Meet the Dalits who are using online platforms to tell stories of their community
On December 31, when violence spread in Pune on the 200th anniversary of the Bhima- Koregaon battle, it was the first time many people in other parts of the country got to know about the encounter between the army of Peshwa Bajirao II, and a small force of the victorious East India Company that comprised Mahars, a Dalit sub-caste.
But Ashok Das, founder editor of the magazine and website Dalit Dastak, felt vindicated. For Das, 34, has been carrying stories on the battle every January since 2012. In February, Das published a piece titled ‘Babasaheb’s dream about Koregaon is now realised.’ He argued that the upper castes could not come to terms with the fact that Dalits were to celebrate their hero, Govind Gopal Mahar, and that was why they desecrated his tomb which resulted in tension in the area. The resulting violence shifted the spotlight to the place which Ambedkar wanted to develop as a symbol of self-respect for Dalits in the locality, wrote Das.
“It was one of the many examples of issues that matter to the Dalit community but do not exist for the mainstream media. It is unfortunate but the violence in Bhima-Koregaon was the reason TV channels and newspapers followed it,” said Das, who works from a non-descript office in a two-room flat in West Delhi’s Pandav Nagar area.
Rather than feeling ignored by the mainstream media or disgruntled by the ‘biased’ coverage, Dalits are using digital space to publish news and opinions.
“While the traditional media claims to be diverse, it is actually casteist and exclusive. Alternative media has given a sense of ownership to Dalits,” said Vivek Kumar, professor at the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of India’s Roaring Revolution: Dalit Assertions and New Horizons.
Lower-caste groups continue to feel marginalised in India. One in every four people in the country admitted to practising untouchability, as per a survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland in 2014.
The average age at death of Dalit women is 14.6 years below that of higher caste women due to factors such as poor access to sanitation, inadequate water supply and healthcare, points out the latest data of the National Sample Survey.
More than 70 per cent Scheduled Caste farmers are daily wage labourers on land they do not own, according to the data released by the Census of India in February.
But a combination of social awareness, affirmative action, reservation in education and migration to urban centres has produced a more assertive section among the Dalits.
Currently around 50 magazines and half a dozen websites in English, Hindi and regional languages offer an eclectic mix of writings and multimedia documentation on caste in Indian society. Dalit Dastak’s YouTube channel has crossed one lakh subscribers. Justice News, a website run by Dalit journalist Arun Khote of Lucknow publishes news about atrocities on Scheduled Castes and other marginalised groups. YouTube channel Dalit Camera is a repository of discussions, talks, songs, views and oral literature on caste. Round Table India offers news, features and opinion pieces on Dalits. The online magazine Velivada (Telugu for Dalit ghetto) is a platform on which volunteers write first-person accounts of caste-based discrimination faced at housing societies, workplaces and educational institutes.
“It is an attempt to pass on the pen to the voiceless. The oppressed know better what they are going through,” said Pardeep, a mechanical engineer in Hungary who runs the website Velivada and the Facebook page Ambedkar Caravan.
“A majority of Dalits don’t trust mainstream media. For us, it is a sector with no representation of Dalits. The emergence of Dalit-Bahujan led websites is creating pressure on the mainstream media to cover stories it has been ignoring so far. Another reason for the media’s love for Dalits is purely economical. Dalits are getting awakened and they constitute a big market for profitable business,” he said.
Pardeep manages the site alone and the challenges are many: funding to technical issues to creating and presenting content in a user friendly manner. “I cut down on my sleep, and avoid family and friends,” he said.
In October last year, after members of the Rajput community in Gandhinagar beat two Dalit men sporting moustaches, Dalit men in Gujarat started a social media campaign posting selfies displaying their own moustaches.
In June 2016, upper caste men flogged seven members of a Dalit family in Una, south Gujarat, based on the allegation that they were skinning a dead cow. The incident triggered massive outrage particularly in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh.
Early that year, Dalit youth in India had been simmering over the suicide of 26-year-old Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, a student at the University of Hyderabad, who killed himself allegedly due to caste based discrimination.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Apart from underreporting by the conventional media, experts and researchers link the proliferation of Bahujan online groups and websites to the lack of Dalits in Indian newsrooms. “There are trained Dalit journalists. You will find them in journalism institutes. But most of them either don’t find jobs in mainstream media or they face discrimination because of which they quit,” said professor Vivek Kumar.
In 2006, a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, found that none of the 315 key decision-makers in Hindi and English newspapers and television channels belonged to the Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes.
In 2013, media watchdog, The Hoot, published a write-up by journalist Ajaz Ashraf based on his interviews with 21 Dalit journalists. Ashraf concluded that discrimination against Dalits was rampant in the Hindi and other language media; it is less pronounced in the English media; and that discrimination was a principal factor behind them leaving the private sector media.
P N Vasanthi, director, Centre for Media Studies said that it would be an exaggeration to say that Dalit websites were influencing news selection process of mainstream media. “Most of the time the information on these platforms is circulated among interest groups only. Mainstream media picks up issues based on what is trending on social media. It need not necessarily be a crucial issue,” she said.