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The media’s caste: How it’s to blame for Rohith Vemula’s death

The whole society is culpable in Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s death but the focus should also be on why the media can be held responsible for this heart-wrenching case of suicide.

analysis Updated: Jan 24, 2016 16:16 IST
Rohith Vemula
Samta Sainik members take part in a candle march while protesting over the death of Rohith Vemula at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.(Ravi Chaudhary/HT)

The whole society is culpable in Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s death but the focus should also be on why the media can be held responsible for this heart-wrenching case of suicide.

Vemula wished to reach the stars and dreamt of becoming a Carl Sagan but became yet another victim of institutionalised discrimination based on caste. His death has turned into a livewire, sparking unseen levels of protest across India from Calicut to Varanasi, from Chennai to Nagpur, from Puducherry to Patiala and even to Harvard Square in Boston. More than 250 scholars of international repute have campaigned for justice and urged an end institutional discrimination through an open letter.

As we discuss how a modern institution like a university, which has to provide space to cultivate critical minds, has become a space of casteist prejudice, of covert and overt forms of discriminatory practices, let’s divert a bit and talk about responsibility.

It was the power of social media, along with the enduring agony of casteist prejudices experienced that fuelled such widespread protests across the country. All this post-suicide hue and cry in the mainstream media, a modern institution dubbed as the ‘Fourth Estate’, could have been avoided had they had the integrity to report on the event and question what was happening when the five Dalit students were rusticated. It was all out in the open that the University of Hyderabad has a history of discriminating the Dalit students and within the last decade there have been 10 suicides of Dalit students.

Read: Dalit scholar’s death: Report on Rohith Vemula’s suicide expected today

If there had been proper media coverage on their expulsion when they started a sleep-in-protest it might have been a different issue. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to limit reporting on issues affecting Dalits to sensational stories in every media organisation in the country. This lack of integrity stems from the lack of will to diversify the newsroom. When the media houses have a diversnified work force, the newsrooms become a space for exchanging shared cultural and lived experiences which not only increases productivity but also guarantees adequate representation in a country like India where we have diverse groups.

Media houses should come forward and own moral responsibility in this case and start seriously addressing the question of lack of media diversity. There is established data highlighting a lack of diversity, but it remains as a mere rhetoric with no action taken to bridge that lacuna. There exists a media reluctance to work or commit towards greater Dalit/Adivasi participation in journalism. One upshot is a lack of sensitivity towards the caste question and Dalit lives.

A few years ago commenting on lack of diversity in Indian media, Professor Robin Jeffrey noted that since his publication of India’s Newspaper Revolution in 2000 and a survey on the 10th anniversary of the Cooper-Uniyal inquiry in 2006, he was not able to find a single SC or ST among more than 300 media decision-makers. American journalist Kenneth Cooper and B N Uniyal in 1996 tried to find a Dalit journalist but ended up only echoing Jeffrey’s concerns. Uniyal wrote, “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.” Though the situation has changed a bit, it still remains a fact that not only there exists no efforts to diversify the media but also there is hardly any effort to monitor the situation or adequately quantify representation as a first step.

Read: Smriti Irani orders judicial inquiry into Dalit scholar’s suicide

In Britain there are a series of Diversity Schemes to train and mentor aspiring individuals of racial and ethnic minority groups. They are supported by bursaries and internships to have training in media houses and also to learn journalism at leading institutions like City University, London, the University of Sheffield and Cardiff University. One has to do an impact study to analyse the outcome of these schemes but nevertheless the media organisations at least demonstrate the will to diversify which is completely lacking in India.

As a former journalist of a national daily based in Madurai, I carry a lived experience of what the difference is when there is diversity in newsroom. Despite working in a hostile environment I was able to do numerous stories, which were normally perceived, as “non-issues.” When such stories started appearing in the papers, it had a relative effect as competitors started to follow and a tradition was nurtured. Moreover, diversity also helps quell established notions about heritage and beliefs.

Read: Lal Salaam to Jai Bhim: Why Rohith Vemula left Indian Marxists

This does not mean that just increasing the numbers but providing them a significant role as active participants in the production and dissemination of news. Another significant area of concern in journalism today is that, though the Dalit experience remains neglected and the need to recruit more Dalits is essential, we should not allow for the ghettoization of the field. Studies show that in the 1970s in US, following widespread civil rights movement and riots, the media houses thought about diversity and recruited Blacks and also came up with a ‘Black Beat’, which was seen as an inherent tendency to limit Blacks to covering Blacks.

However in Indian journalism it is quite complex. Dalit representation is abysmally low and there is a tendency to reduce to ‘Dalits to cover Dalits’. On the other hand, the ‘Dalit Beat’ in recent times has become a most sought after beat for upper caste journalists as it enables them to flaunt their ‘progressive liberal’ credentials. What the initial silence over the student struggles in Hyderabad illustrates is the urgent need not just to diversify the newsroom in terms of staff, but to expand the ‘Dalit Beat’ to cover daily lives and struggles against injustice rather than waiting for yet another tragedy to strike.

Read: Dalit scholar suicide: Friends in shock, remember Vemula

Dalit scholar’s death: Students resume hunger strike at H’bad univ

Karthikeyan Damodaran, a former journalist, is a PhD candidate at South Asian Studies, the University of Edinburgh.

The views expressed are personal.

Full coverage: Dalit Student Suicide