Caste in the newsroom?

BY shivam vij| IN Regional Media | 24/06/2004
Caste discrimination in the newsroom? Rubbish, say most upper caste journalists in Uttar Pradesh. It’s all over, say backward caste journalists.
 

Shivam Vij in Lucknow

How many journalists in the Lucknow office of Dainik Jagran, India’s largest selling newspaper, belong to the Schedule Castes or the ‘Other Backward Castes’? 

"I have never counted and I will never count. Caste is not an issue in this organisation," says Dilip Awasthi, a senior editor with Dainik Jagran. But a backward caste journalist says that Dainik Jagran in Lucknow in particular has  been run as a "Brahminical paper".  

Unlike Awasthi, backward caste journalists can count their numbers on the fingertips. Ask them and they start listing names — an exercise which some upper-caste scribes are also able to undertake. There are not even half a dozen Dalit journalists in Lucknow, most of whom do not handle the political beat, and no Dalit journalist works for an English paper. As for OBC’s, you will find at the most one in every paper. 

Why are the numbers so few?  

"They don’t go to schools!" says Awasthi. 

And the ones who do? Has he never met a single SC/OBC journalist who’s talented enough for a job?  

"Never. They can’t write a single sentence properly." 

Is there deliberate discrimination against lower caste candidates who apply for employment? 

"I refuse employment to 15 people every day, and 14 of them are upper caste Hindus. All that matters is talent. Go to media schools in the city and ask them how many Dalits or OBC’s are enrolled with them. The caste situation in the media is no different from what it is in society." 

Off the record, a Dalit journalist alleges: "I was denied employment by a paper because the editor said I wrote like the spokesperson of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is not true. That their reporters write like spokespersons of [the upper-caste dominated] Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a non-issue for the paper." 

Interestingly, no one has ever heard of employment discrimination against Muslims in the Lucknow press. In fact it is said that every political bureau has at least one Muslim in it because it is felt that only a Muslim can get stories from inside Muslim society. (Since there has never been a Hindu-Muslim riot in Lucknow, communal relations here are much better than riot-affected cities.) 

"Naturally," says Awasthi of Jagran, "I would like to have a Muslim to cover Muslims and a woman to cover women’s issues." 

And a Dalit to cover Dalits? 

"But where are they?" he exclaims. 

"How is it possible," questions political reporter Kamal Jayant of Aaj, "that in a country with a huge unemployment problem no Dalit comes to them for a reporter’s job?" 

"The root of the problem is ownership. When the media is owned by the upper caste, it has to be dominated by the upper caste," says Kashi Prasad of Eenadu TV Uttar Pradesh, who does not write his surname, Yadav, in his visiting card. Journalists belonging to castes that figure at the lower end of the caste system often hide or change their surnames lest they invite prejudice. 

JP Shukla, Lucknow correspondent of The Hindu, very emphatically says there is no question of any kind of employment discrimination, because: "An educated Dalit prefers his reserved job in a government office rather than a hard life as an underpaid stringer with a Hindi daily. And English dailies take the convent educated lot." 

Amit Sharma, Lucknow correspondent of The Indian Express denies that there is employment discrimination, and if the backward caste journalist feels it, "it could be because of his inner feelings [read: complex] that he belongs to a lower caste." 

Caste here may get inter-twined with class. An upper caste journalist privately admits that he may unconsciously discriminate on class basis, but for backward caste aspirants this discrimination is received as casteist. It is his caste because of which he lacks ‘class’. 

Amidst all this generalisation, backward caste journalists are not short of examples. AP Dewan, a Doordarshan reporter who is Dalit by caste, knows two cases off hand. He remembers one Yogendra Singh who committed suicide because no paper would give him a job, and how Doordarshan would not even take one Dharmendra Singh as a free apprentice. The latter, an alumus of IIMC (Indian Institute of Mass Communications, Delhi), had to forgo the electronic media and work with Rashtriya Sahara in Noida. At the same time, Dewan claims as President of the now defunct Doordarshan India Journalists Association, that jobs reserved for backward castes in Doordarshan have not been filled for years. 

Some backward caste journalists, very wary of being quoted, recall how they personally faced hardships in initially getting employment, as compared to upper-caste colleagues. 

"A Muslim friend called me the other day to arrange a newspaper internship for her daughter. But I don’t recall any backward caste person approaching me for help in employment," says Ratan Mani Lal, Director of the Jaipuria Institute of Mass Communications. 

"Employment in the private sector is often given on the basis of connections, and upper caste individuals tend to have connections amongst upper castes." says Vivek Kumar, who left his job with The Pioneer in Lucknow in 2000 to become an academic. He now teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) in Delhi. 

The Dalit and the OBC suffer from stereotypes of talent. "It is presumed that a candidate won’t be talented because he is Dalit," says Dewan. 

About this tricky issue of talent, Kumar of JNU says: "This is exactly the same as in reserved jobs for backward castes. First it was ‘candidate not available’ and now it is ‘candidate not suitable’. And who decides a candidate’s suitability? The upper-caste editor." 

So would he support reservation in the private media? "Why not? Reservation is nothing but equality of opportunity." 

The new Congress-led government at the centre has promised to look into the area of caste-based reservation in the private sector. If and when that happens, it will affect the media as well, and you may begin to see the bylines of a greater variety of castes. 

That was about employment, but those who do manage to get a job, do they face discrimination at the work place? Once again upper caste journalists say an emphatic no and backward caste journalists say an emphatic yes 

"Between 1996 an ’99 I was with Hindustan," remembers Kashi Prasad of E-TV, "I was posted in Sultanpur when the paper established its office there. As a Yadav I was the only journalist there belonging to a backward caste. I would sit in the same room as my junior upper caste colleagues, and local leaders would come and touch their feet and ignore me. So I asked them to shift to another room." These seemingly petty problems become very humiliating when an individual goes through them. 

Discrimination manifests itself in the form of marginalisation. Backward caste journalists say they are marginalised not only in places like the Press Club but also inside the newsroom, where upper caste journalists may form a closely knit community. 

Dewan of Doordarshan claims that in office he is not given basic facilities like a stenographer or a computer or air-conditioning, which have been given to journalists junior to him. Is he sure this is because of his caste? "Absolutely because of that!" he says, "But this is nothing. In the media in UP Dalits and OBC’s face much worse. They are forced to be submissive and have to quietly endure everything." 

Amit Sharma, Lucknow correspondent of The Indian Express, confirmed that backward caste journalists in UP face prejudice amongst their fraternity. "Whatever they say is taken lightly and often ridiculed," he says, "and this sometimes makes them irritable and affects their self-esteem." Sharma, however, denies discrimination in employment. 

Kashi Prasad of E-TV says, "Not only is there greater discrimination in districts and small towns, a lot many journalists in Lucknow come from small town or rural backgrounds. They carry a greater burden of caste than one would ordinarily perceive in Lucknow."  

However, JP Shukla of The Hindu, who says he is himself from a rural background, denies that there is any such thing as caste bias amongst journalists. Shukla, a Brahmin by caste, says that the primary caste equation in UP is that of a clash between Dalits and OBC’s, and the upper-castes have no role in it. (During an earlier interview for a story on The Hoot, Shukla had read excerpts from a book of memoirs that he was writing, in Hindi, which exalted the caste system.) Secondly, says Shukla, that Maywati and the BSP are such a powerful political tool in UP that nobdu dares discriminitae against a Dalit. 

After the Mandal Commission report of 1991, says Kashi Prasad, "Society was polarised into those who were for caste-based reservation in government jobs and those who were against it. Upper caste journalists, seething in anger about reservations, have been prone to prejudice against backward caste individuals in the office." There is thus a great need for backward caste journalists to ‘prove’ their merit. The problem with this, for one, is that a backward caste journalist is seen first as belonging to a ‘low’ caste and then as an individual. 

Pawan Kumar, a Dalit who works as a sub-editor with Aaj, says that a backward caste scribe has to work much harder to be accepted, whereas his upper caste colleagues would be regularly promoted even when they are not meritorious. 

The claim is buttressed by Vivek Kumar of JNU with the example of a friend who would file his stories only in his first name. But the day he started adding his surname Shukla, he was surprised to find his byline on page one off and on. "Now his name bore the burden of his caste," he says. On the other hand, Kashi Prasad claims he was not given an independent beat in a newspaper for years, unlike his upper-caste colleagues. 

How caste biases operate in the coverage of caste politics has been documented earlier by a couple of stories in The Hoot. But apart from elections, what about the coverage of caste on issues like caste discrimination in society, cases of caste-based violence, etc.? Are they given due space? If it’s newsworthy, it finds a place in the paper, says, Jayant of Aaj. "Thanks to competition," he says "if one paper doesn’t carry it, another does. But what angle such stories are given may be problematic in some cases." At the height of the Mandal Commission imbroglio in 1991, he says, stories of upper caste protests were exaggerated by the media with an activist intent.  

It is very obvious, therefore, that you never find a feature in a UP paper about caste discrimination in society, the sort that appear in Delhi editions of papers like The Indian Express and The Hindu. Vivek Kumar of JNU says that while at the Pioneer, he once interviewed the then UP Governor Suraj Bhan, a Dalit, and asked him questions on the position of Dalits in society 48 years after independence. What should have been a page-one eight-column interview, he says, was reduced to two columns on page four. Some days later the paper sent another correspondent to interview the Governor, this time without any ‘Dalit angle’, and it was right there: eight columns on page one.  

Vijay Dubey of Eenadu TV points out a rift between Thakur and Brahmin journalists in Gorakhpur over some local issue recently, and other backward caste journalists readily provide specifics of how a journalist belonging to a certain caste would often be assigned the task of covering the leader of that caste. The logic is that caste affinity helps you get a scoop.   

But this argument is turned on its head when backward caste journalists are said to use their caste to get close to politicians and benefit in getting scoops and other necessities of life. "This is unfortunate branding," says Dewan of Doordarshan, "Before I helped save Mayawati’s life in the 1995 "guest-house" attack on her, no one knew what community I belonged to. But after that the world around me changed completely. Upper-caste journalists labelled me a Mayawati stooge and in 1998, got chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav to get me transferred out of UP. Later when Mayawati again became CM, some upper-caste journalists instigated her against me and as a result, she hasn’t spoken to me for 18 months." 

Journalists in the English papers may be a little more progressive, but Kumar of JNU complains that the upper-caste individual can choose to be anything in the garb of progressiveness.  A source in The Times of India says, "Caste is always implicit. You are always aware of what is the caste of which person and what that means in caste hierarchy." 

While local English papers remain urban-centric, Hindi papers do cover grassroots level activities, socio-religious affairs and some amount of rural reporting also finds space. But in all this, it is an upper-caste ("Brahminical") culture that is reflected; the lives and customs of a segregated, backward caste society are unimportant. 

There is no dialogue over this issue; nobody seems to see the need to give so much as a patient hearing to the grievances of journalists belonging to depressed castes. The arrogance with which senior journalists like Awasthi of Jagran dismiss the issue, suggests that a Dalit journalist is persona non grata for them. 

Says Vivek Kumar of JNU, "When you live life in your own group you never think you are excluding anyone. The only time you think there is discrimination is when Mayawati dismisses you as Manuwaadi."

 

(Some interviewees were not quoted on request. Shivam Vij runs the Zest Reading Group. Contact: shivamvij@hotmail.com.)

 

 

 

Related archives in The Hoot

 

Where are the dalit journalists?

Jharkhand`s oppressed dalits and the media

Journalism and caste in Bihar

Story of a dalit journalist

Mayawati and the media

"Pardafash"  and the media

The Dainik Jagran flip flop on Raja Bhaiya

Commerce, politics and caste in UP election coverage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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