste groups, as it should, it must find ways of amplifying their views and concerns using the means at its disposal—and the best way to do that would be to bring those groups into newsrooms. Vemula’s suicide should prompt deep introspection on how the Indian media can, finally, bring this about.

Round Table India—which has emerged at the forefront of the online anti-caste debate—is just one of a wave of websites, blogs and social media groups that are challenging the mainstream silence on caste in Indian society. Dr Ambedkar’s Caravan, a website run by the Dalit activist Pardeep Attri, offers an eclectic collection of the writings of BR Ambedkar, articles on Dalit history and heroes, and even satirical anti-caste memes. The YouTube channel Dalit Camera presents a look at the world “through un-touchable eyes,” posting songs, lectures and discussions on caste. Savari is a popular website that publishes writings by Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan women, and the Peoples Media Advocacy and Research Centre works to ensure that the mainstream media reports on Dalit issues. Besides such groups, there are individual activists, such as Mandal and Meena Kandasamy, who have massive online readerships.

There is palpable anger towards the traditional media in these forums, and a clear diagnosis of the problem. Round Table India’s “About Us” page reads, “Both the mainstream and so-called alternative media in India are controlled by the same social forces. When others interpret the world for you, can you change it?” In October, when Mandal spotted an all-Brahmin panel on a television debate show, he posted a screenshot of it on Facebook, along with an original poem: “Tumhi channel, tumhi panel/ Tumhi anchor, tumhi vishleshak/ Tum vaadi, tumhi prativaadi / Tum Dakshin, tumhi vaam/ Tumhi khaas, tumhi aam/ Tumhi secular, tumhi communal” (You’re the channel, and the panel too/ You’re the anchor, and the analyst too/ You the proponent, and the opponent too/ You’re the right-wing, and the left-wing too/ You’re important, and ordinary too/ You’re secular, and communal too). He added, “It’s the same story every day on every national channel.” Just last month, he called a debate show out for listing a Brahmin, an Arvind Mishra, as a “Dalit expert.”

Every few years over the last two decades, researchers and journalists have taken up the subject of the Dalits missing from Indian newsrooms. In 1996, Kenneth J Cooper, a reporter for the Washington Post, wrote about not being able to find a single Dalit journalist in India. This prompted The Pioneer’s BN Uniyal to go on a quest to find one, only to get the same result. Uniyal wrote about the experience: “Suddenly, I realised that in all the 30 years I had worked as a journalist I had never met a fellow journalist who was a dalit; no, not one.” In India’s Newspaper Revolution, a book on Indian print journalism that was published in 2000, the Canadian academic Robin Jeffrey reported similar findings.

Things were only marginally better in 2006, when the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies created a list of the 315 most influential journalists in Hindi and English-language media, and surveyed their social profiles. It found that there wasn’t a single Dalit among them, and that 71 percent of the journalists were upper-caste Hindu men. In 2013, the journalist Ajaz Ashraf interviewed 21 Dalit journalists for The Hoot, a media watchdog. Among his conclusions was that “discrimination is a principal factor” behind many Dalits’ decisions to quit the profession.

But, despite such research and findings, little has been done to change this state of affairs. If the Indian media did choose to act, it could take cues from approaches to addressing minority exclusion in newsrooms elsewhere in the world, and particularly in the United States. In 1968, a commission constituted to determine the causes of race riots that swept across the country the previous year reported that American society was moving in two different directions: “one white, one black—separate and unequal.” The commission especially criticised the US media for its inadequate coverage of African-Americans, and for its exclusionary, predominantly white, newsrooms. In 1978, the American Society of News Editors, or ASNE, set a goal of achieving proportional representation in American newsrooms by the year 2000. To this end, it suggested a slew of affirmative-action measures for media organisations: opening departments tasked with promoting newsroom diversity; offering special scholarships to train African-Americans and members of other racial minorities in journalism; organising special job fairs to recruit them; and participating in an annual census of representation in the industry. Though the ASNE’s measures were adopted, the US media is yet to achieve the organisation’s set goal, and has extended the deadline for reaching it to 2025. Still, the percentage of minority staff in the US media has increased—from 3.8 percent in 1978 to 12.8 percent in 2014.

Unfortunately, the Indian journalistic fraternity hasn’t followed that example—and not because no one has suggested it. In the mid 1990s, the journalist Chandra Bhan Prasad and the writer Sheoraj Singh Bechain, both Dalits, drafted a memorandum titled “End Apartheid from Indian Media: Democratise Nation’s Opinion,” advocating that the media here adopt a model similar to the ASNE’s, and sent it to the Press Council of India and the Editors’ Guild. The council responded that the media is run by the private sector, and thus out of its control. There was no response from the Editors’ Guild.

There can be other approaches to increasing low-caste representation in the media. In a 2012 article in The Hindu, Robin Jeffrey suggested that Dalits need a first-class publication of their own—comparable to the African-American-focused magazines Ebony and Essence in the United States—that offers alternative views to the mainstream and is “so compelling that others would want to read it for its classiness and its difference.” The vibrancy of caste-focused news and analysis on portals such as Round Table India shows that such a publication may arrive in the not-too-distant future—and that it could even already be here.

However, just having such publications without pursuing concerted action to address the lack of diversity in newsrooms would be a dereliction of responsibility. What Round Table India and its counterparts are doing is encouraging and commendable, but they are also symptoms of a deep-seated problem within Indian journalism that must be confronted. The anger on online Dalit platforms against current norms of news coverage is a reminder that the media is divided into two parts: one upper-caste, one Dalit—separate and unequal. The onus is on the journalistic establishment to start bridging them.

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