Media justice: activism or elitism?

BY Ranjith Thankappan| IN Media Practice | 05/06/2007
Jessica and Priyadarshini may become a cause for this `civil society`, but not those majorities falling on the other side of the caste/class order.

Ranjith Thankappan

?Justice for Jessica?[i] was not just a slogan, but an enigmatic campaign undertaken by metro-centred Indian national media (both print and electronic) in 2006, eventually leading to the life imprisonment of the accused. Suddenly, media seems to be socially responsible and there is a cry for justice all around. And ¿civil society¿ was exposed to a plethora of activism harnessed by media and judiciary that tend to project an erroneous belief that ?justice? could be attained only through such hype.

This essay is an attempt to problematise the liberal democratic facet of media and initiate the process of theorizing it from a Dalit/Subaltern perspective. It focuses on the myth of media activism in the context of India¿s failed civil society and its monolithic, homogenous practices of constructing socio-cultural myths. A comparative analysis of media/judicial activisms with respect to ¿upper¿ caste/class India and the lack of it with respect to Dalit/Subaltern India would led us to understand how problematic are the secular, modern and civil libertarian spaces in the Indian context. This has been attempted at the theoretical level by citing instances that define ideological positioning of the mainstream dominant media. Cases such as those of Jessica Lal have been cited in order to highlight and attempt to see the ¿Other¿ side of these metro-middle class activisms.

The cultural parlance upon which these activisms place their ideological wings determines the nature of dominant media and its representations of Indian life. The term dominant media is used here not as technology or form but as an apparatus of culture, imagined historically as a nationalist enterprise. Such an approach would not reduce media merely to the ¿form¿; on the other hand, it places media as part of the historical/cultural/social/political realm of society. Here my interest is to understand media discourse and its cultural evolution in the modern context.

Media justice is a hypothetical term used to denote the contrived media space allotted for social groups to engage in public discourse. It is hypothetical in the sense that the term exists as a theoretical trope, tangibility of which is possible relatively at theoretical level. It is an accrued dominant narrative and its practice evolve as corollary to the ideological positioning of media as an agency of the culturally dominant.

Civil society and Media

Civil society as a concept envisages a modern democratic society with citizen as a central figure and citizenship rights as a means to achieve the goal. Every modern society envisages an ideal civil society as gate keeper of its social consciousness. This ideal space provides a breathing ground for evolving and developing modern nations from the debris of traditional/feudal backwardness. It was in 1980s that the concept re-emerged in the public sphere debates in Europe and later spread to different parts of the world. The notion of civil society is today commonly identified with a non-statist, somewhat romanticized, set of institutions that stand for liberalism in the form of free market in the economic sphere and democracy in the political sphere (Dhanagare, 2001).The whole discourse on civil society therefore precipitates with the liberal intellectualism of the democratic public sphere. The visibility of this sphere is culminated in the media form and its imagined cultural sphere allows voices from different sections of the society to be heard.

The civil society should play a prominent role in shaping the concerns of this public sphere. The constructed media sphere becomes the ¿coffee table¿ for the civil society. Ideally, the media should facilitate the process of democratization by providing an arena for public debate and by reconstituting private citizens as a public body in the form of public opinion (Sridhara, 2006).[ii]Robin Jeffrey (2005) identifies the public sphere with that of the modern space provided by newspapers. He points out that ?one can¿t have Habermas¿ public sphere without the presence of the newspaper.?[iii] Both grow up together.

Media, by and large encompasses the idea of an ideal public sphere, especially in highly political societies. However, a close examination of the same would bring forth the problematic terrain of these spheres. Rather than a ¿public¿ sphere it limits to a ¿caste/community¿ sphere where various caste/community voices are raised for fair share of power. Thus, public sphere (therefore media also) could be problematised by introducing caste as analytical category in the Indian context.

Arvind Rajagopal in his book Politics after Television argues that ?Hindi language publications provide a much more potent site for Hindu majoritarian ideas?[iv]. However, a critical analysis will reveal that English language press with its secular, rationalist image is no less a culprit. It could be argued that English language press is equally ?Hinduised? (read Brahminical) in the very narrowest sense. Rajagopal¿s ¿split-public¿ is imagined on the English/Vernacular language divide. But in a society divided on the basis of caste/sub-caste/religious/gender identities, ¿the public¿ is a broken lot. As such, there could be number of ¿split publics¿ vis-à­¶is various identities which would in effect define the nature of the public/media sphere.

The secular and rational face of national media was exposed in the way the marginalized sections of the society and their issues were represented. The media representations of Dalits/Adivasis/OBCs/Muslims in national media were in consonance with the majoritarian Hindu/Brahminical imaginations. The narratives have shown a hegemonic construction of these categories which in the larger historical context tend to demoralize and challenge the very existence of these groups in the national culture.

There is a belief among many who voice in the public sphere that civil society is live and are capable of taking up issues pertaining to the marginalized sections of the society. Whenever Dalits/Adivsis/Muslims raise their voice politically, it has been branded as ¿casteist¿, ¿communal¿ and ¿separatist¿. Instead the civil society is assigned the role to  giving?voice the voiceless?. And as experienced, it never happened at any historical juncture. This anomaly is a result of mis-reading of civil society as a homogenous universal category which eventually led to romanticizing of the concept.

Viewed within this framework of positivism one could end up believing that the ¿universal¿ even if envisioned hegemonically, could not deter the basic tenets of the ideal. This is a wrong perception as ¿universal¿ need not ¿truly¿ represent the ¿particular¿. The ¿social¿ can be better defined as part of ¿particular¿ and therefore, might posses the potential to redefine the ¿universal¿. Both ¿universal¿ and ¿particular¿ co-exist and at times exchanges ideological lessons to define historical junctures. These are theoretical tropes, tangible in the temporality of the public sphere discourse.

Civil society v/s Dalit/Subaltern

Civil society in the Indian context is a myth. Otherwise, the tangible reality of its existence is predominantly a dominant narrative. It need not always voice the concerns of the ¿split publics¿ living on the verge of caste/sub-caste/ religious/gender identities. And as such, its ideological concerns are very much ¿upper¿ casteist. It is this ¿upper¿ casteism that had defined Indian culture and therefore even civil society becomes an outcome of that imagination. Jessica and Priyadarshini may become a hot debate for this ¿civil society¿, but it is a difficult preposition for those majorities falling on the other side of the caste/class order.

The Kherlanji Dalit Massacre[v] was a non-issue for the national media until  some Marathi local newspapers picked it up and sensationalized. No candles burnt in front of India Gate, New Delhi[vi] for the unfortunate victims of Kherlanji. No celebrity vouched support for the victims. No newspaper/television channel campaigned for them[vii]. No columnist expressed solidarity with the victims as seen in the case of anti-reservation/pro-Jessica-Priyadarshini media campaigns.  These pre-planned campaigns were nothing less than political statements of the elite ¿upper¿ caste minority dominating the cultural ethos of a civilization.

However, those who lamented for the neglect of Kherlanji by national media also could not understand the logic behind the inherent media biases against Dalits. For example Mr. Sen[viii] who critiqued media¿s indifference to Kherlanji issue, however does not find the same for the media campaign against reservation. He views the latter as an instance of ¿responsible media¿ and former that of  ¿irresponsibility¿. He could not recognize that it is the same ideological framework that makes media support the anti-reservation campaigns and neglect Kherlanji. While anti-Reservation campaigns consume the prime time and space of national media, Dalit/Subalten concerns whether it be atrocities, human rights violations, success stories, daily life instances, death or birth, does not attract media in the same vein. These are non-issues for civil society and media.

Racism in the British Big Brother show was a debate for the British civil society and media. Indian media too shed crocodile tears for Shilpa Shetty¿s racist fate abroad. But where were these sympathizers and saviours of civil sense when Indian judiciary degraded Dalits/OBCs as ¿non-meritorious¿, ¿inefficient¿ and what not?[ix] Where were they when ¿upper¿ caste students and teachers of IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, Central Universities and Private Colleges raised casteist slogans against major chunk of Indian population during the event-managed anti-reservation campaigns in Indian metros? Where gone their civic sense and modern ethos?

This was also evident in the infamous Nithari Serial Killings[x] of children and teenage girls at the city fringe of NOIDA in India. The elitist middle class who thronged with candles for Jessica and Priyadarshini Matto did not come out of their houses in support of the parents and relatives whose sons and daughters were brutally murdered in a real life psycho thriller. The accused were a rich industrialist and his faithful servant. Right from the beginning the Police, vested with the power of enforcing law and order in the country, favoured the accused and victimized those who lost their dear and near.[xi] Newspapers have reported that the accused were once arrested against a complaint, but later released after receiving bribe.

In all the above mentioned instances, civil society and media showed less interest and its activism was non-existent. It never initiated a verbal/visual campaign for ¿justice¿ as it did in the case for Jessica, Priyadarshini Matto[xii] and against Reservation policy[xiii]. Nithari appeared as cover story with a sensational element of a thriller, but it never attained the dimension of a campaign. On the other hand, the controversial kidnapping and rescue of the son of Naresh Gupta, CEO of Adobe, a few months ago, got more attention from media and the state machinery. The political class offered support; state machinery lined up to serve and eventually justice gained. Media arranged virtual prayers for the boy¿s rescue through SMS opinion polls and scintillating accounts of the developments. Naresh Gupta thanked the ?Indians? for their support: ?I have never felt so helpless in life. Support from the police and administration helped save my son. I requested low key media coverage earlier as kidnappers would have taken undue advantage of our position. I got overwhelming support from everyone at my hour of crisis. But I am not a coward and won`t change my lifestyle or flee India because of certain criminals. Life goes on. I am not bitter and still have hope in the system?[xiv] (Italics mine)

The CEO of Adobe has hope in the system. Moreover he is in a position to decide the density of news coverage. But the poor Nithari villagers are still not sure about the fate of their hope for ¿justice¿. Their hopes are shattered already by the system that constructed the ¿world¿ for them. These victims belong to the lower rung of the society both class-wise and caste-wise. They were abused and victimized by the police whenever the question of lodging complaints were raised and even refused to lodge one. Media showed mercy to publish their photos in series; but they did not take up the issue as in the case of kidnapping of Adobe CEO¿s son. By and large, none attempted to initiate a debate or in-depth analysis of the social/cultural/political dimensions of the issue. They never bothered about the plight of the people living right under the nose of their avowed media consumers of NOIDA who speaks English and roam around in expensive cars. The people of Nithari may not have the same saleability as that of CEO of Adobe?! Therefore, Nithari end up as the story of cannibalism and nothing else. The social/cultural context that creates Nithari victims and their vulnerability to such ¿cannibal¿ culture is undermined for the reason that none in power would like to debate it. Media being the cultural apparatus of the state, has shown the same apathy and indifference, and is positioned against the majority of the population comprising of Dalits/Adivasis/OBCs.

On the other hand, these marginalized sections of society are ridiculed for the benefit of the dominant. Times of India¿s India Poised campaign imagine these as the burden on the elitist India.[xv] Times have every right to protect their ¿elite India¿ for the simple reason that it is from the parasitic morality of those exploiters/oppressor¿s that these national media thrive in Indian media market. But they have no right to degrade and humiliate the toiling millions, whose culture and ethos make India alive. It would take years of internal democratization exercise for the Brahminised national media to understand their life and culture.

Activisms of elitism  

An inclusive and responsible media would evolve over a period of time, but for that a democratic contour is a necessity. It is the duty of the civil society to create this space in any modern society (it is debatable whether India is modern or not). However in the Indian context where the historical ramifications of societal tension drawn on the lines of caste/sub-caste/religion get masked in the public sphere, civil society is a flawed construct. And as such activisms of this civil sphere tend to raise the concerns of only the dominant (read Brahminical).

Thus, media/judicial activisms act as a ploy to deceive the public conscience and create a false consciousness of an ethical society built on the pillars of media and judiciary. Call for justice therefore becomes ¿activisms of elitism¿ that would only serve the vested interests of the few. These activisms of elitism are constructed on the caste lines of power and mask caste and its accrued narratives that jeopardize the growth and development of the society. Instead of addressing the Caste Question, these fall back on the universal ideals imbibed from the west, at the same time limiting itself to the traditional ethos built on graded system of inequality perpetuated by caste. May be there is a need for more democratization of media in order for it to offer ?media justice? to accentuate the cause of the downtrodden. The media barons will have to address the issue of inadequacy of media space for the downtrodden either today or tomorrow. If they hesitate to face it now, the market will make them run for it tomorrow.


[i] Jessica Lal was a bartend who was shot dead by the son of an influential politician in Delhi, the capital city of India for denying a peg of whisky in a Bar. The trial court of S. L. Bhayana acquitted the accused, but the issue was taken up my media and its middle class centred campaigns resulted in Delhi High Court¿s judicial activism that gave ?justice? to Jessica.

[ii] See his article Media, democracy and citizenship: Need for an alternative paradigm. 

[iii] Jeffrey, Robin (2005), ?The Public Sphere of Print Journalism? in the book Practicing Journalism: Values, Constraints, Implications (ed.) Nalini Rajan, New Delhi: Sage

[iv] For a detailed discussion see Ibid and Arvind Rajagopal (2001), Politics After Television: Religious Nationalism and the Retailing of Hinduness . New York: Cambridge University Press.

[v] Khairlanji is a village in Maharashtra where a Dalit family was brutally murdered for defying the caste Hindu Panchayat¿s order and objecting the forceful take over of their land to make a road for ¿upper¿ caste Hindus. 

[vi] India Gate in New Delhi has been an important place of activism during anti-reservation protests of the ¿upper¿ castes. Many candles were lighted in solidarity for Jessica and Priyadarshini too.

[vii] I am not forgetting Tehelka follow-ups, but eventually that too ended up as far cries of patronizing and reductionist uplifting theory. 

[viii] Http://

[ix] see SC, August 2005 and Delhi High Court, April 2007 remark on the issue of reservation in higher education (source: Newspaper reports)

[x] Report of National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) has revealed that 90% of the children killed belong to Dalit communities.

[xi] Reference to news reports of various television channels and newspapers.

[xii] Priyadarshini Matto was a law student who was raped and murdered.

[xiii] In the light of the decision by UPA government to introduce Reservation for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in Higher education, the metro-centred ¿upper¿ caste students and teachers started agitating with the help of national media. It was alleged that event management groups were involved in running the protest campaign. The demand for reservation arises out of the socio/cultural/economic backwardness vis-à­¶is caste status in the caste-ridden Indian society.


[xv] See the India Poised campaign in the front page of Times of India on first January 2007. For Times ¿upper¿ caste India is leading and Dalit/Subaltern India following. It is an irony that ¿oppression¿ is treated as leadership quality and overt casteism as ¿equality. Both Times and Youth For Equality go hand in hand.

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