‘Mooknayak’ was the first newspaper catering to the oppressed classes, on January 31, 1920.
Recently many Indians took to social media to protest the discrimination against people of colour after #BlackLivesMatter stirred the United States. It questioned the systemic oppression and discrimination in institutions like police forces that has continued in 2020, and its ubiquitous nature in society. It gave rise to an introspective space to argue why Indians don’t voice concerns against the discrimination happening in their own land, by the same society they form. Despite policies, slogans of equality, and data available to counter the ever-lasting merit argument, the discrimination against people from oppressed caste remains rampant.
If one is to look up crimes against Dalits, they will find ample incidents, even today, which are not only discriminatory in nature but often inhuman. Does the discrimination limit itself to rural India? Opposed to many’s belief, the answer to this would be a no. Urban casteism and discrimination is very much a reality, especially in jobs and in the workplace.
Although the media is responsible for bringing out the impact of discrimination in the public domain, what other roles could the industry play? According to the 2019 Oxfam report Who Tells Our Stories Matter: Representation of marginalised caste groups in Indian Newsrooms, out of 121 leadership positions — editor-in-chief, managing editor, executive editor, bureau chief, input/output editor — across the newspapers, TV news channels, news websites, and magazines under study — 106 were held by the upper castes, and none was held by a person hailing from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe. Not a single decision-making leadership position was held by a Dalit.
Despite law and order, reservations, and various policies, crimes against Dalits increased by 756% from 2006 to 2016. It confirms that no amount of policies on paper can change the deep-rooted casteism in the country unless the change is brought on a multilevel, i.e., through law and order, and through the practice of equality. The idea of ‘providing’ mandated reservations is far from accepting Dalits as equals; the most important component of this would be to have an equal social representation in the workspace of every industry.
With a gap this huge in representation in the industry, where is Indian media’s #DalitLivesMatter Movement? Apart from the limited reporting on Dalit issues, can the media contribute to the change in dynamics by creating more space for Dalits in the industry?
In a 2017 Al Jazeera report, journalist Sudipto Mondal, who has been covering the issue for years, said that in ten years, only eight Dalit journalists were found in English journalism, out of which only two risked coming out. What is leading to this non-existence of Dalits in the industry, and why is it not seen or dealt with as an obstacle to a fair platform that the media ideally should be?
Leadership Position in English Newspapers
Source: Oxfam Report
Leadership Position in Hindi Newspapers
Source: Oxfam Report
Why Leadership Positions Must Have Equal Representation
With the increase in news consumption through the use of social media and in the digital space, what goes out in the public domain is controlled by the people in the decision-making positions. With zero representation in the leadership positions, the issues of the oppressed class are not highlighted. Furthermore, their importance is decided by a very non-diversified group of people.
When it comes to reportage on Dalit issues, it should be refrained from being unilateral. Like any other social conflict, oppression of certain communities is a multilayered issue and needs to be reported individually, as well as with the exploration of intersectionality.
Casteism has expanded its roots beyond rural India, however, mainstream media’s headlines have not. When it comes to reportage of caste-based discrimination, it is mostly covered in terms of atrocities against Dalits unfolding in rural India. There is a lack of intersectional study of discrimination in areas like feminism, job sector, higher educational institutes, and its subtle but persistent presence in urban India. Metropolitan cities are not free from caste-based discrimination, nevertheless, the coverage of minority issues limits itself majorly to atrocities in rural India.
However, not only is there a lack of diversity in the newsroom, but the mainstream media still has miles to cover before providing a decent reportage of the oppressed communities. The Oxfam report stated that only 10 of the 972 articles, featured on the cover pages of the 12 magazines it studied, were about issues related to caste. It also said that three out of four anchors of flagship debate are upper castes, and none of them is Dalit, Adivasi, or OBC. Only 5% of all articles in English newspapers were written by Dalits and Adivasis, whereas Hindi newspapers performed slightly better at around 10%.
Media’s reportage of caste-related issues does not align with its approach to create an equal space for marginalised groups of people. It is also a threat to democracy and the country’s social and demographic structure to let a small section of privileged caste shape the national discourse.
When a certain section of the privileged caste decides the entire media coverage in a country like India — which is an accumulation of diverse groups and communities — it not only affects the purpose of journalism to bring multiple narratives forward, but also creates an echo chamber, from where unilateral opinions and thought processes are carried forward. It negates the opportunity for several communities to amplify their voice, and makes it nearly impossible for members from diverse groups to enter and survive in the industry, keeping it a gated society of the upper caste. Through the social media space, initiatives like Dalit Camera and Adivasi Resurgence were able to raise their voice on issues surrounding oppressed castes, but can platforms like these have a reach as wide as the mainstream English or Hindi media?
The number of Dalit journalists in mainstream Indian media remains almost non-existent despite stipulated scholarships in colleges like Indian Institute of Mass Communication and Asian College of Journalism. How does one measure equality and progressiveness? By the number of students merely taking up a journalism course, or by the number of them employed as journalists in the mainstream media? Are the media institutes failing to act as a bridge between academic and professional demands? Media’s low-paying nature in the initial years is often a setback for those Dalit students coming from an underprivileged background. Those who are able to overcome the financial strain are then left with the uphill battle of facing prejudices from the industry.
Composition of writers on caste issues (%)
Source: Oxfam Report
The Age-Old Argument of ‘Merit’
What leads to this huge discrepancy in the industry? The same-old argument of merit, of not being able to find a qualified Dalit to fit the newsroom? Doesn’t the entire charade of merit depend on privilege and social status? If one is to internalise the absence of Dalits in mainstream journalism, the most definitive answer would be bias.
The concept of merit is one of the oldest arguments used to doubt the qualification of a person from an oppressed community. Although, time and again a counter has been provided— shredding the existence of merit as nothing but access and privilege to resources and knowledge— a person hailing from an oppressed community still has to face the argument and prove his or her intelligence time and again. It only reinforces the already unequal level-playing field that the privileged upper castes strive to maintain, in terms of opportunities in the industry and lack of the same for minorities.
What possible steps can the media industry take to be more inclusive? Few organisations have initiated encouraging people from oppressed communities to apply; however, in order to substantially bridge the gap, will this alone help?
The Oxfam report compared Indian media’s current state to the American media of the 1960s, which was criticised for ignoring African-American voices and seeing the world through the white men’s eyes and perspective.
Non-Dalit Journalists Need to Step Up
Lastly, is it necessary to put the onus of fighting caste-based discrimination through journalism on Dalit journalists? The answer should always be a no.
Nowadays, with the idea of diversity in newsrooms, is it fair to expect individuals from oppressed castes to focus solely on caste-based stories? No. Like every other journalist, a Dalit in the industry should have a choice to pick his or her niche. The onus of establishing equality and raising awareness to voice the caste-based conflict in India should fall on the shoulders of the privileged. People from the upper castes should make a conscious effort to positively discriminate against Dalits, to give them a platform that they have been historically denied. Upper caste journalists (as well as those from all other professions) need to acknowledge that their caste based privilege has played a very important role in all their accomplishments and that they have a responsibility towards society to help create a level playing field for those who have been discriminated against. One way to achieve this is to aim for better representation to help build an equal place in the industry for all groups and all people.
Few digital media organisations have started to include disclaimers while putting out hiring alerts, encouraging people from marginalised communities to apply, however, the approach needs to be incorporated in well-established media houses as well, right up to leadership positions to create a just and fair representation on the issues being put out.
In an interview to The Wire in 2016, journalist Jeya Rani had said “Dalits expect non-Dalits to work for the annihilation of caste just as we would expect men to practice gender equality. Sadly Dalit journalists are sometimes used to document caste violations. To ask Dalits to involve themselves in the annihilation of caste is as funny as asking women to practice gender equality”.
If the media has to be the lens of capturing every side of the society, having upper castes represent the majority of the lens is not only unjust, but detrimental. A combination of more reportage and diversity in newsrooms in the mainstream media is required to make an actual change in the ground inequality. Indian media still has a long way before reaching equality but an active, aggressive, and a collective fight against it, is the way to start.
Mridula Arya is a Delhi based freelance journalist.