Bhima Koregaon violence: How upper-caste bias is distorting the view

We need to break the echo chamber of the dominant classes.

 |  5-minute read |   03-01-2018
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The coverage of the Mumbai bandh and the Bhima Koregaon violence perfectly exemplifies how mainstream media reflects, and reinforces, an upper-caste view of society. This is quite natural, considering that the media, like all other institutions, is dominated by upper castes. Of a population of 20 crore Dalits, there are no more than eight in the English media, according to an Al Jazeera article by investigative journalist Sudipto Mandal.

I would like to point out four ways in which the media coverage of Bhima Koregaon was distorted by upper-caste bias and prejudice:

Firstly, the Bhima Koregaon violence were called "clashes" instead of being dubbed pre-planned attacks by right-wing upper caste groups, when footage from the ground clearly showed saffron-clad goons pelting Dalits with sticks and stones. And when villagers alleged that right-wing groups in Pune were making inciting speeches against the Bhima-Koregaon celebrations, three to four days prior to the event.

Second, the near blackout of the violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon, in which one Dalit died and dozens of others from the community were injured, and several vehicles torched (many more than in Mumbai). But the disruption of road and rail traffic by protesters in Mumbai elicited breathless coverage and primetime debates, and only then forced the coverage of the Bhima-Koregaon violence.

celebrations-bk_010118092939.jpgCelebrations at Bhima Koregaon. Photo: YouTube screengrab

The middle-class distaste of bandhs and protests is a natural consequence of their privileged status, pampered as they are by the media and the state. However, bandhs and protests are often the only resort left for the voiceless and the powerless, the only means to shake up a deeply apathetic society.

Third, the efforts to portray the Bhima Koregaon celebrations as incited by elements bent on dividing society. Times Now and Republic were running stories on how Jignesh Mevani and Umar Khalid were among those present at the event. "Can Jignesh Mewani distance himself from the charge that he incited the violence?" Times Now asked. "Mevani, Umar provoked caste violence?" suggested Republic TV.

This reduction of a mammoth event to a few individuals' participation not only whitewashes history (the bi-centenary celebrations were to commemorate the victory of the Mahar regiment of East India Company soldiers over a large Peshwa division), but more importantly denies any agency to Dalits.

For a historically oppressed community, there are many legitimate reasons to commemorate the event; they are definitely not blind sheep, unlike perhaps many of the viewers of Times Now and Republic.

Fourth, the framing of any lower-caste assertion as "divisive, backward or anti-Indian", while framing their own tacit support for the continuation of a deeply unequal status quo in terms of "unity, progress and nationalism".

Times Now ran with the hashtag #IndiaAgainstHate. Professor Rakesh Sinha of the RSS argued along the same lines, warning that this was a conspiracy to create "Balkanisation" in society. Republic TV ran with the hashtag #EndCastePolitics and insinuated that there was "an organised attempt to spread caste violence in India".

One wonders whether there would ever be hashtags like "India Against Caste" or "End Caste", but then the objective is to end the backlash to caste privilege, and not the end to caste privilege itself.

Nearly all TV anchors and their audiences were prone to shrug and wonder why a celebration that happened in 1818 is relevant in 2018, as tweeted by Rajdeep Sardesai. They should probably wonder why this is the first time they are hearing of the Bhima Koregaon commemoration, an event attended by lakhs of Dalits each year, when the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement attended by tens of thousands of middle-class Delhites in 2011 had apparently become the second Independence struggle.

The privilege of the upper castes is so entrenched and comprehensive that it has become invisible to the upper castes themselves.

In 2006, CSDS surveyed the social profiles of 315 influential journalists in Hindi and English language media, and found not a single Dalit journalist among them. Meanwhile, upper caste Hindu men constituted 71 percent of these journalists.

In 2013, senior columnist Ajaz Ashraf interviewed 21 Dalit journalists for media watchdog The Hoot, and found that “discrimination is a principal factor” behind many Dalits’ decisions to quit the profession.

The media is dominated by Brahmins, who form about a third of the population of Dalits, especially in top editorial roles. Even a cursory look at the list of top editors in TV news throws up last names like Goswami, Sardesai, Choubey, Roy and Sharma, all of whom have comfortably appropriated for themselves the voice of the nation.

Mandal's article has brilliantly documented how caste hierarchies are perpetuated in news media through a combination of family and social ties in recruitment and promotions. As referenced earlier, Mandal writes that even after searching the country for more than 10 years, he could only find eight Dalit journalists in the English media. "Only two of them have risked 'coming out'," he added. What is worse is that things are unlikely to get better soon.

"The predominance of the Brahmin in the profession is as old as English journalism in this country. But what's truly distressing is that more than 200 years on, the modern journalism classroom is almost a replica of the typical Indian English newsroom," Mandal remarked.

Some argue that glaring caste inequalities in the media are not a problem as long as journalists are professional and unbiased at work. This argument is blind to decades of literature in the social sciences, which inform us that biases and blind spots are naturally enmeshed in our world views according to our identity and social standing.

A refreshing development in the past few years has been the emergence of numerous online Dalit platforms such as Round Table India, Dalit Camera, Ambedkar's Caravan and Velivada, which skillfully push through Dalit perspectives ignored by the mainstream using social media. However, these platforms still have a limited reach compared to the mass presence of mainstream media.

What is urgently required, therefore, as these events underscore, is a democratisation of newsrooms across India, so that truly diverse perspectives and voices are able to make themselves heard, in their own words, breaking the echo chamber of the dominant classes.

Also read: Why I think the triple talaq bill is an absurd legislation

Writer

Asim Ali Asim Ali @asimali6

The author is a Masters Student of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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