Shadows & silence

Written by Teesta Setalvad | Published on: November 1, 2006

The Indian media turns a deaf ear to issues of caste and mass

The Indian media has been by history and tradition a fairly independent voice, linked prior to independence to core struggles of emancipation and mobilistion. Today, with the advent and impact of television, it enjoys an influence that must lend itself to some rigorous rational scrutiny. During the past decade we have seen television (and private television channels where there was only government controlled Doordarshan earlier) enter our homes and dominate public discourse. We have also seen the burgeoning growth of Hindi journalism (which today enjoys the largest readership or viewership) as also a large number of alternate publications.

A restlessness with the direction the media is taking, coupled with an acknowledgement of its influence and role, forces us to ask some serious questions. In this issue of Communalism Combat we attempt to look at some of these ticklish questions. Has, for instance, the national ‘mainstream’ media turned its back on fair and adequate coverage of the lives and concerns of the large majority of the country and does this exclusion amount to a mere increasing elitism or something harsher, such as bias? And is this bias driven by class or does it also have a caste and communal tinge?

Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief, CNN-IBN and IBN 7, in an interview with CC admits that there has been a big shift in the media becoming "metro-centric" but denies anything more active at work than simply an urban bias. "The fact of the matter is that the media is metro-centric and as a result we do lose out on the less shining parts of the country. The reason for this however is much more the tyranny of distance than any bias."

The relative or complete absence of media coverage of issues arising out of Adivasi struggles in the states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, or even the seven states located in the north-eastern part of the country, is matched by the dominance of frivolous and titillating coverage of ‘happenings’ in metros. Worse, the distinctly upper caste tilt and twist to the manner in which developments are viewed and interpreted can be gleaned, for instance, from the epithets that were used for a whole decade against a politician like Laloo Prasad Yadav. A survey conducted by the Delhi-based Media Study Group points to a distinct absence of caste diversity and a predominance of the ‘upper’ castes within the upper echelons of the Indian media (see "Media pundits", CC, July-August 2006).

Only last month India lost a politician who – like him or hate him – changed the course of this country’s politics decisively. The death of Kanshi Ram and the ensuing coverage by the media (barring a few exceptions) reflected a dismissive upper caste bias. The first quarter of 2006 saw the dramatic story of the shooting (and subsequent death) of BJP leader Pramod Mahajan by his brother and, a few months later, the unsavoury conduct of his son, Rahul Mahajan. Excessive and disproportionately wide coverage of the first episodes and later, a delicate dismissal of the son’s involvement with drugs by an otherwise vigilante media, do leave some questions unanswered.

Following the July 11 bomb blasts in Mumbai the media, especially television, came in for sharp criticism. Repeated images of police round-ups of youth in minority dominated areas created the public impression that dozens of Muslim suspects were being interrogated. The subsequent release of all these persons, save one or two, did not attract comparative coverage. This raised questions about the ethics of television channels that actively contributed to creating a public image of who the guilty are but then remained silent when the answer proved indecisive. A specific case related to a prominent Hindi television channel. The channel broadcast an inaccurate report relaying that after the bomb blasts firecrackers were burst at Padgah village, off Mumbai. The fact that the village is minority dominated and that it is home to persons allegedly accused of participating in earlier terror attacks, added spice if not truth to the broadcast. Agitated residents protested this coverage to the village sarpanch and registered an oral complaint with the police (who