Untold Story of Dalit Journalists

 

by Ajaz Ashraf

 

It is considered a miracle if you can prick the calloused conscience of journalists in Delhi and prompt them to introspect. Yet this is what journalist BN Uniyal achieved through a piece – In Search Of a Dalit Journalist – he wrote for The Pioneer on November 16, 1996. Uniyal’s was in fact a veritable odyssey that he embarked upon in response to a request from a Delhi-based foreign correspondent. Could he, asked the correspondent, recommend him a Dalit journalist to whom he could speak on the squabble between the media and Bahujan Samaj Party leader Kanshi Ram?

 

In that moment Uniyal realized that in all the 30 years he had worked as a journalist he had never met a fellow journalist who was a Dalit. “No, not one,” he wrote. He took the foreign correspondent’s request to friends, editors, and columnists. None knew of a Dalit journalist. Uniyal then leafed through the Press Information Bureau’s booklet listing the names of 686 accredited journalists. Of them, 454 had caste surnames, none of which suggested he or she was Dalit; he called at random 47 of the remaining 232, and still drew a blank. Distraught, he wondered, “What would journalism be like if there were as many journalists amidst us from among the Dalits as were among the Brahmins.”

 

Four months ago, I stood waiting to have my passbook updated at the Central Bank of India branch located on the verdant campus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) in Delhi. As I wondered over the employment prospects of students whom mushrooming media institutes were turning out in numbers beyond the capacity of the slowing market to absorb, Uniyal’s piece unspooled out of memory. IIMC is a government institute, I thought, which must therefore have reserved seats for Dalits from its inception in 1965. Questions assailed me: Why couldn’t Uniyal identify a single Dalit journalist in 1996? Where do Dalit students disappear after securing post-graduate diploma in journalism from IIMC, arguably among the best media institutes in the country?

 

I requested the office of Sunit Tandon, Director-General, IIMC, to provide me a list of Dalit students who had been admitted in the reserved category over the past few years. (Dalit, or downtrodden, is a broad category but Dalit in this piece means Scheduled Caste and both terms have been used interchangeably). As I waited for the names to be collated, I trawled the internet to read articles on Dalit representation in the media. The picture these readings conveyed was dismal.

 

I met journalist Anil Chamadia, chairman, Media Studies Group (MSG), which along with political scientist Yogendra Yadav conducted in 2006 a survey of 37 media organisations boasting a national presence. Not a single Dalit held the top 10 positions in any of the organisations. The MSG also surveyed 116 IIMC-trained correspondents and found that, till June 2011, only six of them were Dalit.

 

Some of the anecdotal accounts I read portrayed a skewed perception among dominant social groups about the Dalits. For instance, Shivam Vij’s piece, Caste in the newsroom?, featured on The Hoot website in June 2004, opens with a question he asks Dilip Awasthi, a senior editor of Dainik Jagran: Why are there so few Scheduled Caste and Backward Caste journalists? Awasthi answers: “They don’t go to school.” The next question: has Awasthi ever met a single SC/OBC journalist worthy enough of a job? He replies, “Never. They can’t write a single sentence properly.” Perhaps the supercilious attitude of dominant social groups explains why, like Uniyal, academician Robin Jeffrey couldn’t meet a Dalit journalist in his study of Indian-language newspapers, a study spread over 10 years during which he visited “20 towns, visited dozens of newspapers and interviewed more than 250 people.” 

 

I also realised that Uniyal’s piece, contrary to my belief, hadn’t prompted editors to introspect. To celebrate the dawn of the new millennium, The Pioneer invited Uniyal to write for its eight-page Dalit supplement. He asked them to run the piece he wrote in 1996 with the following lines: “The article…was totally ignored by our journalistic establishment… None felt aghast or alarmed at the situation described in the article…No one felt there was a need for making special efforts to draw qualified Dalits into the media." These anecdotal accounts and Uniyal’s expression of dismay deepened for me the mystery of where Dalit students passing out from the IIMC wind up. Do they all choose not to enter the media? Where do they go, then?

 

In the third week of May, I was forwarded a list of over a hundred Scheduled Caste students who had passed out of IIMC over the last five years. I began calling them, randomly choosing phone numbers from the list. A substantial number were no longer in operation; a couple took my call but accused me of encroaching on their privacy, which I was and for which I apologised profusely; there were a few who promised to meet me, but subsequently refused to take the umpteen calls I made to them.

 

A good many, though, were willing to narrate their stories of what made them harbour dreams of working in the media and discuss their experiences in it. Yet, most of them said they could meet me only in the week following June 2, busy as they were preparing for a competitive examination. What they told me was news to me: on June 2, Prasar Bharati was conducting a written test for recruiting 1166 Programme Executives (PEX) and Transmission Executives (TEX), who constitute the backbone of AIR and Doordarshan stations around the country. I was a tad bewildered, having been weaned on the idea that real, free, untrammelled journalism, despite the erosion of these values over the years, is practiced in the non-government realm. This idea now stood challenged.

 

Over the weeks, I met those who had passed out from IIMC in the recent past, and they led me to their seniors as also to those who did not study at their alma mater but are journalists. Altogether I met or interacted over phone or email with 21 who were or are journalists, of whom one was an OBC, included here for a particular reason. Ten of them are in Hindi journalism, eight were or are in English, two in Telugu, and a clutch of them in Prasar Bharati, whom I am counting as one, for they preferred their problems to be articulated by the general secretary of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Union, fearing victimisation.

 

Only two of them wished to have their names changed. Lengthy conversations with them broadly suggest the following:

-- Many Dalits enter the media because they believe it can empower their community and help focus on issues hobbling them.

-- Dalits have a greater presence in the Hindi or other Indian language media than in the English media.

-- Discrimination against and antagonism to Dalits is rampant in the Hindi and other language media; it is less pronounced in the English media.

-- Nonetheless, discrimination is a principal factor behind their decision to leave the private sector media and opt for government jobs.

-- Apart from discrimination, they feel a career in the media is a risky proposition.

-- Their weak economic base makes them fear job insecurity which is a defining characteristic of the private sector.

 

This bland list conceals tales both tragic and inspiring, of oppression and discrimination and humiliation deeply felt, including by those who are middle class, and their struggle to overcome impoverishment and social inequality. Through their experiences was constructed their Dalit identity and the manifold meanings it held out for them and others. Often, the process through which their identity was created spawned in them the desire to enter the media. Indeed, a study of the experience of Dalits in the media without linking it to their childhood or teenage years is an incomplete picture.

 

Identity in the crucible of conflict

Santosh Valmiki is a principal correspondent in the Lucknow bureau of Hindustan. (He also reads news on Lucknow Doordarshan) His designation will not tell you of the poverty he grew up in, and how it defined his identity. His father was a driver and alcoholic and mother a manual scavenger. From an early age, Santosh accompanied her as she went from house to house cleaning toilets. Keen to ensure an education for her son, she would set aside a portion of her earnings, pawn jewellery or incur debts to pay his school fees.

 

When Santosh entered Lucknow’s Christian College, expenses mounted overnight to outstrip her indefatigable spirit. Refusing to let penury cow him down, he began to sit on the pavement across Akashvani Bhawan, selling newspapers, as also reading them, and contributing to the children’s supplement of Swatantra Bharat. You could say journalism and his Dalit identity were knitted together seamlessly.

 

At the IIMC interview, for which he qualified after clearing a written test, he was asked how many newspapers he read daily. Nine, he said. Nine, exclaimed the interviewers, not aware of how newspapers sustained him economically and stimulated him intellectually. When he was to leave Lucknow for the nine-month course in post-graduate diploma in Hindi journalism, his mother handed him 90 notes of Rs 10 denomination, divided into three equal bundles. Son, she said, you are to spend a note daily. This amount was in addition to the Rs 15000 the family had raised for Santosh’s tuition fees.

 

Success’s steps are often small, taken one at a time. Santosh won a scholarship and consequently the Rs 15000 was returned to him. He went on to top IIMC, and the photograph of the convocation ceremony showing him receiving the award from then Union Minister KR Narayanan was published in a newspaper. He was the talking point of the Valmiki community: a son had risen from amidst them to even stir Delhi. You would think Santosh would be satisfied in having catapulted, Amitabh Bachchan style, from the pavement into the bureau of a major national daily. Judge him not from the obstacles he surmounted to achieve what he has, but against his own potential. Still a principal correspondent after having worked in the media for over two decades ago, he said, “Those junior to me in the profession have become editors.”

 

It is not just through poverty and supposedly polluting nature of their jobs Dalits begin to fathom who they are. Ask Ved Prakash, currently assistant producer in Total TV, who first learnt about his socially defined inferior status through the tone in which upper castes spoke to Dalit elders, and because, as a child, he’d be reprimanded for retaliating against upper caste children in fights they would trigger. There were also other realities fashioning his idea of self – for instance, his father, who was a clerk in Bihar’s revenue department, had brothers who climbed palm trees to bring down taadi (toddy) and his mother’s brother was a mason.

 

I met Ved at night, on the sprawling campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and sat on the floor of a building, under a fluorescent tube. Close to midnight, knots of students were still huddled around Ganga dhaba or seated on boulders dotting the open space across it. Their chatter drifted across to us in the sultry night, telling us they were planning their future. “I wanted to increase Dalit participation in the media, to use it to challenge the social structure,” Ved said.

 

This desire was born in Ved because he experienced the cutting edge of caste at the time he was appointed a teacher in the primary school of Kashichak block, Nawadah. During his tenure there he completed his M. Com and then enrolled for Masters in Mass Communication at the Nalanda Open University. A village should have feted a master so accomplished. It was in fact just the reverse – upper castes resented that their children had a Dalit teacher.

 

One day, Ved pointed to the errors in the notebook of a pupil who took tuition from an upper caste teacher of the same village. In Bihar’s matrix of caste, Ved was deemed to have crossed a red line. The upper caste teacher accosted him in the local market, rubbished his educational qualification, and began to push him around until others intervened. But the hurt upper caste pride demanded vengeance. Subsequently, an infamous upper caste bully accused Ved of spanking an ironsmith’s son, and publicly beat him up. Ved invoked the Scheduled Caste and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against the assailant, and also decided to take the IIMC entrance examination, which he successfully cleared last year. He is now in Total TV, drawing a salary of Rs 8000, an amount he thought he could earn driving a three-wheeler, and on which he finds hard to live in Delhi. --Courtesy thehoot.org

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