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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 43 New Delhi October 15, 2016

Media’s Disconnect with Dalits

Sunday 16 October 2016



by Santosh Kumar Biswal

The recent attack of cow vigilantes on Dalits in Gujarat’s Una and East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh has again shaken the entire nation and the amount of media coverage it has attracted is being questioned as usual. Atrocities after atrocities on Dalits are occurring at regular intervals. Hence, the debates on the modus operandi of the functioning of the media continue unabated

Una, which has the highest the number of villages of all the talukas in Gujarat State, has been witnessing atrocities against Dalits. According to the Census of India, 2011, 6.74 per cent of the State’s population belongs to the Scheduled Castes. Nevertheless, the provisions allocated for these disadvantaged sections of the State have been blatantly flouted.

Owing to the current social unrest and fanatic activities, so far one Dalit family has already shifted from the Una village to ensure protection to its family. It is also revealed that there have been restrictions for the Dalits’ entry into various temples and use of common crematoriums. All these inhuman acts show the violation of Section 26 of the Constitution of India which ensures all State governments to take special care for the welfare of these communities. Earlier in the month of July, their sordid stories were shared at a Dalit Maha Sammelan in Ahmedabad. Moreover, needless to say, the State has the infamous history of atrocities and discriminations against Dalits.

To understand the nuances of media coverage of such issues, the unfortunate suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar from the University of Hyderabad, which triggered varied debates from numerous quarters, is worth introspecting.

The Rohith’s issue deservedly received coverage in the Indian news media, resulting in the spread of the caste cauldron among the wider public and its repercussions on the society as well. Thanks to the news media outlets which intensified the coverage, it even led to bringing respite to one Dalit IIT-BHU student, Mahesh Balmiki, who failed to sell one of his kidneys to pay off his debt meant for pursuing his studies. Mahesh had faced the brunt of carrying the tag of ‘untouchability’. However, after the media coverage, he has been inundated with funds from across the country. But, at the same time it has opened up a Pandora’s box regarding the modus operandi of functioning of the mainstream news media in particular.

In a bid to cover the suicide case of Rohith, national and regional media were pressed into action and with this unusual warm up the Indian media come forward with observations and examinations. Some of the knee-jerk coverage apparently had spilled the beans and the styles of coverage exposed the perennial problems of the media.

The media, the fourth pillar of a democratic nation, has the responsibility to safeguard the rights of the socially-economically deprived sections including the Dalits. The media should resort to judicious coverage and advocacy programmes on Dalits since they constitute a staggering 201.4 million as per the 2011 Census of India. Even though they are guaranteed certain rights under the Constitution of India, discrimination is at the pinnacle. In addition, the United Nation’s human rights bodies have already cautioned the Indian Government regarding the rampant Dalit atrocities. In this case, the role of the media is of utmost importance. However, the Indian news media outlets are found callous and pay not even minimum attention to this issue. Certain coverages glorify the social ills emanating from caste discrimi-nations. In this context, the former Press Council of India Chairman, Markandey Katju, rightly points out that the media can entertain the people, not providing 90 per cent of its total coverage. The sense of proportion in the Indian media has been distorted.

But suffice it to say, Rohith’s case garnered judicious media coverage. Rohith’s is not the lone tragedy in India. However, this has germinated an array of questions. Is each and every Dalit atrocity case getting fair coverage like Rohith’s one? Were the coverage of the cases of Dalit atrocities in Gujarat’s Una and East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh similar to Rohith’s case? Do they find follow-up stories in newspapers and television channels? Is a Dalit from the rural regions getting equal coverage from her/his urban counterparts, indicating the geographical dichotomies? What is the discourse of news presentation on Dalit issues? These are the larger questions that have to be answered even though there has been lately some appro-priate media coverage on Dalit issues.

Slowly Rohith’s case has cooled down and has been taken off the media and people’s mind as well. However, there are umpteen numbers of Rohiths who have sacrificed their lives and many are waiting for the same. Mostly we find stories relating to raping and openly parading of Dalit women or lynching them to death. Overall, the coverage of such issues are ceremonial and event-based and hence half-hearted. The media’s coverage of Rohith’s suicide alone with the claim of ensuring social justice deserves to be attacked. It can cover issues pertaining to the Dalits’ socio-economic participation, employment status in the NREGA, space in politics and the like. However, the media has dealt with a cold hand the recent attacks of cow vigilantes on Dalits in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. There are astounding figures of the Dalit population, discrimination is common and infamous here. Moreover, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports a 44 per cent increase in violence against Dalits from 2010 to 2014. However, playing an intervening role, the media is not doing precious enough to bring awareness in strengthening the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 which empowers the Dalits. Even after long years of independence, political rhetoric and constitutional protection have failed to end atrocities against Dalits and the Indian media has failed to cover these in a nuanced manner.

The critical discourse of coverage in the Indian media of Dalit issues deserves to be debated for a cause. The deeper question comes to the fore: why was Rohith specially treated unlike the atrocities in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh? If that is not so, then what ails the Indian media?

The flaws in the media can be attributed to various factors. First, the media is not treating the Dalit issues as ‘newsworthy’. Hence, there is no sustained coverage of such issues signalling the social blight of the Indian society. Secondly, social activists blame the media houses being corporate houses forgetting their social agenda. The perils of the political economy of the media are being cultivated and applied in terms of coverage. Thirdly, at the same time, mediapersons point to the low level of activism on the part of the Dalit communities and human rights activists, inviting a blame-game. Mediapersons also point to the low level of visibility of atrocities on Dalits. The situation shall remain unchanged if both keep on passing the buck. Fourthly, there has been commodification of the media—labour, content and audience—that selectively determines the nature and amount of media coverage on any issue or event. When it comes to the issues of Dalits, reporters are not allowed to report, and if reported the content is not deliberately sent for the people’s consumption. This results in a kind of commodification of the audience where they are artificially made not to show willingness or demand for such contents.

Fifthly, the media should understand the changing social paradigm which is quite pertinent on Dailit issues. In the light of comprehending such issues, mediapersons should take stock of various Dalit classes which can facilitate ethno-graphic studies on these communities.

Lastly, there has been very low representation of Dalit journalists in media houses. Again casteism also takes the toll on Dalit journalists. Koppula Nagaraju, a Dalit journalist working with one of the media houses in Hyderabad, died of cancer, but many alleged of issues of casteism and non-cooperation from the media being the cause of his death. Dalits should have minimum representation in terms of employment in newspapers and television channels as filmmaker Shyam Benegal rightly mentioned that non-Dalits don’t compre-hend the Dalit experience.

To some, the Indian media covers compara-tively less of downtrodden sections like what the Western media does in the case of Black people. Occasional coverages like on Rohith Vemula’s suicide case cannot root out the evils of discrimination in India. The coverage should be sustained and farsighted. All these missing from the Indian newsroom have to be adequately projected if our media in a democratic country like ours wants to perform for the societal well-being in the public interest without any prejudiced yardsticks.

Dr Santosh Kumar Biswal is an Assistant Professor at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Symbiosis International University, Pune and holds a doctorate in Communication and Journalism on media coverage and disability issues.

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