Bhima Koregaon violence: Why Indian media can't see caste

The hashtags and the headlines in most of the TV and print media betray a deep antipathy towards Dalit self-respect and self-assertion.

 |  Angiography  |  8-minute read |   03-01-2018
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The ongoing protests in Maharashtra, sparked by the violence that marred the peaceful congregation of Dalits at Bhima-Koregaon village to commemorate the 200th anniversary of an Anglo-Maratha war that dealt a deathblow to the casteist tyranny of the Peshwa rule, have been doubly betrayed by a sizeable section of the Indian mainstream media.

Hashtags such as #MahaCasteWar, #MaharashtraClasteClash, #DalitViolence, among others, as well as headlines and tweets that seek equivalence between a non-violent memoriam to mark Dalit self-assertion - embellished with copies of the Indian Constitution and books by BR Ambedkar, Jyotiba and Savitribai Phule, among other anti-caste pioneers - and the targeted upper-caste violence aimed at upsetting the event that brought together old and young leaders of the Dalit self-respect movement, expose the blindspot that is upper-caste privilege in the air-conditioned, often English-language, newsrooms of metropolitan India.

Leaving aside the tweets by newspaper editor/s that see no harm in the caste system, euphemistically referring to it as “varnas”, glorifying Manusmriti and blaming the “invaders” for “dividing Hindus” - they have been called out on social media - we need to ask ourselves why self-assertion by Dalits hurt Indian newsrooms so. Why the sole focus of the frenzied coverage becomes the agitation in response to a Sangh-engineered violence, in order to discredit the Dalits and Ambedkarites?

Why the conservative media in its breathless huff decries a Jignesh Mevani, an electorally successful Dalit icon, or an Umar Khalid, an atheist-Marxist JNU scholar with a Muslim name, insinuating that the duo instigated a riot-like situation in Chembur, while frankly covering up that two local Hindutva figureheads, one with deep connection to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, have been “booked” for “orchestrating violence”?

What does it mean when #MahaCasteWar is trended on Twitter? It means that a Dalit pride march or a gathering, or paying respect to a monument to "Dalit humanisation" in history, interestingly, and ironically, by the insertion of the British in the context, somehow unnerves those at the helm of Indian newsrooms. Hence, the great inequality, and indeed the despicable distrust, in representation, mostly depicting them as violent destabilisers of the good Hindutva status quo. This is similar to the antipathy with which the tribals and adivasis are depicted - as gun-wielding Maoists, or how Muslim men are portrayed in the mainstream “nationalist” media, as potential terrorists or Oriental despots hemorrhaging women within relationships.

The Dalit blindspot of Indian newsrooms has rarely been commented upon, and an exceptional essay by Sudipto Mondal published last year brought home the extreme disparity. Titled “Indian media wants Dalit news but not Dalit reporters”, the article underlined how the upper caste/class Indian (English) newsroom obliterates the Dalit voice and viewpoint by denying them a seat at the high table of telling stories. That Dalit voices are sorely missing from the Indian newsroom has once again been exposed by how the Bhima-Koregaon episode has been portrayed on Indian TV, with the editors making the crucial decisions about headlines and hashtags, tickers and blurbs, unable/unwilling to distinguish between nuances of history, the contexts of invoking a particular war won/lost in 1818, and its meaning for a large community historically exploited and dehumanised by the Brahminical social order for millennia.  

This contest over interpreting a particular historical episode, the Battle of Koregaon by the Bhima river, in which a small regiment of the British East India Company, mostly peopled by the Mahar community soldiers considered “untouchables” by the orthodox, upper-caste Peshwas, defeated the 28,000-strong battalion of the Peshwa in 1818, isn’t just a matter of selective memory. Its pride of place among Dalits is owed to BR Ambedkar, who in 1927, visited Koregaon, to remind the Dalits of the historical significance of this forgotten chapter. This is similar to the “temple to Goddess English” by noted Dalit intellectual Chandrabhan Prasad, or the importance attached to the sociocultural liberation enabled the British rule by past and present Dalit intellectuals like Ambedkar and Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd.

The contrast and the parallel between how the Battle of Koregaon is invoked by the Dalits, to that how PM Modi made a grand gesture of visiting the memorial at Haifa in Israel, which in 1918 was “liberated” from the imperial Turkish army of the Ottoman empire by a British regimen peopled by Indian soldiers, are telling. While the first is being used by the historically oppressed to forge a new identity tearing apart the caste-inflicted shackles of the past (and present), the latter is useful in narrating the tale of a new state-to-state governmental cooperation, a tie forged in shared nationalist jingoism - Hindutva under Modi and Zionism under Benjamin Netanyahu.       

The sensitivity towards the bends of a history as complex as that of the Indian nation-state, in which the native oppressors of princely states were replaced in installments for 190 years by the foreign oppressors in the British, and in the process offered, unwittingly, hope, salvation, social mobility and dignity to those most exploited and dehumanised through millennia in India, is something that isn’t exactly intuitive, but must be understood through constant engagement with real scholarship. However, with efforts on to saffronise history, the elements of factual objectivity, empathy and secularism of scholarship have been cast aside.

Hence, any self-assertion by Dalits, whether electoral thunderbolts by Jignesh Mevani who uses the word “fascism” plainly and simply when he talks about Hindutva, or leaders with a deep attachment to architects of the Indian Constitution, such as Prakash Ambedkar, who’s the grandson of BR Ambedkar, or even the organic intellectuals like Chandrasekhar Azad “Raavan” of the Bhim Army - is seen through Sangh-tinted glasses of promoting “anti-nationalism”.

This "securitisation" of Dalit self-assertion in the nationalist discourse is commensurate with the manner in which any challenge to the Sangh state is perceived as a threat to India itself, and is therefore seen through the dark lens of national security, depoliticised law and order, and more often than not, sedition. Reason why a Chandrasekhar Azad is re-arrested under the National Security Act, completely disregarding the court order, or braying calls to arrest Mevani and Khalid over "inciting violence" are made on national(ist) TV channels commanding exponentially high TRPs.    

As Mevani says, “they are scared of Dalit assertion”, whether it’s Rohith Vemula’s struggle to seek a university space devoid of caste injustice, or the cattle-skinners of Una, who refused to touch the cow carcasses after some of them were flogged for doing their job in 2016, or the fearless procession of the Dalits of Saharanpur under the leadership, and informal social protection, of the Bhim Army.

It’s important that most of the Dalit assertion events are as much about intersectionality of oppression and their political answers, as they are about forming solidarities with the other marginalised - whether they are women, Muslims, other religious minorities, sexually non-heteronormative peoples, farmers, small traders, tribals, adivasis, to name a few. Precisely why the appearing together of Mevani and Umar Khalid in a state of absolute bonhomie and camaraderie, forged in the sweltering heat of India's contemporary revolutions, is so debilitating to the Hindu supremacists in the government and their apologists in the media.

Dalit assertion is doubly challenging to the upper caste/upper class tyranny that’s ruling the roost in 21st century India, particularly so after May 2014. That the newsrooms are intentionally blind to the revolutionary potential of these solidarities, and see them as disruptive of the ultranationalism espoused by the Modi government and its flag-bearers within the mainstream media, is symptomatic of a much larger rot.

While Dalits are slowly reclaiming the political narrative, speaking up for themselves and refusing to be appropriated by a Savarna polity that’s now officially Sangh Parivar-driven, the newsrooms that make the Indian mainstream media are still woefully behind in catching up. That’s precisely why targeted attacks on Dalit congregations, whether in Bhima-Koregaon, or in Saharanpur, or in Una, are systematically erased, while the narrative emphasis remains only on the Dalit protests, which are implied to be excessive, unnecessary and divisive of the Sangh vision of a unified Hindu India. 

This is the “neo-Peshwai” that Mevani, Khalid, Prakash Ambedkar, Shehla Rashid and to some extent, even Rahul Gandhi, are challenging. The newsrooms better wake up and smell the coffee.

Also read: How Bhima Koregaon battle anniversary turned into a riot


Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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