The media's short shrift to Dalits

IN Opinion | 28/04/2015
The media have no excuse for their unpardonable indifference towards crimes against Dalits.
JYOTI PUNWANI rages against this bias and the reasons for it. Pix: the NDTV story on the Nagaur incident.

HERE’S LOOKING AT US
Jyoti  Punwani

Ambedkar is in, Dalits are still not. That much is obvious from the English press’ coverage of Ambedkar Jayanti this year. The birth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar received special coverage in the English press because, with elections due soon in Bihar, all the parties celebrated it enthusiastically.  
 
The Congress claimed that Dr Ambedkar would always be remembered as a Congressman. The RSS said he had been a votary of Hinduism. To be fair, some newspapers did carry articles unconnected with politics. The Times had a short article on academic studies that showed that equality was still a dream for Dalits.  DNA featured Ambedkar’s village to show its neglect.
 

Dalits have always celebrated April 14 the way non-Dalit Hindus celebrate Dassehra/Diwali. But while these two festivals get reams of space, Ambedkar Jayanti doesn’t even get the space that a Gudi Padwa or an Akshaya Tritiya does.  

 

This year, however, Dalit celebrations of the birth anniversary of the man they consider God, did get covered. Not in the mainstream English press of course, but in The Citizen, an online English newspaper. And, a mainstream TV channel thought fit to devote an entire hour at peak time to these celebrations: NDTV’s Ravish Kumar’s 9pm Prime Time was devoted to Dalits celebrating in Delhi. 

 

Ambedkar Jayanti was observed in a different manner in Sonebhadra, Uttar Pradesh. Villagers who have been protesting against the building of the Kanhar Dam since December decided to mark the occasion with a larger protest nearer the site to signal their opposition to a dam which will submerge their village. Comprising Dalits and Adivasis, the villagers were met with bullets; 34 were injured, two seriously, with one tribal leader feared dead. 
 
The incident went largely unreported. On its website, the Times of India had four reports on the incident, but there was no report in its Mumbai edition, and only one in the Delhi edition. Had it not been for the internet, no one would have got to know about this firing till days later, or maybe not at all. 
 
A team of activists including Kavita Krishnan and Priya Pillai from Delhi who visited the site, were detained, set upon by a mob and had to be "rescued" by the police. Even that was reported only by the Indian Express.
 
Sonebhadra is a five-hour drive from Lucknow and a two-hour drive from Varanasi.  An incident of police firing with 34 injured didn’t warrant a reporter being sent there?
 
In February, a Dalit family was set on fire in Nagaur, Rajasthan over a land dispute. While the 80-year-old grandmother was burnt to death, her 14-year-old grandson suffered serious burns. His father, who had challenged his neighbour’s hold over his land, survived with minor burns and started an indefinite dharna outside the Collectorate a week later. He is still there. 
 
While Rajasthan Patrika reported the incident immediately, Dainik Bhaskar did so only a fortnight later. But the English papers ignored the incident.  Nagaur is just 125 km from Jodhpur. Only the Hindu  carried a report as late as April 9, while Supriya Sharma did a detailed investigation for  Scroll.in on April 12. 
 
Like dowry deaths, have the killings of entire families of Dalits become so commonplace they no longer qualify as news? Or is it because they take place in villages, and rural India makes newsrooms sit up only when more farmers than usual suddenly begin committing suicide? The Land Acquisition Bill debate  is still being covered, but the voices of those most affected by it have hardly been heard. Too much trouble to meet them?
 
Maharashtra has seen a spurt of killings of Dalits over the last two years. Young educated Dalits have been the targets, as have entire families. While these incidents have been reported, some briefly, others with longer reports, as and when they have taken place, very few English newspapers have tried to see a pattern in them. The Hindu’s Meena Menon did so in a fine piece in November; while Scroll.in enumerated four cases of atrocities against Dalits in just the two months of April and May 2014, which had not come to light.
 
Dalit killings tend to happen in remote places to people not at all like us urban readers of the mainstream English press. But killings of policemen by Maoists in Chhattisgarh fall in the same category but why do they make such a splash? At the same time, why don’t killings of Adivasis by Chhattisgarh policemen receive the same space?
 
Bhagana in Haryana is just three hours away from Delhi. For the last three years, the Dalits there have been fighting for rights over village land against the Jats. Occasionally, this conflict has been reported in the English press. In March last year, four Dalit girls were abducted and raped allegedly by Jats. A month later, they and their families came to Delhi and began a protest at Jantar Mantar.
 
The Indian Express carried a brief report in April, and other papers followed sporadically in May. That was understandable, since in April-May 2014, the media was in election mode. But after the last Lok Sabha results were out and analyzed to death, couldn’t some attention have been paid to these girls?  
 
There were two exceptions to this: on May 30, Frontline did an in-depth report on Bhagana. So did Neha Dixit for India Ink, the New York Times blog on India.  
 
For the rest, it was only on June 20, when the new government led by Narendra Modi sent in police to evict the protestors, that reporters thought fit to descend – not on Bhagana – but on Jantar Mantar. 
 
So physical remoteness is not the only factor that keeps the killings and rapes of Dalits out of the news. Here, the affected families, including the girls themselves, were in the heart of Delhi. As stories go, four girls recounting their own abduction and rape fits the bill very well. Then why did it take so long for their story to be reported?
 
Is it cynicism? These were, after all, just a handful of villagers protesting. Should Dalits  descend on Delhi in hordes to make news, the way Jats threatened to do in 2011 and the kisans actually did in 2013? 
 
But Dalits do descend on Delhi in hordes on April 14 every year. They never make news. 
As news stories go, here’s another sensational one. Dalit activist Sanjay Khobragade was burnt alive in Gondia, Maharashtra, in May 2014. Notwithstanding election fever, the Times of India, Indian Express and the Hindu reported it. The police arrested the men he named as he lay dying of 93% burns in hospital. But in a few days, they were let off. As protests threatened to intensify, Sanjay’s wife and her alleged lover, another Dalit, were arrested. 
 
The case was reminiscent of the Khairlanji case, where the police blamed the mother’s alleged affair with a neighbour for the brutal disfiguration and killing of the Bhootmange family: the mother, her educated daughter and her handicapped son. Yet, no bells rang in English newspaper offices. 
 
They continued to ignore the incident even after the victim’s son Pradeep started an online petition against his mother’s arrest. The petition was reported in full in many small journals. Mainstream newspapers do not carry online petitions, but they do report them. This time, they didn’t. They didn’t care to interview Pradeep either.There have been no follow up reports on the incident.
 
Every two or three months, comes a report about Dalit students being forced to clean toilets in schools. No in depth report on this practice, which seems prevalent across the country, has been done.  The Human Rights Watch report last year titled “They Say We’re Dirty”: Denying An Education To India’s Marginalised’’ on discrimination in schools against Dalits got front page coverage. So English newspaper editors are aware of this problem yet do no think it worth following. 
 
Newspapers often campaign  against urban problems: Delhi’s pollution, Mumbai’s lack of pavements… The Times’ campaign against the Mumbai municipal corporation’s latest Development Plan got a tremendous response and led to its scrapping. The reporting on Maharashtra’s beef ban in Mumbai’s English newspapers has taken on the colours of a campaign against the ban. 
 
Why then do the killings of Dalits not qualify for a campaign? Why can’t every such incident be on the front page, with a detailed follow up for days and weeks? 
 
The fact that this has not happened leads to just one conclusion: not that the English press is anti-Dalit because, if that were so, no incident of atrocities against Dalits would be ever reported. The conclusion is that Dalits don’t figure enough in the English press’ consciousness to make editors, news editors and chief reporters commission special reports on why they are being raped, humiliated, mutilated and killed so regularly.  That could be because few journalists in those positions are Dalits. 
 
So like Muslims who have begun their own journals and news websites in English, Dalits too are beginning to do so. This may or may not be good thing, but it wouldn’t be happening if the English press hadn’t failed them. 
 
Last June, a five-year-old Dalit boy’s penis was smashed and cut off by an OBC neighbour in a village near Allahabad. Angry that the child would frequently urinate outside his flour mill, Ambarish Maurya, in his ‘20s, hit the boy’s penis with a brick till it became detached. 
 
The horrific crime should have been Page One news across the country, with not just the UP government, but every political party wanting to do something about it. Every paper reported it, and the Indian Express went to the village to meet the boy’s family. A year later, we don’t know how the boy is. 
 
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