Will Rohith Vemula’s death alter Indian media-Dalit dynamic?

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 28, 2016 20:41 IST
Youth Congress workers in Bhopal take out a rally protesting against the death of Rohith Vemula. (Mujeeb Farqui/ HT photo)

The striking thing about Rohith Vemula’s case is not just that he decided to kill himself in the circumstances that he did. It is also the fact that the Indian media --often criticised for being blind to caste discrimination and insensitive to issues of injustice faced by those on the margins--chose to tell his story in detail, made it a national issue, and has over the past week, kept its eyes on the ball and not dropped scrutiny of those responsible for his suicide.

Some caveats are important--there is criticism that the media did not highlight the story enough when Dalit students were battling the university administration and state authority and if it had done so, maybe Vemula’s death could have been avoided. This may be true. It is also true that the media’s attention span is limited and it could move on to the next story, and forget all about this tragedy. Neither does it indicate that the media will focus on all atrocities against Dalits as strongly, as consistently, in the future.

But a question is worth asking. Does the coverage of the Vemula death indicate a turn in the relationship between the Indian media and Dalits? If the December 16 Delhi rape incident forced gender and sexual assault on to the centre-stage of mainstream discourse, will the University of Hyderabad episode force the media become more inclusive, and look at the issue of caste and the manner in which discrimination happens in cities, universities, work-places more closely?

Newsroom diversity

To answer this question, HT looked at two related issues: one was the presence of Dalits in the mainstream media and the diversity of the newsroom. This is important because a newsroom that is a mirror reflection of established power-structures is poorly positioned to reflect the concerns of all sections of a diverse, hierarchical society.

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

In 1996, in an important article titled ‘In Search of the Dalit Journalist’, the journalist B N Uniyal wrote that he had, in 30 years of being in the media, not met a single Dalit journalist. His introspection was triggered by a request from a foreign journalist to pass on a contact of a Dalit reporter. Uniyal thought hard, asked editors and columnists, carefully went through the Press Information Bureau booklet listing accredited journalists and came up with his startling discovery - there was no Dalit journalist in India’s mainstream press.

Ten years later, in 2006, political scientist Yogendra Yadav and Anil Chamadia, chairperson of Media Study Group, did a survey of 37 top media organisations and found not a single Dalit held any of the top ten positions in any of the outlets. Media scholar Robin Jeffrey could not meet a single journalist while researching the Indian language press, in over twenty towns and after conducting 250 interviews.

Students shout slogans from a bus after they were detained by police outside the office of HRD Minister Smriti Irani during a protest on January 28 in Delhi against the death of Rohith Vemula. (AFP)

Two years ago, the journalist Ajaz Ashraf did a significant three-part essay in the media watchdog site, thehoot.org, based on conversations with 21 Dalits who had graduated from journalism school, are or were journalists and their experience.

Ashraf concluded that Dalits sought to enter the media because they felt it offered an opportunity to highlight issues affecting their community; that Dalits had a greater presence in the Hindi or vernacular media than the English media; that discrimination against them was rampant in the Hindi and vernacular media and was less so in the English media; that this discrimination was a primary factor which drove them away from media jobs to government jobs; and their weak economic base made them more insecure of private sector and diluted their ability to take risks.

READ | Rohith Vemula, death of a philosopher to purify higher education

There is no fresh data on the number of practicing Dalit journalists in the Indian press. But Chamadia, who was a part of the 2006 research, is conducting a new survey, and told HT, “Our data is not processed completely. But initial findings indicate that in the last ten years, there has been no change in the structure. There is still no Dalit or tribal editor in any top national newspaper or television channel in India.” Dalits remain peripheral in shaping public discourse even as the media’s power is growing exponentially.

In a recent essay, Yashica Dutt, a former journalist with the Hindustan Times, and now a freelance writer based in New York, has ‘come out’ as a Dalit . She spoke about hiding her identity in college, in her jobs, and began a series documenting stories of Dalit discrimination. Dutt had to face an online backlash--which critiqued her ‘privilege’, attacked her for not prioritizing her ‘Indian identity’, underplayed or denied the discrimination that came with being a Dalit, for borrowing from ‘western discourse’ and more. If the response to Dutt is any indication, it tells us why the few Dalits who are in the media prefer to hide their identity, and choose to anonymously, inconspicuously, go about their jobs.

But does the Vemula death represent a turning point? Will it put caste discrimination on the front pages? And will it result in enhancing the credibility of the media among Dalits?

Experts are sceptical

Chamadia cautions from reading too much into the coverage, and suggests that the Indian media - particularly the English media - had always spoken out strongly against instances of untouchability and atrocities against Dalits.

“I remember in 1977, when landlords killed 11 Dalits in Bihar’s Belchi village, the media covered it. They have done it ever since. The problem however is that other forms of discrimination - which are more subtle, more minute - are not covered. In universities itself, from admissions to appointments, there are a range of issues Dalits face, but that will not find space.”

READ | India’s on fire: Letter to Rohith Vemula from his transgender friend

He claims that this is not a turning point, and instead calls it ‘seasonal’, which will fade away from the news pages in a few days. “The other thing that happens is the issue gets diverted. We are already seeing an effort to divert the issue from discrimination within universities to a backward versus Dalit fight.”

Satish Prakash, an associate professor at Meerut College and a BSP sympathiser, is sceptical too. Prakash was more interested in the politics behind the coverage and offered an explanation. “In this particular case, it was not as much love for Dalits but anger against the RSS and dislike for the BJP that drove the news agenda. Dalits represent a key voting constituency. Both BJP and its rivals are vying for Dalit votes. The Rohith issue is an effort to ensure that Dalit votes don’t turn to the BJP.”

He, however, added that there was definitely a change in the media too. “The media cannot remain under the control of only community. It has to cover social issues. Dalits can see that the English media has been fair in the coverage of the Rohith issue.” He felt that the Hindi media, especially in the heartland, had covered the issue more out of compulsion than choice. “They had to cover it once it became a political issue.”

The Indian media has done well in the past week, in bringing the story of Rohith Vemula to millions of homes. But its true test, on the yardstick of truth-telling and justice, is if it stays with the stories of Dalit discrimination across spheres, and willingly embarks on an internal course correction.

(The views expressed are personal.)

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