Caste on the campus

BY AJAZ ASHRAF| IN Media Practice | 12/08/2013
The Untold Story of Dalit Journalists-Part II. Most Dalit journalists insist that social network based on caste plays a crucial role in placement and, subsequently, in switching jobs.
AJAZ ASHRAF on the two Cs Dalit students dread. PIX: A cover of ~Samajik Nyay Sandesh~ magazine
Most Dalits sought admission to media institutes in the hope of living in a cosmopolitan world and acquiring journalistic skills. They say their experiences there were the earliest intimation of the prevalence of caste-linked discrimination and antagonism in the supposedly liberal world of media.
 
 
IIMC was an intellectual shock for many of its former students whom I spoke to. There was jargon and theories thrown at them; there were discussions on globalisation, Marxism, and Capitalism. As Ashok Das, editor of Dalit Dastak, jocularly told me, “It was there I learned that right, left, centre also exists in politics.”
                                                                                                                                         
Yet there was also caste on the campus, particularly in the Hindi journalism course. The TOI’s Vipashana said she was always treated as “that girl from Maharashtra” by most of the students enrolled in English Journalism, Radio and Television, and Advertising courses. But Hindi students often asked her about her caste and religion, a tendency displayed by English journalism students from small towns also. Her testimony was almost unanimously endorsed by Dalit journalists who went to IIMC.
 
Once at least, caste shook the IIMC edifice. In 1996-97, among its students was Sudhir Hilsayan, an OBC who went on to edit several little Dalit magazines and is currently the editor of Samajik Nyay Sandesh, published by the Ambedkar Foundation, an autonomous government body. On the day of IIMC convocation ceremony, in which students are also awarded for individual excellence, a Dalit student came to him at 11 am and reported verbatim the taunt of an upper caste mate: “Students from 22.5 per cent (SC and ST) and 27 per cent (OBC) category can never top.” 
 
 
To the Dalit students, the remark seemed a deliberate provocation, as there was already much disquiet among them as they believed some teachers had manipulated marks to help certain students to secure the top three ranks. Hilsayan promptly called up a few, and drew a petition to which 20 students appended their signature. The petition demanded that IIMC shouldn’t award students for individual excellence, which then was granted to the top three-rankers. 
 
Then IIMC director JS Yadav tried to dissuade these students from walking the path of confrontation. Two teachers were asked to negotiate with the agitating students. At their plea that the rescinding of awards for individual excellence would bring disrepute to the institute, the students agreed to participate in the convocation but also said they would wear black bands to register their protest. Ultimately, though, the award wasn’t bestowed on the three rank-holders that evening, and an Information & Broadcasting Ministry committee, following a probe, upheld the decision.
 
Fifteen years later, Dr JS Yadav confirmed the incident to me, but he, understandably, didn’t remember the precise details. Forget the students, Yadav said, he too had faced opposition from teachers who could not reconcile to a backward caste academician heading the institute for as long as 12 years. “Let us face it, the media has been the preserve of certain castes. I expected opposition, and saw it coming with my turf,” he said. What riled certain sections in IIMC was Yadav’s decision to not slot Dalits who qualified in the general category in the reservation pool, thus theoretically creating more seats for them.
 
From anecdotal accounts of Dalit students who passed out in recent years, it appears the reservation issue still divides students: upper castes still feel affirmative action is unjustifiable; Dalit students perceive this stance as an attempt of entrenched social groups to protect their privileges. In 2007, in a Hindi debate on reservation, Naveen Kumar, the boy who was proscribed from entering a Delhi college, was one of the participants. He argued that nobody objected to reservation in Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) as they churned out carpenters and electricians, jobs upper castes didn’t aspire for. “But those who argued against reservation won. Why?” Naveen asked rhetorically. “Yes sir, the debate was judged by an upper caste teacher.”

He argued that nobody objected to reservation in ITIs as they churned out carpenters and electricians, jobs upper castes didn't aspire for.

It is eminently possible that those who spoke against reservation argued better. Nevertheless, Naveen’s articulation did seem to have assaulted the sensibilities of some upper caste students. This came to the fore in the production of the in-house periodical which students are required to take out as part of their practical training. Students take turn to sit in the editor’s chair for planning out an edition. When it was the turn of a particular Bhumihar student to become the editor, he said aloud, “There will be no Dalit news in my issue, Naveen.”
 
Such provocations were also countenanced by Sangh Priy Gautam, who passed out from IIMC in 2005-2006 and currently works for a leading Hindi daily in Agra. (To distinguish him from his namesake who has already appeared in this narrative, we will call this Sangh Priy (H) and the other, Sanghpriya (E)). An upper caste student, during a lab class on TV production, said right to his face, “Where the hell do these beneficiaries of reservation come from.” It required the intervention of others to calm down tempers. Perhaps you can view the insult to Sanghpriy against the backdrop of the furore triggered by the UPA government’s decision to extend reservation to OBCs in higher education that year.
 
Yet, even last year, the idea of superiority upper castes harbour was unabashedly on display in a girl’s intervention in a classroom discussion on reservation. Ved Prakash, the primary school teacher-turned-journalist, recounted: “This girl said she favoured reservation. But she also said it is impossible for upper castes to get rid of the dabaang (fervour, blue-blood, courage) in their blood.” The girl now works for a reputed Hindi daily in Delhi, and it makes you wonder about the attitude she would bring to, say, stories on caste violence.
 
Casteist remarks Dalit students either retaliate against or simply ignore. But among them there is also a pervasive suspicion about the existence of caste bias in placement. At the end of every academic year, media outlets descend on IIMC, conduct a written test to shortlist students for the interview before choosing whom to give employment to. IIMC, it must be noted, is a mere facilitator, and has no role in the media outlet’s selection of students for employment. Nevertheless, Dalit students think teachers prejudice the media outlet’s representatives, particularly from reputed media houses, through their informal briefing on which student they think is good and who’s below par. From this perspective, an upper caste teacher is seen conspiring with upper caste media representatives, many of whom are alumni of IIMC, to ensure their caste brethren are employed.
 
Too far-fetched, I tell them.
 
Yet Dalit students, at least those who did Hindi journalism, including some who found employment through campus placement, reel out names of those who secured better marks than some of their upper caste batchmates but discovered, much to their shock, that it was the latter who found employment in big-brand TV outlets. Good grades don’t necessarily imply greater suitability to the media, I pointed out. “In nine months, sir,” most of them countered, “you figure out who is good, or better than you, and who isn’t.”
 
Perhaps – with each letter in capital – media outlet representatives who visit the campus for recruitment have a subconscious bias for those who speak their lingo, share their dressing style and, crucially, their worldview. Students therefore become victims of that incorrigible human tendency of people preferring to bond with those sharing the same culture. Since the entrenched social groups define the dominant urban culture, Dalits with a different background perhaps get sifted out.
 
Is this indeed the case?
 
The two Cs – caste and connection
 
Most Dalit journalists insist that social network based on caste plays a crucial role in placement and, subsequently, in switching jobs. I met three young men who were as steeped in the dominant urban culture as any, but they thought they had a harrowing time, despite their academic credentials, in finding openings because of the absence of a Dalit network in the media. Their names: Mohinder (name changed), Rohit Kumar, and Parinay Singh, IIMC alumni all. This belief, imaginary or otherwise, crushes their spirit, wilting their media dreams even before it blossoms.
 
This crushing of spirit appears particularly tragic in the case of Mohinder, who overcame for what seemed to me insurmountable impediments to walk into IIMC. To comprehend the scale of his disappointment, we must delve into his background. Over cups of Cappuccino, at the Costa Coffee shop in Delhi’s Bengali Market, Mohinder, who is in now working with an English newspaper in Delhi, spoke of his background.
 
His father was a shepherd in Bhiwani, Haryana, and owned a substantial number of goats he and others whom he hired grazed. His father and mother were illiterate, but she prevailed upon her husband to move to Delhi to educate their children. Mohinder said he never encountered discrimination in the government school in Nangloi, largely because just about everyone there belonged to the lower middle caste. “My schoolmates are three-wheeler drivers, vendors or owners of petty businesses,” he said.
 
Mohinder’s family lacked the resources to finance his college education. He hit upon an idea, undoubtedly novel, but also back-breaking. He joined a BPO as well as enrolled for a correspondence course. Three months before the yearly examination, he’d quit his job to prepare for his papers. This was the pattern of his ersatz college life, holding jobs for nine months and burning the midnight oil for the remaining three.
 
The exposure to the BPO provided him an insight into the power language that English is. Mohinder bought books which translated Hindi sentences into English and studied the language diligently; he underlined words in books and newspapers he did not know the meaning of, consulted the dictionary and memorised them. For hours, he’d read passages aloud, ensuring his tongue didn’t trip over words, never forgetting the irony of mastering a language not India’s. The Voice Training Programme at BPOs helped him to acquire fluency, but also a pronounced America accent. Laughing aloud, he said, “My dream was to talk to Americans in an accent they could understand.”
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