How a viral photo of a woman sitting on the floor of Delhi Metro triggered a debate on class bias

A woman who was accused of discrimination has come back with a strong rejoinder.

 |  5-minute read |   26-01-2018
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Discussions of caste and class in the closed, privileged and often wilfully ignorant space of social media are a precarious endeavour. It’s not always caste/class agnosticism that makes the conversation difficult. Sometimes, as was recently illustrated by a journalist from an online news portal, savarna guilt, too, plays an equal part in derailing the conversation, especially when it leads to a questionable editorial.

On January 20, Sanya Dhingra, a journalist from The Print tweeted a photo that soon went viral. In the photo was a scene we have all witnessed many a time, on the Metro, at restaurants, at weddings and even in our homes: a well-to-do upper middleclass/upper class family is seated comfortably while the domestic help/nanny/aayaa occupies a corner on the floor. The photo, captioned “Seen in Delhi metro: Mother and child take seats while the child’s nanny sits on the floor on a fairly empty train. Caste/class discrimination really is space-agnostic” at the time of writing this piece had more than 7,500 retweets and 8,700 likes.

print_012518053425.jpgPhoto: Screengrab

Apart from its virality, the photo opened up a debate that comes up every time someone dares mention the “C-word”. Many argued that this was a fairly common phenomenon – sitting the floor – and had nothing to do with caste. Others pointed out that this was a case of class disparity. Some even went into a tangential argument about the ethics of photographing someone in a public space without their consent.

Still others just argued this was yet another Lutyens' journalist spreading fake propaganda to further their agenda. 

Do any of the arguments hold currency?

Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief and chairman of The Print, following Dhingra’s tweet, wrote an impassioned editorial on January 22, speaking about the troubling social relationship shared by “the malik” and “the naukar”, contextualised around the viral photograph.

He discussed class privilege and upper class entitlement. He substantiated his rhetoric with many examples, all of which undoubtedly point towards a reality – Indians, especially those belonging to the upper castes and upper class, mistreat their domestic helps.

Gupta wrote: “This brilliant, eye-opening picture tells us more than a thousand words on our class differences and the way we treat our domestic workers.”

It does. But when a picture is worth a thousand words, those are often words that remain unheard. In this case, the unheard words are the context of the scene that was photographed. 

On January 23, a man called Kshitij Dhamija tweeted to The Print, Shekhar Gupta and Sanya Dhingra a blog post titled “Discrimination in Metro: The Whole Story”.

The blog post, Dhamija claimed, was the account of his sister, the woman who as photographed on the Metro and accused of class/caste discrimination. 

In the blog, the woman, who claims to be a doctor at AIIMS, provided the other side of the story. She wrote that when they (the woman, her child and the child's nanny) boarded the metro on that fateful day, on account of it being crowded, they opted to sit on the floor; something many people do, despite it being a violation of DMRC rules. In fact, despite being offered a seat repeatedly (perhaps because she was accompanied by her child, a toddler), she declined the offer.

“…as and when there was space in between two women, I made him stand there to see the lights and traffic outside to distract him briefly but to no avail. Eventually, I decided to feed him. As he has recently learned to eat by himself, he happily opted for the option and sat next to one of the girls (there was no vacant seat, only space created by the girl). Soon, that girl deboarded and I sat there continuing to feed him as we were just four stations away. But just before our station, he jumped down asking me to take him outside. Thankfully, our station (MG road) was next to come and we all happily deboarded and headed off to our home,” she wrote.

Continuing to explain her side of the story, especially with reference to her altercation with Dhingra, she wrote: “During the time when I was trying to calm my baby down, a lady (Miss Sanya Dhingra, a journalist at The Print) boarded the train between Malviya Nagar and MG road. She asked my nanny as to why didn’t she take one of the vacant seats, just when we left that station since that time the Metro had many unoccupied seats. Our nanny, who is a very nice and simple lady, told her that she is comfortable there but since Miss Dhingra kept staring at her. I told her that we are about to get down and we are with lots of luggage so we are okay, thanks for asking. After that, our station came, I took one of the bags and baby; the nanny took two bags and we got down on MG Road. Miss Dhingra who was standing right there at the door witnessed everything.”

In her words, the subject of the photographs claims that she had “become a victim of sick journalism”.

Is she wrong in her assertion?

While it is beyond doubt that classism and casteism guide the uncomfortable realities of modern India, and domestic workers and subordinates are often conditioned to feel inferior to their employers; it is difficult to ignore the startling lack of integrity in how this story was presented.

A journalist tweeted a photo, perhaps overcome by emotion. Her senior wrote on class bias, based on the said tweet. Neither asked for comments from the subject of their tale. Even if this supposed account is false, branding someone the face of casteism/classism without evidence is unacceptable.

Dhingra, the journalist who tweeted the photo, has responded to the allegations. “I refused to apologise or take the picture down when contacted by the doctor because the picture was shot as a commentary on our blinding privileged morality as it tells an important, fully factual story entirely in public interest. I and my editors fully stand by it,” she wrote in a piece.

She also clarified that it was not her contention that the doctor “forcibly made the nanny sit on the floor” while they sat on the seats. Rather, she explains, it was the doctor’s eagerness to respond on behalf of the maid on the Metro that made her see the glaring class/caste entrenchment.

Also read: Why Karni Sena can attack schoolchildren and get away with it


Pathikrit Sanyal Pathikrit Sanyal @bucketheadcase

The author is a culture writer who likes talking about the internet, memes, privacy and all things pop culture.

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