Journalism and caste in Bihar

BY ninan| IN Regional Media | 12/06/2003
Journalism and caste in Bihar

 

 

The media here has evolved into a force which is expanding rapidly in the rural hinterland, yet has relatively little influence. The reasons have to do with caste.

 

 Sevanti Ninan 

Recently in Patna, Bhagalpur and Muzafarpur 

 

In 1889, a man called Mahesh Narayan who has been described as the father of journalism in Bihar, started a weekly newspaper called the Kayastha  Gazette, aimed at the Kayasthas who are one of the forward castes in the state. It ceased  publication in 1891 for want of financial succour. This weekly was not Narayan’s major claim to fame, a few years later he would start the Bihar Times to campaign for the separation of Bihar from  Bengal. But it  provides a  historical starting point to the association  between caste and journalism in this state.    

 

The  relationship between Rabri Devi’s  government  and the press in Bihar is  fundamentally  defined by caste equations.  The limitations of media influence upon a government that has much to be castigated for, the absence of certain kinds of reporting in the media, the irrelevance of the press to recent electoral outcomes in Bihar—each of these parameters in the equation between politics and  media, harks back to a relationship established before the advent of Laloo Prasad Yadav, or even before the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in the state.  

 

Subsequently, with the advent of  Laloo Yadav and the lower and backward castes in the political mainstream, with the criminalisation of politics over the last decade,   the media here has evolved into a  force which has numbers,  is growing rapidly in the rural hinterland, yet has relatively little influence.

 

To travel around Bihar is to discover a state that defies its most common media stereotypes of backwardness, poverty and general breakdown of governance.  All three are there, but along with these it is an amazingly sought-after market, those who know it well  say it has far less starvation than  many other states, there is money in the form of substantial deposits in banks, and considerable agricultural wealth. Even before the monsoons have come, parts of the state are, without exaggeration, as verdant as Kerala. It has several rivers and plenty of ground water, its dominant problem is floods not drought.  

 

On the downside the number of criminal gangs in operation have grown from 12 or 13 in 1988  to 70 in 2003. The administration has its own  reasons for not keeping them in check.  But they have an effect on both development and prosperity: investment  simply stays away.  Power supply is horrendously poor: cities get some power every day, villages a few hours a week, or may be in ten days.  The press rants about this, but nothing much changes. As the leader of the opposition in the Bihar legislative assembly, Sushil Kumar Modi, puts it pithily, journalists attack the government on power, water and other such issues. But they are careful not to be specific when they criticise corruption or the criminalisation of the state. They never mention the names of the Chief Minister’s henchmen or his relatives who wield power for him. They dare not. 

 

The caste profile of the media in Bihar is similar to that in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and other states in the Hindi heartland. It is more than eighty per cent upper caste. In the current caste-based politics of Bihar that makes its credibility suspect. Being upper caste need not mean alienation from the polity if the media is professional in its response to it. But in Bihar it was not. Caste consciousness in the media developed shortly after the Emergency when  an earlier backward caste chief minister, Kapoori Thakur implemented the Mungheri Lal Committee report for the reservation of  other backward castes. The Janata Party  which was in  power at the Centre was divided on this issue in Bihar. The media which was predominantly upper caste at that time opposed it, though not stridently, according to Sukant Nagarjun, currently resident editor of the Hindustan in Muzaffarpur,  and earlier with Jagran and the Nav Bharat Times.

 

 Then came the Mandal Commission recommended reservations, which again were opposed by the majority of the press in the state. As Surendra Kishore, political editor of the Hindustan in  Patna puts it, "they did not treat the issue professionally."   A few prominent inDIVidual journalists supported it, editorially, newspapers did not.  Laloo Prasad Yadav took advantage of that to underscore the caste profile of the media in the state at that time, which was overwhelmingly upper caste, as it is today. He told his supporters, the media is upper caste, do not trust it.   Kishore points out that this affected the credibility of the media with the electorate. "If an upper caste chief minister misbehaved earlier and the media criticised him, it affected his political fortunes. That does not happen today." Laloo Prasad Yadav (who decides the fortunes of his party and government even if it is his wife who is the chief minister), flourishes despite media opposition.

 

Others in the press use the same argument to make a different point.  Nalin Varma, who represents the Statesman here, says that the media’s response to Laloo Yadav is a casteist response. Many of the horrendous things he does have been done by other chief ministers and Central ministers from this state in the past, many of them from the Congress party such as the Mishra  brothers, L N and Jagannath. (The latter in fact began his own newspaper which survived briefly, The Pataliputra Times. Caste representation within it too was predominantly upper caste.) But the media’s reporting reflects a bias which you do not to be very perceptive to discern.

 

He cites an example. The famous absconding of a Brahmin woman with the Muslim leader of a criminal gang was described as an abduction because the media went entirely by her family’s version. Her version was not sought, and certainly not that of the Muslim. Later she testified to a women’s commission that she had gone with him on her own.

 

Two prominent  local newspapers owned by the Maharaja of Darbangha which later closed down, the Aryavarth and The Nation, were predominantly Maithili Brahmin in their editorial composition. And if they highlighted floods, inevitably those in Mithila got a lot more coverage, he says. In a caste-ridden state the caste composition of the media is reinforced in different ways. Since there are no laid down parameters of recruitment,  when you are recruiting, you are likely to hire more of your own kind, so a caste bias that is already there gets perpetuated. Secondly, in a state were everything has a caste colour, politicians, media, and the bureaucracy alike function along  caste lines.  The Hindu correspondent here, K Balchand, makes the point that the bureaucracy in Bihar is casteist, so when you write you may or may not reflect the whole picture because your source is likely to be from your caste. When you criticise a politician, he adds, the latter will immediately say he wrote this because he is not from my caste.

 

Not all journalists are upper caste, some Dalits and Yadavs came into the profession post Emergency  at the time when Kapoori Thakur was CM. But since the beginning of the process of  broadening the media’s social base began only then, in the late nineteen seventies, a  very small percentage of  representation in this profession has been achieved till now.  It is also naïve to think that a reporter’s  lower caste background automatically makes him pro-downtrodden. Nagarjun cites two instances when he  tried to get reporters to write about people doing good work among Musahirs and backward class women.. But in both cases the response was one of surprise and disparagement on the part of the reporter.  "You mean that person who moves around with Musahirs/backward women?"  One of them was a backward caste reporter.

 

Journalists here tell you that media in neighbouring Jharkhand, a part of Bihar until November 2001, was recently extremely aggressive with  former chief minister Babulal Marandi  over the domicile issue which he tried to implement with regard to non tribal ownership of tribal lands. The aggression certainly had something to do with the media’s own upper caste, non-tribal profile, and the landowning interests of  owners of the media in the state. How journalists behave with leaders is also  indicative of whom they feel superior to. There will be more aggressive with a Babu Lal Marandi, or a Laloo Prasad Yadav than with  a George Fernandes.

 

However if the preceding paras sound as if there is an established pattern of casteism with a predictably antagonism between the two estates, that is not the case. The net result today is paradoxical, the reality somewhat complex. Laloo is powerful because of his social base, the media is not.  The papers which call the shots in the media scene are outsiders, not newspapers native to Bihar. The Hindustan, headquartered in  Delhi and  the Jagran headquartered in Kanpur are carving out territories for themselves in the state. They are here to make money.  The Hindustan has been here for seventeen years, when  the Jagran came in 2000 the forward castes thought it would take on Laloo but it soon became clear that it was planning to do nothing of the kind. Though its founder-editor the late Narendra Mohan was a Bharatiya Janata Party  member of Parliament, the BJP here says that the Jagran is cleverly pragmatic in Bihar, it attacks both the ruling party and the opposition by turn, and  it does not attack to hurt.   

 

The media is  not influential in this state because it does not influence either the government or public opinion. The latter believes that the press has a caste bias, the former believes, for precisely this reason, that the media  cannot hurt it because it has no credibility with the electorate. The media itself  fears the criminal elements in the ruling coalition. It has business interests at stake. It  would like to play safe. Sukant Nagarjun says Laloo is not affected by what the media writes because it never summons evidence damning enough to really take him on. Either because it cannot, or because it does not want to.

 

 One positive result of this state of affairs (from The Hoot’s point of view)  is that it keeps the profession as a whole from being mollycoddled by the present government.  No government housing is giving to journalists in Bihar, and no prizes for guessing why not. 

 

Contact: sevanti_ninan@yahoo.co.in

 

 

(This article is based on  ongoing research  funded by the National Foundation for India)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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