Invisible Dalits

IN Media Practice | 27/10/2006
Dalits make their presence visible in the national media whenever some caste atrocities occur. Else they become invisible.






Ranjith Thankappan



"Strength will come only through a Bahujan cultural revolution which can be engineered only through our own media."— Dalit Voice, May 1997


Dalit Voice declared it at the backdrop of a path-breaking decision by Kanshi Ram in the mid 90’s to start his own media centre. What prompted Kanshi Ram was the apathy shown by Delhi journalists towards his political party and ideology. A ruckus between the party cadres of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and reporters ended up in unmitigated outcry against BSP in the form of a series of newspaper stories in 1996.


The scene has not changed even in 2006. Kanshi Ram and BSP are still ‘untouchables’ for the national media. As pointed out by Ravikumar, writer-politician  from Tamil Nadu in his letter to Reader’s Editor of The Hindu, the news of the demise of Kanshi Ram was buried at the bottom of page14… symbolic of the status Dalits are meant to enjoy in the "The Hindu social order."[i] In his reply Narayanan, the Reader’s Editor of The Hindu, admitted that there "was an error of judgment which does happen in a newspaper at times. What really missed was a detailed obituary." He claimed that this ‘error’ has been "made up by the long assessment (Op-Ed page) of the phenomenon that Kanshi Ram was, and also an editorial."


However, this admission of error has not been communicated to scores of the readers of The Hindu till the moment I write this essay. The email reply of Narayanan and Ravikumar’s letter of protest have been circulated and debated in the cyberspace. This essay is an attempt to place the whole debate in the larger historical context of political India and issues of cultural hegemony and media representations of Dalits.


Kanshi Ram is a leader of historical significance. After Baba Saheb Ambedkar he was the only Dalit political leader who could influence and transform Dalit life to a considerable extent. As rightly pointed out by Chandra Bhan Prasad, " he was a university of emancipation. He overturned Brahminism upside down… In less than two decades, Kanshi Ram made UP Dalits walk with their heads high.[ii] Vidya Bhushan Rawat in his ‘Tribute to Kanshi Ram’ has remarked that "that ‘India`s politics has grown through a radical change with Dalit becoming a mainstream political force, the one man who made it possible was Kanshi Ram. He worked diligently and religiously to develop a cadre who could bring the party to national mainstream and ultimately to the power in Uttar-Pradesh.’[iii]


A man of Kanshi Ram’s stature is, though, an insignificant presence for national media. His visibility is made invisible by the media gatekeepers and the objective/factual/ impartial reporting falls into bigotry whenever a Dalit/ Adivasi make their presence felt at the national mainstream. Not only the demise, but also the life and mission of Kanshi Ram was mis-represented. How can we expect the other way around when the Bagdikian gatekeeping[iv] seems to be the dictum in the Brahmin-dominated[v] national media?


The nature and density of the biased reporting of the national media had made Kenneth Cooper, the then Bureau Chief of The Washington Post in India wonder ‘is there no Dalit journalist in this country?’. Kenneth Cooper who witnessed the BSP-Journalists row in Delhi and the ‘unethical journalism’ that spill the venom of casteism thereafter, wrote a piece in The Washington Post (1996) titled, ‘India`s Majority Lower Castes Are Minor Voice in Newspapers’. Only B. N. Uniyal of The Pioneer responded positively to Kenneth’s query and he started searching for Dalit journalists in national media. He wrote: "Suddenly, I realized that in all the thirty years I had worked as a journalist I had never met a fellow journalist who was a Dalit; no not one. And worse still was the thought that… it had never occurred to me that there was something so seriously amiss in the profession…"[vi]


Yet the  Indian Fourth Estate went on with its hegemonic practices that inadvertently tend to stereotype the majority of the population without recourse to historic realities. As witnessed during the Anti-Mandal agitation of ‘90s and the recent anti-reservation streaks of the metro-centred ‘upper’ caste students of AIIMS, IITs and other professional colleges, national media always showed its true colour at all historic junctures. The national/varna media[vii] never felt it necessary to head to the voice of the majority of the population fighting against the social order determined by Brahminic ideology. On the other hand they take on those who attempt to problematise the hegemonic deeds of the profession. Many among them are self-proclaimed "internationalists" who never want to become "casteist" by talking about Dalits[viii]!


The question of representation of Dalits in media has a historical background. Ambedkar has pointed out towards the lack of media support for Dalits and their cause in umpteen numbers of occasions in history. He wrote: " Dalits have no press and the Congress press is closed to them. It is determined not to give them the slightest publicity. They cannot have their own press…"[ix]


He contended that with a press in hand, it would have been possible to manufacture great men. And, "as there was no proper media for Dalits, there will not be any ‘press-made’ great men among the Dalits."[x] Right from the beginning of his political struggle against Brahminism, Ambedkar was marginalised to the fringes of political mainstream by the Congress press.  Though, he could come out of the imageries constructed by the press, perhaps because of his mesmerizing presence that could attract masses cutting across regional boundaries. It may be because of this realization that Ambedkar once remarked: "Dalit community is ignorant and simple-minded and yet there is such a large crowd."[xi]


The kind of response Ambedkar received from colonial and post-colonial national media reminds one of the poor coverage that renowned Black American spokesman Booker T. Washington got in the White press. Washington lamented that his successful speeches before large crowds that were normally expected to receive front-page attention would be relegated to the last page and given an inch or so of space. Instead, the front page would invariably be given to considerable reporting of a Black person involved in a minor criminal offence.[xii]


Kanshi Ram realised the importance of owning media to compete with the corporatised national media. Though he succeeded in putting Dalit politics on national political map of post-colonial India, attempt to form Dalit Media failed for the simple reason that the caste-bound Indian social system is imagined in such a way that it naturally opposes the emergence of Dalit capitalism. Since post-colonial India has been constructed as a modern extension of Hindu social order wrapped in secular wardrobe, Dalits were imagined within the traditionalist Brahminical frameworks.


However, because of the Ambedkarite reservation policy that slowly democratised post-colonial socio-political India, a small number of Dalit middle class emerged. Although confined to the fringes of the existing affluent middle class, this newly formed ‘layer of hope’ spearheaded the "silent revolution" that radically changed the political equations. But at the media front, this revolution was mocked at and misinterpreted as ‘casteist’ and ‘communal’. No,  revolution cannot be mediated since the process of mainstreaming of media makes it imperative that the existing hegemonic social order be maintained forever. Our national media cannot be different and therefore we have Visible and Invisible Dalits a la carte of ‘Hindu’ India.


The Visible Dalit in post-colonial Indian media is a synonym for caste and the related aberrations[xiii]. Media celebrates this Visible Dalit to the extent that everyone starts to believe that caste exists only for this category. The caste-dominated varna narratives cleverly paint a ‘secular’ picture of their world. Visible Dalit has to contend with the blame of being ‘casteist’, even amidst their day-to-day struggles against caste and its modern practices.


Invisible Dalits also live in this country. They do dream, love, romance, dance, marry, make babies, use cell phones, read newspapers, watch television, listen radio and surf Internet. They too use television, DVD player, computer and go to PVR halls to watch Big B and Co re-imagining popular cultural lessons. They also know the spelling of Mass Communication and could function as better players in the long run. In fact many affluent Dalits are helping the corporate world boom by burning their brain. And yet, Dalits could make their presence visible in the national media whenever some caste atrocities occur. Dalit burnt to death; Dalit women raped and paraded naked; Dalits denied civic rights; Dalit students humiliated and harassed. Dalits always appear standing passively at the receiving end of development, atrocities or crimes. They are not allowed to break away from this framework. Else they become invisible.


The Kanshi Ram episode is a perfect example. The acclaimed article of Harish Khare, assessing the life of Kanshi Ram tells the story again in the same lines of ‘Hindu’ nationalistic imaginations. In his article, Harish labels Kanshi Ram as a "caste politician" and portrays Mayavati in such a way as to downplay the Dalit Identity Politics. He mis-reads the significance of the emergence of bahujan voice in North Indian politics. In his analysis neo-liberal policies and Advani’s Rath Yatra were the basis of the political advent of Kanshi Ram. He not only omits the historic Mandal Commission Report and the demolition of Babri Masjid, but also prefers to remain ignorant of the freedom struggles waged by Dalits in history against Brahminical tyranny.  For him Dalit equals caste and vice versa. Then, why does The Hindu which proclaims to be sympathetic with the Dalit cause choose Harish Khare to write on Kanshi Ram instead of any expert Dalit Intellectual as has been practiced in some other cases?  A comparison of Harish’s piece with that of Chandra Bhan Prasad and Vidya Bhushan Rawat will show us why it is so?


Kanshi Ram in Chandrabhan’s or Rawat’s writings are not ‘casteist’, but emerges as a visible champion for the cause of Dalits. Kanshi Ram as visible in Harish’s writing is a brand label of ‘casteism’ and an accidental political invention. In other words Kanshi Ram’s visibility is hegemonically linked with ‘caste’ and the wrong connotations of it. He is made ‘invisible’ by the media discourse and the constructed ‘visibility’ is accrued, which in turn is used to ideologically suppress the Dalit cause.


Chandra Bhan Prasad, the lone Dalit crusader is the only exception with his weekly column representing the Dalit world in bright colours contrary to the mainstream media discourse. The Dalit here is not ‘casteist’ and ‘problematic’, but a responsible citizen who thinks and dreams. He brings to light the beauty of cultural veracity of India that is less casteist and patriarchal.


It is the world of Invisible Dalit that would tell the true story of modern India. If at all India had changed over the years from a feudal/vedic era of barbarism to a much advanced democratic world with the slightest hope for a downtrodden to dream of a better tomorrow, it is this Invisible Dalit’s India that would show you the real colours. And unfortunately this India is invisible in national media. The media consumers are left with the lopsided stories from the upper echelons of the society, which echo barbaric feudal nostalgia even in its post-modern attire.


Invisible Dalits live with pride. Though in all walks of life attempts are made to humiliate them. It is their India that is invisible in Indian media. And it was this very India that Kanshi Ram wanted to create with the help of Dalit Media. The question of representation thus attains the dimension of leading the process of nation-building and controlling political power. Unless and until the self proclaimed "universalists" tear away the sacred threads worn over the ‘secular’ body texts and helps the process of democratization of national media, Invisible Dalits have to wait for another Kanshi Ram to be born for materializing the historic dream of a Dalit Media.




[i] Ravikumar, The Letter to The Hindu’s Reader’s Editor,

[ii] Prasad, Chandra Bhan, "Ode to Kanshi Ram" in Dalit Diary, The Pioneer, 15 Oct, 2006.

[iii] See "A tribute to Kanshi Ramji",, 10 Oct, 2006.

[iv] Bagdikian’s gatekeeper admitted that he down played the Catholic Church whenever choices had to be made. See Jeffrey, Robin, India’s Newspaper Revolution, p.170

[v] see CSDS study on national media, May 2006.

[vi] As quoted by Jeffrey, Robin in India’s Newspaper Revolution, p.168

[vii] This is the pet name given by Chandra Bhan Prasad, the only Dalit Columnist in the country to Indian media. See Dalit Dairy. 

[viii] See Prasad, Chandra Bhan, "Castless Media" in  Dalit Diary, The Pioneer, 8th October 2006

[ix] B.R. Ambedkar, ‘Plea to the Foreigner’ from ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Moon, Vasant, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in the national biography series published by NBS. P 161.

[xii] Wilson II, Clint C. and Gutierrez, Felix (1985), Minorities and Media, p 198

[xiii] Also see Anand, S., "Visible Dalit Invisible Brahmin" for further arguments in this respect.




Ranjith T. is Lecturer, EMPC, IGNOU, Maidan Garhi,New delhi-68.


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