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A silence louder than words

india Updated: Dec 13, 2009 01:44 IST

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Sumana Ramanan,
Senior Editor

Exactly a week ago, lakhs of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s followers converged on Shivaji Park from all over the state, and country, to pay tribute to him on his 53rd death anniversary.

This is what a reader had to say about this newspaper’s coverage of the occasion:

“I am a regular reader of your daily. I was surprised to see that the December 6 issue neither mentioned a word about Dr Ambedkar’s anniversary… nor did it carry an article referring to his contributions.

“Is it bias or ignorance? People say English papers are totally elitist and [alienated] from the masses and ground realities. This seems to prove that.”

While it is true that the newspaper carried nothing on December 6 itself, it did publish a report and a photograph the following day.

Unlike Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, his death anniversary is not an official holiday. But for his followers, it is perhaps the more significant of the two occasions.

Yet everything about the report suggested that the newspaper did not consider the occasion very important.

Let me begin with where the report was placed. In a well-established hierarchy, based on an understanding of how people read a newspaper, the more important the editors consider a story, the earlier they will place it within a section. But between two facing pages, the right-hand one is the more prime real estate even if it comes later. This report appeared on the last page of the ‘Metro’ section, which was also a left-hand-side page.

Next comes the space devoted to the report. Even in the boondocks of the metro section, it was not the main story on the page. Horizontally, the report and photograph together spanned just the first three of eight columns and vertically, stopped a little short of the mid-point.

Then comes the report itself. I am fairly certain that the reporter wrote the whole story without setting foot out of the office. He or she — the story did not have a byline — quoted a civic official about the arrangements made to accommodate the visitors, it quoted a police official who said nothing untoward had happened and then listed some important politicians who had come by during the day. It did not quote a single follower.

I asked two senior editors for their response. “I have no defence,” said Pravin Nair, the deputy resident editor. “It was an error of judgement.”

“The coverage was clearly inadequate,” said Vaibhav Pura-ndare, senior associate editor.

One wonders what combination of factors lead to the error of judgement. It could be, again, a sub-conscious bias harboured by the largely upper-caste, middle-class journalists who populate English newspapers. Or it could be the result of a belief, right or wrong, that the occasion is not something that would resonate with most readers.

Or it could be something even more banal, which is that the event took place on a Sunday, when staffing is typically quite thin.

Whatever it is, a heavyweight like the Hindustan Times ought to take a huge national event like this far more seriously.

Purandare himself reeled off ideas for several stories that might have together made a very interesting package:

— The newspaper could have looked at how such a huge event was organised.

— It could have interviewed visitors from other states, who are growing in number every year.

— It could have done a story on the younger, second generation of Buddhist followers. What does Ambedkar mean to them?

— Did people from out of town visit or plan to visit other places in Mumbai?

— It could have taken a look at the highly popular book exhibition. What books were on sale and what did people buy? Why?

Let’s watch for the December 7, 2010 edition, then.