Shadows & silence

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

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 refused to register a first information report, FIR). A meeting was thereafter held with various members of the mohalla committee condemning the coverage. Several sarpanches and gram panchayat chiefs attended the meeting. However, the said channel carried no correction in its subsequent telecasts. Similarly, an accompanying story reveals local and national media coverage of the recent violence in Mangalore where the role of the police has also escaped any media scrutiny.

"If properties are sealed in Delhi I will have four OB (Outside Broadcast) vans stationed there to capture the story but if a much more serious issue arising out of farm labourers’ struggles erupts in Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand or the North-east, I am limited by the fact that I just do not have an OB van located there," says Sardesai. "How do I telecast a protest in Chhattisgarh or Jharkhand when I do not have an OB van stationed there? Therefore a protest in Chhattisgarh or Adivasis being shot at in Kalinga won’t make news the same way as workers being beaten in Gurgaon, just out of Delhi. It is the tyranny of distance at work here."

Barkha Dutt, managing editor of NDTV, strongly disagrees with the contention that the media suffers from any negative tendencies except an urban tilt or bias. "Whether it’s farmer suicides, judicial mistrials, corruption and government accountability, television in particular has been unsparing and relentless in its scrutiny. I would concede to a certain degree of urban bias – perhaps language and identification issues tend to make us highlight urban issues in a more focused way than rural stories. But this does not diminish the validity of either set of stories."

She adds, "I don’t think there is any motive or any necessary blackout. Several reports have been done on the mining controversy in Jharkhand. The cola issue is a perfect example where big corporates have been taken on in the media in the backdrop of the pesticide controversy. I do not buy the argument that some hidden relation with corporates defines editorial choices. Absences may go back to the one bias we are guilty of – urban oriented reporting. "

Increasing space given to religio-ritualistic stories is also a relatively recent phenomenon. It is not only the channels but also pages of the print media that are lending more and more space to festivals like Holi and Diwali and even customs like Karva Chauth! On October 2 this year, Dussehra day, 16 lakh persons (at the minimum – the outside figure is 20 lakh) converged at Nagpur to celebrate the golden jubilee of the mass conversion of Dalits, under the leadership of Dr Ambedkar, to Buddhism. While the local Marathi press did cover the event, providing its own colour and interpretation, the national media and television channels simply skipped the story.

Ignored by the media: Dhamma Deeksha, Nagpur, October 2006

"CNN/IBN did a forty-seconder on the event but it is true we did not carry the pictures. We did however follow this up with a panel discussion on the contribution of Ambedkar. There is a point there in the absence of coverage but it is the geographical factor – Delhi is easier but it is true that we must introspect on the issue. Maybe we are making excuses," reflects Sardesai. "I am not however convinced that there is a caste bias actively at work. There is a high degree of ignorance. Maybe ignorance and bias can often converge."

Besides these stark exclusions, celebrity and the glamorous lifestyle – page three journalism – have also eaten into public space. "Both media and society are also trapped in the celebrity fame game. We seem to be interested in titillating rather than informing," admits Sardesai, adding that this excessive coverage of parties or fashion shows in society prevent rational thinking. "They do not go beyond being titillating."

Dutt differs. "Page three was the invention of newspapers before it became an event on television. I think all of this stuff has its own place as long as it doesn’t diminish the core values of news gathering, as long as it remains the equivalent of the back pages of a magazine."

On September 29 a ghastly gang rape and mass murder at Kherlanji in Maharashtra’s Bhandara district left four members of a Dalit family brutally massacred with Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange, the father, being the lone survivor. The Maharashtra police and administration have continuously been making irresponsible statements (see accompanying story) and events so far already suggest a clear attempt to suppress evidence of the crime during the primary stage of investigations itself. The post-mortem report is a travesty of a document and despite the gory conditions in which the mother and daughter’s bodies were found, Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code (which is applicable for the offence of rape) has not even been applied. Can or will the Kherlanji case become a Jessica Lal or Priyadarshini Mattoo case for the media? Will it symbolise the fight for justice or the need to critically revamp our criminal justice system?

Both Sardesai and Dutt agree that this could be a test case for the Indian media. "Justice for Jessica/Priyadarshini and the recent brutal killings in rural India is a test case for us. Will we run a sustained national campaign on it? Will there be sustained interest?" Sardesai asks. Adds Dutt, "We need to cross the glaring rural urban divide… and, more importantly, move our viewers out of that disconnect as well."


Archived from Communalism Combat, November 2006. Year 13, No.120, Cover Story 1




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