Daipayan Halder

How upper caste is your newspaper?

Posted in Uncategorized by daipayanhalder on December 17, 2008

First published on subalternstudies.com on Feb 17, 2008

Kishore Budha, the moderator of the weblog subalternstudies.com, is not too fond of Indian journalists (Are the Brit counterparts any better?). We were chatting late into the night and I was telling him how senior editorial staff of a soon-to-be launched news channel were manhandled and forced to resign by the channel’s promoters.

Kishore said journalists needed their butts kicked to be reminded of their place in the world. I was shocked to hear this, and told him so. “Don’t forget, I was a journalist once,” he said. “But the mainstream media has become so insensitive to issues that matter that some body needed to give them a rude jolt.”

The rude jolt in this particular case came about as the high-profile editor of the channel in question fell out with its promoters. But what Kishore said got me thinking. As a newspaperman I have often felt what I do is an exercise in futility. A clerical job at best, as far removed from people’s issues as a Mandal is from Malabar Hill. Do we really care to dig what cookie-cutter corporate types rubbish as infra-dig?

Media watching by media professionals feels like incest. Left best to the perverse and the pretentious within the tribe. But some introspection reveals that Manu, the progenitor of the Aryan root race, is worshipped in the media as well. How you ask. Take the reservations issue.

Talk to any Dalit activist/pro-quota campaigner today. A common grouse would be that the media, especially the English language media, has exposed its upper caste bias. While reporting the government’s move to reserve 27 per cent seats for the OBCs in IITs, IIMs and central universities and the ensuing protests that followed in 2006, the media eschewed its dominant professional norm—impartiality.

There were interviews of agitating doctors, of Knowledge Commission members putting in their papers in protest, of sociologists and industry experts pointing out the impending loss of merit and the dumbing down of institutions of international standards. Point taken. But where was the contrarian view? What about the OBCs who were meant to be the beneficiaries of the move? Why wasn’t there a single story looking at the issue from their standpoint?

Before we trashed Mandal II, wasn’t there a need to examine whether Mandal I has really helped?

The argument in favour of reservations may be a seriously flawed one. Is it the best form of affirmative action? Perhaps it isn’t. Does it smack of political opportunism (a move by the Congress to regain control over its traditional vote bank)? Perhaps it does.

But the attitude of the protestors and the lop-sided stand the media had taken raises questions about whose representative the media is. Of the 900 million citizens who live in less than Rs90 a day or the privileged 200 million who are upset and angered at the apparent loss of merit.

Quota kills merit. Newspapers and television channels told you that. Has there been any attempt to look at Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala where mandatory quotas ranging from 69.5 per cent to 49.5 per cent have been in place since decades without social turbulence?

Does this mean engineers, doctors, MBAs from these states are of substandard quality (as has been asked by a lone columnist)? But what disturbed me personally the most was a lead headline in a leading newspaper. “Now, my mother says you can marry an OBC!” The lone OBC copy editor at my desk was so enraged when he read it that he seriously thought of quitting the media. “Whoever gave this headline and whoever passed it need to be sacked for perpetrating caste hatred,” he fumed. It was impotent rage. Nothing changed. Mainstream media continued its rant against reservations.

But that is just one issue. Surely the media can be forgiven for goofing up once. But what about the Khairlanji massacre: That sleepy village a stone’s throws away from Mumbai where the Bhootmanges ceased to be a family and turned into a statistic? Where Bhaiyalal Bhootmange’s wife and teenaged daughter were gang-raped and murdered on the instruction of the village headman as they were the only Dalit family in the village and had dared to defy the headman’s diktats. The media had initially relegated the story to the obscurity of an inside page. But as protests grew louder, it was accorded more column centimetres. But only for a while. Bhaiyalal Bhootmange hasn’t got justice yet. It appears he won’t, ever. And the media has got over him.

Like the way it has gotten over similar stories of atrocities on Dalits and continues to do so. Not a day passes without a Dalit being shown his place in society. For the media they are single column stories. Often not even that.

Would the media have been slightly more sensitive if it had a substantive representation of backward castes? Perhaps. But where are the Dalit journalists?

On November 16, 1996, columnist BN Uniyal published his “In Search Of a Dalit Journalist”, in a Delhi-based publication. Uniyal was confronted with a ’strange’ query from a foreign correspondent who wanted to meet a Dalit journalist. The latter wanted to seek the opinion of a Dalit journalist over the reported dispute between Kansi Ram and few journalists. Uniyal wanted to help his foreign counterpart, and thus begun his hunt for a Dalit journalist. He spoke to a number of editors, media personalities, social activists, but could not find one.

“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. And worse still, was the thought that during all those years it had never occurred to me that there was something so seriously amiss in the profession, something which I should have noticed as a journalist. In all these years I have travelled almost every district of the country in the company of numerous journalists and met hundreds of others in different in different cities and towns and yet do not remember having met any Dalit journalist,” he wrote.

In 2008, as I conduct a similar search, I also draw a blank. Among the prominent editors, executive editors, managing editors and news editors of English language dailies, there is not a single Dalit. Is there a blanket ban on hiring them? I have no idea. How do you know who’s a Dalit and who’s not in the first place, anyways? In the melting pot of our metros, where people from all regions flock in, it is often difficult to guess someone’s caste. Not that it is a worthwhile exercise anyways.

But if a qualified Dalit candidate were to apply to a mainline English daily, disclosing his caste, would he have been hired? Difficult to say. My Dalit activist friend Jyotirmoy Mondal once told me upper caste newspaper owners and editors would never hire a Dalit at a higher post in a newspaper. I have no data to support his view. But I have no data to oppose it also. Where are the Dalit journalists? Surely, there are enough Dalit youth qualified for a job in English newspapers. So why in my seven years in the profession have I not come across a single one?

Which brings us to the question: Can a Dalit only write on Dalits? An obvious parallel to this is the rise of Black media in the US. The Black media in the ’90s feverishly crusaded for causes. Not only were ther black journalists, but also Black newspaper owners. Their philosophy: what’s good for ‘our people’ is good for the paper. No one did it better than John Sengstacke and his Chigago Defender, the nation’s largest Black daily. This helped. Being part of the media, their voice was heard not only by their own people, but the world at large. It would have helped if there were also Dalit entrepreneurs launching newspapers to highlight Dalit issues. Then again, where are the Dalit entrepreneurs?

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