Role of media in recent dalit outrage

BY sengupta| IN Media Practice | 16/12/2006
The media ignores dalits and their problems until they turn violent.




Subhajit Sengupta  



Riots, Strikes and public protests are not an  unknown phenomena in any part of the nation but what has really surprised everyone is the leaderless mob of women and children seen in parts of Maharastra during the recent Dalit riots. One of the salient features of these riots was the absence of leaders in these mobs. It is primarily constituted by commoners. Most of the leading newspapers portrayed these riots as an attempt by the Republican Party of India to regroup and get back the initiative which was lost after the Khairlanji killings. According to them, the campaign protesting the Khairlanji massacre was primarily by the Left and few NGOs; thus RPI used the vandalizing of Dr. Ambedkar’s statue, as an issue to reaffirm their position in the state. But there is a lot more to these riots than this. The first and foremost factor is that the oppression of Dalits is not a thing of bygone eras, it is happening today as well, and at every level.  The media too play their part in this repression which is explained in the course of the article.


 With the widening rift between the rich and the poor, the differences between the upper and lower castes are increasing as well. For the census clearly show that it is primarily scheduled castes/tribes and other backward castes that are lagging behind in the quest for development.  Add to this the politician’s role of treating them as vote banks and announcing populist policies but not caring a fig about the social development programmes. In the post Mandal Commission era none of the Dalit leaders have tried to bring in social welfare schemes which would help in developing the backward classes but always asked for the populist option of reservation.  Under such a situation the role of the media becomes even more imperative in maintaining social harmony and preserving democracy. But what the media do is just the opposite. They are partisan in their reportage of all the caste-related issues as is illustrated in the following paragraphs.



To begin with the most dominant issue of the year : the OBC reservations in higher studies. For the first time in the history of India, the electronic media coordinated and guided a protest campaign. Small protests of 200-300 students were projected as mass movements and the other cities were encouraged to have similar protests. All the English news channel be it NDTV, CNN-IBN or Times Now, had the protests as the top stories. The panel discussions did not have any representation from the Dalit community for articulating their requirements and concerns. The tone of the panelists was hostile as if they were talking about the unknown enemies and not their fellow country men. It took a brave Vinod Mehta to portray the other side of the reservation policy and speak about its scope of social empowerment.  The reason for this zealousness to the cause of the upper castes is the fact that most of the consumers in the business of media are the cream of the society and just as a politician plays to its vote bank the media too play to their consumers.


The media being the guardians of the society had to be responsible for it. It is they who should inform the world what is wrong and what should be condemned. And 50% reservation meant a number of good students had to bid their career good bye because they unfortunately belonged to the upper caste. But where was this sense of responsibility when a whole Dalit family was massacred at Khairlanji, near Nagpur. The police did not register a case and the sole surviving member of the family, Bhaiyalal ran from pillar to post just to file a complaint. The murdered bodies were not even sent for post mortem. The killing took place on the 29th of September, and not a single mainstream newspaper reported the incident. The Times of India was busy with Brangelina and so were most of the other newspapers. The Indian Express did have a story on dalits in the first week of October but that again was sensationalized news of the torture of a woman for having an affair with an upper class boy.  But nothing on Khairlanji; it was only after the nongovernmental organizations started mounting pressure that everybody woke up. Still it needed the riots to get the news on the front page.   


The apathy of the mainstream dailies towards these people can be explained. The fact is that they do not comprise their readership. On the other hand the simmering tension of the Dalits now had reached the threshold level. They realized that all the noises about social empowerment made during the post-Mandal commission era had only one purpose- to use them as vote bank. Plus the media which was supposed to give the subaltern a platform to speak-out had become more ‘colonial’ in the post-colonial era. Thus they were left to resort to the only way they could be noticed - violence.  What else could have been the reason of the headless and directionless mob that was on rampage in many parts of Maharastra?


This time the media did pay attention, The Times of India carried a front page photograph of the mob fury while explaining very briefly in the seventh page, where very few readers would have the patience to reach. However The Indian Express did give a better coverage with proper features explaining a few of the dominant issues.


And now they have discovered the best way to get noticed. Society should not be surprised if in future such riots intensify because it is the media, the watchdog of the society which has conveyed to them that it is only violence that can break its slumber. All the very best!  


Subhajit Sengupta  is a student of Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication





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