Dalits and mainstream media

June 17th, 2009

Why do problems of Dalits get such little exposure in mainstream media? How should this be addressed? Do modern newsrooms need Dalit representation - maybe in the form of reservations - to make them voice Dalit concerns?

This was the issue debated in a day-long seminar on Dalits and the Media. There were no highfalutin names present here, just ordinary reporters who are known to have an interest in Dalit issues.

Ravish Kumar from NDTV was cogent, blunt and interesting. “I have a problem with the Dalit middle class. Why do they constantly want to be someone else?” he asked. “They change their names, never take anyone home, never talk about themselves…” But must a Dalit always feel a Dalit to be noticed? He answered his own question: he was invited to a Dalit home and when the teenaged girls showed him their room, the walls were decorated not with pictures of Babasaheb Ambedkar but Shahrukh Khan.

A Dalit government servant, who invited him to have dinner at the Marriott, told him that his other colleagues would not break bread with him even in a hotel. The government servant told Kumar, “To such Dalits I say: use humour. Ask these people, OK, you won’t come to my house, but at least come to a hotel. How much will you run from us? How long?”

Kumar said it was impossible to divorce Dalits from the violence that seemed to follow them. But occasionally there were good news stories that were a joy to do: He recalled the Dalit settlement in Ahmedabad where, the only thing dividing a Dalit seth and a rich upper caste Patel was caste. They were happy to do business with each other, they handled volumes worth crores of rupee every day but the Dalit was never allowed to visit Patel’s home. The Dalit seth lived in an opulent house in the Dalit quarter of Ahmedabad - which is wealthy from all accounts - but never went to his partner’s resident. “I told Patel I will give you untold riches. You live in the dalit locality, next to your partner for a year. He spat at the camera,” Kumar said.

So how will Dalits and svarna society come to be at peace with each other? There were many questions about the public perception of Dalits. “Hindu festivals like teej get so much publicity in the newspapers. But Babasaheb’s birthday doesn’t get a single line,” said one dalit from the audience. “Why?”

A suggestion was that possibly until the Dalits were physically accommodated in newsrooms, newspapers would continue to ignore issues they considered important. Ramkumar, a journalist working in Saharanpur, UP, explained how in that city, every newspaper had a Muslim reporter to translate and understand the implications of the fatwas that neighbouring Deoband issued. Like that, maybe to understand Dalit issues, it was important to have representation from the community.

But is that really right - that only a Dalit reporter is capable of understanding the pain of being a Dalit? Hard to say. Recasting a newsroom along caste lines could have a profound implication for newsgathering and bringing out newspapers.

But underlying this, there is another question: of the relationship between Dalits and power. There are many, who consider that despite being a Dalit leader, Mayawati is not really a Dalit because she has changed her mindset, is mimicking the oppressors. So is being a Dalit a mindset?

Why should we charge Sonia Gandhi with perpetrating a regency but excuse Mayawati from the charge of being undemocratic? There is a significant Dalit vanguard that is critical of the way Mayawati functions. Why is it so shy of coming out and saying so in the open?

Erring on the side of political correctness is the worst thing a reporter can do - because this means he wants to be seen as good but stops telling the truth which is what reporters are supposed to do. What do you think?

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