Mayawati and the media’s caste bias

BY sevanti ninan| IN Regional Media | 12/06/2007
He (Kanshi Ram) had said, `Dalits don`t trust the upper caste media. To strengthen your movement, you must yourself become the media.`

Book excerpt:

From "Headlines from the Heartland—Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere," Sevanti Ninan,  Sage Publishers, 2007. pp 218-222.

 Caste-based politics in the Hindi heartland was throwing up a new generation of leaders who were willing to point a finger at journalists reporting on their parties and label them casteist. The most vocal in making this accusation were Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, whose constituency was the backward castes, and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh.

 The nub of their accusations was the same: reporting by the media could not be fair or accurate because it suffered from a pronounced upper-caste bias. In both states, the journalists were overwhelmingly upper-caste, both regular employees in newspaper and magazine offices as well as part-time ¿stringers¿ across the length and breadth of the states.

Attitudes to the media as a player now became a part of political formulations. The Bahujan Samaj Party¿s founder Kanshi Ram, the Dalit publication Dalit Voice and other Dalit articulations have from time to time reiterated the party stand that the mainstream media was manuwadi or casteist, and not to be trusted. Ajay Upadhyay, former editor of Hindustan, points out that when Kanshi Ram built the party, he side-stepped the mainstream media and reached out directly to Dalits through personal communications, often in the form of letters written to the literate Dalits in a village.7 But the inheritors of socialism were more pragmatic in their dealings with the media; they used it when they could and spurned it when it did not come up to their expectations. Upadhyay also recalls the socialist politician Ram Manohar Lohia¿s extended articulations with journalists over coffee. Both Lalu Prasad Yadav as chief minister in Bihar  and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh have turned their backs on the press from time to time, without it affecting their vote base.

A number of journalists in Patna concede that even though corruption and criminalisation destroyed the economy of Bihar through the many years of Lalu Prasad¿s and then his wife Rabri Devi¿s chief ministership, it is because of the media that they faced no real criticism.The media carried little credibility with the electorate, or with politicians. According to The Hindu¿s man in Bihar, K. Balachand:8

" All politicians in the state see who you are. If you write against them they will say   he wrote this    because he is not from my caste. The bureaucrat is also casteist. When you write you may not reflect the whole picture because your source is someone from your caste."

The media seldom confronted the government on the issue of growing criminalisation because newspaper managements urged self censorship. The Hindustan¿s and Jagran¿s editorial policies were not confrontationist.9 Nor were those of others publishing from the state, even on the issue of corruption when the erstwhile chief minister and ruling party leader was facing investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The story of the Rs 7,000 million fodder scam which implicated the chief minister was broken and then pursued by the small Ranchi-based paper Prabhat Khabar.

 The caste composition of the media was perpetuated because the media had no fixed norms for appointments, and people were free to hire whom they pleased, so it was difficult for other castes to break in. 

A Brahmin is likely to hire more Brahmins, and this was demonstrated by the employment pattern in Indian Nation.10 Not all journalists in the state however are upper caste, some Dalits and Yadavs came into the profession in Karpoori Thakur¿s time. But since the beginning of the process of broadening the media¿s social base began only then, in the late 1970s, a very small percentage of representation in this profession has been achieved till now.11

A freelance looking at the issue of caste in the newsroom in Lucknow    found that backward-caste journalists could, in 2004, count their numbers on the fingertips, and then start listing names, ¿an exercise  which some upper-caste scribes were also able to undertake¿. There were not even half a dozen Dalit journalists in Lucknow, most of whom did not handle the political beat, and no Dalit journalist worked for an English paper. As for OBC¿s, there was in 2003 not more than one in every paper.12 Even as politics in Uttar Pradesh came to be dominated by the Samajwadi Party which was the party of ¿other backward castes¿ (the Constitutional classification for the intermediate castes between the scheduled castes and the upper castes), and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) which was primarily the party of Dalits or the scheduled castes, both these groupings were vastly under-represented in the UP press, particularly amongst political reporters. The backward caste parties were invariably covered by uppercaste journalists, and overseen by upper-caste editors.13

In early 2003, during Mayawati¿s tenure as chief minister, the relationship between her and sections of the press corps was more than a little strained. Her arrest of the influential Thakur politician Raja Bhaiyya was criticised by the press, whose writing reflected their belief that her days were now numbered. But observers noted that as the weeks after the arrest wore on and the chief minister stayed her course, the newspapers began to change their tune as well. ¿They first tried to report in favour of Raja Bhaiyya. But when it became clear that his rebellion (Raja Bhaiyya¿s) had almost fizzled out, there appears to be a clear signal in favour of Mayawati with the approval of the editors.¿14 

Mayawati¿s lavish celebrations of her birthday each year became a constant target of criticism, in both the national and local press. One year, at a press meet about the fund collection for the BSP during these celebrations, the Reuters correspondent Sharad Pradhan reportedly asked Mayawati: ¿Aapne kitna paisa botore liya ab tak?¿ (How much money have you amassed by now?) The question was not irrelevant but its tone provoked the chief minister to flare up at the correspondent. He was dropped from subsequent press briefings, and the information directorate thereafter began to scrutinise the writings and therefore loyalty of journalists, particularly those occupying government housing.15 Notices were issued to some 70 journalists to vacate for non-payment of rent. BSP politicians were not afraid of taking on the press. Some years prior to this, the party¿s supremo Kanshi Ram slapped a newsperson at a press conference at his house in New Delhi, triggering a love-hate relationship between the party leadership and the media. This reached new levels during the Mayawati regime in Lucknow. She believed her voter did not read the papers, and was not influenced by them, and so she did not speak to the manuwadi (casteist) media.16 

When Mayawati¿s government fell, the UP press corps including the aggrieved Reuters correspondent could not hide their relief or glee. Sharad Pradhan¿s ¿Watchdog¿ column in Hindustan Times on 30 August 2003 reflected the mood. Titled ¿High expectations from new CM¿, the column said: 

The reign of terror is now over. Everyone appears to be heaving a sigh of relief—be it the man on the street, the all powerful bureaucrats or the mighty people¿s representatives. (The) Sixteen months that have gone by will be remembered as that dark patch in the history of Uttar Pradesh when fundamental freedom, enshrined in Ambedkar¿s Constitution, was eroded by a ham-headed and insolent despot who ironically chose to swear by the name of the architect of that Constitution.17

 Just before his party lost the state elections in Bihar in November 2005, Lalu Prasad Yadav was to assert again in a newspaper interview his firm belief that the upper-class media did not reflect his true popularity in the state. Exit polls were showing that he would lose the election, but he dubbed them an upper-class media conspiracy.18 This time, however, the media had got its electoral prognosis right. Apart from specific encounters between the upper-caste media and caste-based politicians, the larger issue is that of caste representation in the media. The relative absence of Dalits and backwards in the ranks of the media was true of the whole country, not just the Hindi belt. And it was seen as accounting for the relative lack of press concern for issues relating to caste inequality and oppression in the regional media, in particular. If there was an atrocity against Dalits, it was more likely to figure in the national press. In 1996 a foreign correspondent wrote:

  India¿s 4,000 daily newspapers publish in nearly 100 languages, but one voice is largely absent in the     press of the world¿s largestdemocracy: that of the lower castes, which account for more than 70 per cent of the country¿s 934 million people. Not one daily newspaper has made speaking on their behalf its role. Few daily newspaper reporters come from lower castes, andnone of the nation¿s prominent columnists does.19

On, a Website devoted to Dalit discourse, a former journalist at the Pioneer who became an academic at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, wrote on the occasion of ¿Dalit Diary¿ completing 100 columns in that paper, that Babasaheb Ambedkar had talked about the abuses hurled at him from the Hindu press. Vivek Kumar also quoted BSP leader Kanshi Ram who had abused the media as manuwadi. He had said, ¿Dalits don¿t trust the uppercaste media. To strengthen your movement, you must yourself become the media.¿ A voice for Dalits in the media was sorely needed, and needed to be celebrated when found.20 

*Indian Express wrote an editorial urging people to come out amd oppose the  reservations, the news video Newstrack produced an inflammatory edition as well. But Jansatta, the Expres¿s sister publication in Hindi, took a pro-Mandal stand.



7. Ajay Upadhyay, former editor, Hindustan, interviewed by author, 5 May 2006.

8. K. Balachand, interviewed by author, Patna, 2 June 2003.

9. Naveen Joshi, interviewed by author, Patna, 1 June 2003.

10. Nalin Varma, Statesman, interviwed by author, Patna, 2 June 2003.

11. Sukanta Nagarjun, interviewed by author, Muzaffarpur, 8 June 2003.

12. Shivam Vij, ¿Caste in the Newsroom?¿,

13. Shivam Vij, ¿Commerce, politics and caste in UP election coverage¿,, posted 19 May 2004,

14. Devsagar Singh, ¿Mayawati and the Media¿,, 25 February2003,


15. Ibid.

16. Shivam Vij, ¿Commerce, politics and caste ...¿,, posted  19 May 2004.

17. Sachin Agarwal and Shivam Vij, ¿For Lucknow Scribes Happy Days are Here Again¿,, 19 October 2003.

18. Manini Chatterjee, ¿Laloo Scoffs at Exit Polls¿, Indian Express, Delhi,

21 November 2005.

19. Kenneth J. Cooper, ¿India¿s Majority Lower Castes are Minor Voice in Newspapers¿, The Washington Post, p. A16, 5 September 1996.

20. Dr Vivek Kumar, ¿Social Surgery has been Painful but Worth it¿.




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