Many Dalits enter the media because they believe it can empower their community. But discrimination against them is rampant in the Hindi and other language media. It is less pronounced in the English media, finds AJAZ ASHRAF in an Independence anniversary feature.of the HOOT http://thehoot.org/
A Hoot special report
Dalit participation in the media has been pathetically poor, despite reservation for them in media institutes. Why do they keep away from the media? Is it because they encounter discrimination, as they do in many other avenues? To study their negligible presence in the media, Ajaz Ashraf identified 21 Dalits who are or were journalists and spoke to them extensively about their childhood, their experiences in media institutes, and their disenchantment with journalism. In this first of the three-part series, they describe how their Dalit identity was formed and its link to their wish to enter the media world.
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 the 21 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.
To IIMC also came, years earlier, from Bihar’s district of Gopalganj, Ashok Das, who edits a little magazine, Dalit Dastak. His life, you could say, was lived simultaneously in two separate compartments – his friends in school and college were all upper caste, but in the Brahmin colony his family resided in, his father, a clerk, was served tea in a tumbler different from others. The prasad, or offerings, of the satsang his mother organised at home, and which Ashok would distribute in the colony, was invariably found in the litter bin.
“I joined the media because I realised early the power of pen,” he told me, as we sat in the Costa Coffee shop in Delhi’s Bengali Market, the aroma of coffee, the glass-paneled walls, and pastries and patties providing a contrasting backdrop to the reality of his youth. When in Class XII, perturbed at the floods ravaging Gopalganj district every year, he wrote to the director of a Delhi-based NGO, wondering what measures the people could take to alleviate their plight. Not only did the director reply, he even came down to Gopalganj and handed him at a public ceremony a cheque of Rs 15000. Hail the Power of Word, through which you can sway people whom you have never met or spoken to. It inspired Ashok to take the IIMC entrance examination after graduation.
When Ashok came to Delhi in 2005, his official documents gave his surname as Kumar. He was not Ashok Das then. Perhaps his father had registered the surname as Kumar in the hope of concealing his caste. In years to come, the ambiguous surname would elicit suspicious inquiries, as also invite discrimination in the media, goading him into rediscovering the activist lurking inside him.
On the map of India, from Delhi, push west to reach Mahwa tehsil,Dausa, Rajasthan, where Satyendra Murli, who passed out from IIMC this year and has been recently recruited by Hindustan, grew up. In his hometown’s bucolic surroundings he witnessed caste-related discrimination and oppression: his mother and sister were dragged by their hair out of the local temple; and those of dominant castes would call Dalits by their caste names in abusive ways. It was here he and his schoolmates drank water from the pot reserved for the headmaster, but it was only he who was singled out for punishment, which entailed him squatting on his haunches for 30 minutes, lace his arms between his thighs and calves, and hold his ears. He was, to use the colloquial term for it, made a murga.
It was because of these experiences he became inclined towards organisations engaged in the issues of human and civil rights. Exposure to them inspired him to enroll, after completing his graduation, for Masters at the Centre for Mass Communication, Jaipur. Simultaneously, Satyendra began to work for the media in Jaipur, and encountered in the newsroom the deadly virus of discrimination.
Skate down the map of India to meet Mallepalli Laxmaiah, who is a Telugu columnist of repute, worked for several media outlets, and established Dalit Study Centre. When Laxmaiah was two years old, the landlords of his village, Janagaon, in North Telengana, killed his uncle for insisting on the right of every villager to sit in a special enclosure, under the shade of a tree, which was exclusively reserved for them. His uncle acquired the status of a folk hero in the surrounding villages, for defying the landlords. This story inspired Laxmaiah to resist the oppression of his community and joined organisations adhering to Leftist ideology. In 1987, at the age of 26, he was picked up under the draconian TADA for being part of the CPI (ML). On his release a year later, he faced the dilemma of selecting a career that could provide him a livelihood without steering him away from activism. He chose journalism over pursuing the legal profession, as to become lawyer he’d have to study for a few years more.
Through his writings he exposed atrocities and the deplorable condition of the Dalit communities. Yet he also realised the pervasive presence of antagonism in the media against Dalits and issues pertaining to them, developing a theory of his own on why certain stories are played up and others ignored. “The media,” he said, “has five Cs governing it.” He listed these as Controversy, Crime, Cinema, Cricket, and Corporate. Only a story falling in one of these five categories is covered. He added sardonically, “Violence against Dalits comes under Crime and is consequently covered. All other aspects of their life don’t make for a story.”
“The media,” Mallepalli Laxmaiah said, “has five Cs governing it.” Controversy, Crime, Cinema, Cricket, and Corporate. “Violence against Dalits comes under Crime and is consequently covered. All other aspects of their life don’t make for a story.”
In Hyderabad also lives Chanti Kranti Kiran, who is the Input Editor of V6 News, a TV channel that Dalit Congress MP G Vivek owns. Its world is the inverse of media outlets you find generally. For instance, you can count in V6 News Brahmins and Kamma employees on your fingers and perhaps still not reach the number 10. But Kiran’s wasn’t a smooth, straight journey to V6 and, as is true for so many other Dalits, he too encountered speed-breakers and precipitous turns.
Imparting lessons in courage to Kiran was his father, a schoolteacher and social activist who worked with SR Shankaran, the legendary IAS officer. Among the tasks entrusted to Papa Kiran was to click photographs for documenting evidence against public places practicing untouchability. On these field trips Kranti Kiran went for the first time when in Class XI, learning that segregated social arrangements were neither legal nor humane. Considering his background, it seemed natural for him to participate in movements for Dalit and civil rights, and then to enter the media, which lull the conscionable into believing that their efforts are a blow, however light, for social justice. Till then, Kiran had fought for the dignity of others; in the media he was to fight for his own.
These six men of different ages, growing up in different decades, residing in different regions of the country, were led through their interface with the society to accord infinitely greater salience to one of the many identities they, as all of us, have. That was their Dalit identity, and the consciousness it engendered propelled them inexorably towards the media.
But ask the question: would these men have had a different sense of their selves had their fathers been clerks or officers in a metropolis? Would the city-life have facilitated their escape from the web of caste with their wings fluttering? Would they have still joined the media? And for what: money, glamour, the need to have a livelihood and career? I pondered over these questions and then tried to locate journalists whose background was predominantly urban and middle class. The first such person I encountered was one whose perceptions were different from those who I had met.
Do class, urban anonymity provide protection?
Dalit identity and discrimination are perhaps mere footnotes in the life story of Sanghpriya Gautam, whose sartorial elegance, etiquette, and style of conversation could have you slot him with the swish crowd of urban Delhi. Son of a government official based in Delhi, he knew life for his family wasn’t always comfortable – his grandfather, after all, had retired as clerk from the Combined Defence Services canteen. No doubt, he had heard stories about the family’s hard days in the past. But then, as they say, seeing is believing, and what he didn’t experience he couldn’t consider it as his lot. Sanghpriya didn’t encounter caste biases in the Kendriya Vidyalaya he studied, and definitely not in Jawaharlal Nehru University from where he graduated in Russian.
Yes, he was interested in social issues, but the primary motivation for him to take the IIMC entrance examination was to remain, as he said, close to JNU, which abuts the media institute. Don’t get him wrong, he wasn’t dreaming of a Communist revolution and waging war on Capitalism; he was besotted with JNU for its bewitchingly liberating ambience. Over the phone I had told him about Uniyal’s piece and he had googled it to read it, eager to critique it as soon as we sat in at Café Coffee Day on Tolstoy Marg. “Uniyal’s piece is outdated. Journalism is a passion-driven profession. Our motivations are now different. Economic liberalisation offers us new opportunities.” Sanghpriya lasted all of ten days in a premier national TV network, his spirit dampened by their definition of news, and has no regret for opting for another career as journalism wasn’t an obsession with him.
The bustling city of Delhi may have embraced Sanghpriya with the warmth of egalitarianism, but it did not his batchmate, Naveen Kumar, who walks with a bounce, and has a touch of insouciance about him. His father is an engineer and Class I officer in Delhi, but because he was the first in the family to leapfrog into the middle class, he had to shoulder a disproportionate share of familial obligations – there was, for instance, family debts to be repaid. “It takes two-three generations for a family to become financially secure,” Naveen said to me as we sat sipping tea in a corner of Delhi’s Press Club.
Perhaps the need to save every paisa, or because of the sense of entitlement, Naveen availed of the facility Kendriya Vidyalas extended to Dalits – they paid a monthly fee of Rs 25, against the Rs 200 others did. It caused much heartburn among students, who would ask loud and clear: why do they pay only Rs 25? Invariably, someone would snigger and answer: “They are Chura-Chamar and even Naveen is an SC”, singling him out because he dressed well. Deeply hurt, he complained to his father about the taunt he was constantly subjected to. Ignore them, his father said.
Years later, while studying in an evening college affiliated to Delhi University, Naveen momentarily flattened the rigid social hierarchy through a relationship with an upper caste girl, who, horror upon horror, had earlier turned down the overtures of a boy from her community. The incensed Jat Sikh students picked a fight with Naveen, and issued a fatwa barring him from entering the college. He didn’t turn to his father for help. Instead, he complained to Delhi University’s Ambedkar Students Organisation (ASO), which threatened to invoke the Scheduled Caste and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against the guilty students. The ban was promptly rescinded. A fiery ASO activist was born.
From stage to stage he hopped delivering passionate speeches, and also harboured the wish to undertake a comparative study of Ambedkar and Gandhi. He cleared the Delhi University entrance examination for MA in philosophy, but found the classes conducted in English difficult to comprehend. He took the suggestion of a friend: “Take the IIMC examination,” the friend said, “you can continue your activism through journalism.” In 2007, Naveen entered IIMC. Caste sneaked in with him there as well.
I turned to journalists from cities not counted among the five metros. Vipashana Kamble, today, works in Mumbai as a senior copy editor on the city desk of The Times of India, but much of her early life entailed skipping from Akola to Aurangabad to Kolhapur, where her father, a lawyer from Latur, was selected as a member (judge) of the industrial court. His selection changed her class, but not her caste identity, of which she and her brother were already aware of before they joined their father in Mumbai.
This awareness was partly because of the stories their parents narrated about their own childhood. Invariably, at least in her father’s account, there were details of distressing experiences he had encountered, emanating from who he was: a Dalit. Her Dalit identity was reinforced because the neighbours in those three towns never forgot to remind her mother about her caste. Her mother resented the surname of Kamble which was substituted for her earlier, more ambiguous family name of Jagatkar on her marriage. So when Vipashana was asked for the first time in school about her caste, she said, “I don’t know.”
You’d think cities in the Hindi heartland would bear severely on their Dalit residents. But then, providence provides protection againstdiscrimination through inconceivable ways. Animesh Biswas belongs to Bengal’s Namashudra community, but he grew up in Kanpur, to where Indian Railways posted his father 20 years ago. In the perpetually simmering caste cauldron of Uttar Pradesh, Animesh was identified as a Bengali. He was not deemed to have a caste. Munching on a plate of crisp honey potato in a Chinese restaurant at Connaught Place, Animesh said he didn’t encounter discrimination in school, in Delhi’s Hans Raj College or IIMC.
He spoke of his Scheduled Caste background at a decibel audible to others at adjoining tables, in contrast to some who chose to converse in a low voice at public places. Not one instance of discrimination, I asked to jog his memory. He laughed and said, “Only now. When I respond to ads under the category of Caste No Bar on Shaadi.com and tell them about my Namashudra background, communication ceases at once.” He said he took the IIMC examination because he thought his BA degree in history would be a useful resource for media studies. A few years later, though, Animesh was to veer away on a course different from journalism.
The ten stories you have read so far can’t be extrapolated to build a theory. Nevertheless, Dalits who experienced caste-based discrimination and oppression in its more severe forms were inclined to view the media as a tool of resistance or reform, as against those whose Dalit identity was built predominantly upon the narratives of elders. The latter tended to view the media as the site for building a professional career.
Stumbling upon identity
The vital role parents play in how a person constructs his or her idea of self inspires some Dalits living in a metropolis to emphasise on the class rather than the caste identity. Yet, such attempts unravel as caste pops out inadvertently. Take Divya (name changed), whose father, a Junior Warrant Officer in the Indian Air Force, decided to settle his family in Ghaziabad, into which the city of Delhi has now merged seamlessly. (Divya uses a surname but it has been deliberately held back to ensure her identity isn’t revealed accidentally)
The vital role parents play in how a person constructs his or her idea of self inspires some Dalits livingin a metropolis to emphasise on the class rather than the caste identity..
Divya lives in a typical middle class colony. Typically too, neighbours bicker and engage in arguments there. When Divya was in Class X, her mother and their neighbour had an argument, and as neither relented, it turned into a nasty quarrel. Upset, Divya’s mother remarked aloud, “They only have to find an excuse to trouble us.” It seemed an irrational statement to Divya, who ticked off her Mom: why would you say that? Perhaps discerning the tone of disapproval in her daughter’s voice, she spilled out the truth, upset and angry as she was. “Because we are Scheduled Caste,” said the mother.
This statement had Divya reeling under shock. Her initial response was: why didn’t you tell me earlier? Later, Divya began to join what she called “the dots in my life.” There were children of her age in the colony who had been averse to befriending her. To her mother, Divya said, “All my life I thought there was something wrong with me. But now I know it was all because of my caste.” Subsequently, Divya’s father lectured her on the grating intricacies of the caste system, the status of Dalits, and the philosophy of reservation.
She grasped the crash course on caste, but she also took a decision – she would reveal her caste to only those whom she considered her true friends. “Why should I tell them who I am and have them judge me from the stereotype they have inherited from their parents,” she told me in the Barista coffee shop in Defence Colony. She stuck to this decision in a prestigious Delhi college, from where she graduated in journalism, which she had opted for at the suggestion of her father. Ironically, during her stint in the English media, which dons the garb of liberalism and modernity with elan, her boss became obsessed about identifying her social coordinates through questions she found distressing.
Belated discovery of her Dalit identity was also the case with Ankita Kumar, who did her diploma from IIMC in English in 2011 and now handles the social media account of an insurance company. Both her parents are Air India executives. Perhaps they did not want caste to wriggle into their middle class existence, or perhaps they were waiting to tell Ankita the truth at the time it was absolutely necessary – for instance, before she was to seek college admission that requires those applying for seats in the reserved category to submit caste certificates.
It was Ankita’s cousin who told her who she was. It numbed her with fright. Discussions on caste would freeze her into silence, as these invariably reminded her about the identity she had kept secret from others. When questioned by her friends about her caste, Ankita would stonewall them, “The only thing I know is that I am from Uttar Pradesh.” Ankita didn’t want to own up to her identity because she was apprehensive of losing her friends, believing they wouldn’t want to associate with Dalits.
So then, why did she agree to interact with me? She said her worldview had changed. “I am dating a Pandit, a ‘high caste’ boy according to society,” she wrote to me, choosing to interact over the email as she said she would feel uncomfortable answering my questions in a face-to-face meeting. “He loves me deeply. My caste doesn’t matter to him. I guess this explains my confidence,” Ankita explained. For a person who hadn’t glimpsed the menacing visage of caste, other than the anxiety her cousin induced in her through his revelation, it wasn’t surprising she chose to join IIMC because it was what others around her too were doing.
It is also paradoxical that affirmative measures for Dalits can shatter the comfortable anonymity city-life offers them, and lead to their stigmatisation. Earlier, as we have seen, Naveen Kumar’s first brush with caste prejudices was because of the concessional school fees he paid. In some ways, it was the also the experience of D Karthikeyan, The Hindu’s principal correspondent in Madurai.
Born in a remote village of Kanyakumari district, he shifted to Coimbatore, where he went to a government-aided Christian school. He knew he was Dalit, but not what it symbolised to others. This knowledge seeped into him every time the office clerk called out the “names under the SC list” for collecting scholarships. This differential treatment, meted out insensitively, made him feel “bad”, as it did other Dalit students.
Affirmative measures for Dalits can shatter the comfortable anonymity city-life offers them, and lead to their stigmatisation.
Over the years, Karthikeyan read Periyar and Ambedkar and organised students to fight for their rights on caste basis. He subsequently went to the Centre for the Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, to pursue his M.Phil, where to him was underscored the importance of participating in the intellectual sphere. Unable to secure a fellowship for PhD in the London School of Economics, he entered journalism, going on to hunt stories pertaining to the Dalit issue for his newspaper.
Ultimately, as the example of Karthikeyan demonstrates, what you make of what happens to you – ranging from the unbearable to the terrible to the insignificant – also depends, perhaps crucially, on the sensibilities of the individual, whether he or she struggles for their rights or merges into the quiescent mass.
Remember some of these people mentioned here. They are going to pop in and out in subsequent sections.
Cast of Characters
1) Santosh Valmiki
Mother was a manual scavenger; he sold newspapers for a living. He’s now a principal correspondent, Hindustan, Lucknow
2) Ved Prakash
As schoolteacher, he was beaten up by upper castes. He works as assistant producer, Total TV.
3) Ashok Das
Clerk’s son, upper caste colleagues didn’t want to live with him. He publishes and editsDalit Dastak, a monthly.
4) Satyendra Murli
Mother, sister evicted from temple, experienced caste biases in the media. Now withHindustan.
5) Mallepalli Laxmaiah
His uncle was killed, and he was picked up under TADA. Columnist with Telugu newspapers, founded Dalit Study Centre.
6) Chanti Kranti Kiran
Helped father collect evidence against untouchability, he is now Input editor, V6 News, Hyderabad.
7) Sanghpriya Gautam (English)
A JNU student; never faced discrimination. He left a premier TV channel to join PR.
8) Naveen Kumar
Barred from a Delhi college on account of caste, in media taunted for his caste, he is now in a Hindi daily.
9) Vipashana Kamble
Daughter of an industrial court judge, she is now a senior copy editor, The Times of India, Mumbai.
10) Animesh Biswas
Grew up in Uttar Pradesh, he never faced discrimination. Left journalism for PR.
Discovered she was Dalit late in life, she worked in a Delhi newspaper for two years Wants to go for higher studies.
12) Ankita Kumar
Discovered her caste late, she hid her identity from friends. She currently handles a social media account of an insurance firm.
13) D Karthikeyan
Felt bad when his name would be announced for SC scholarship in school. He’s now the principal correspondent, The Hindu, Madurai.
(The author, a Delhi-based journalist, thanks Sunit Tandon and Anil Chamadia for their invaluable assistance and guidance in this project. He can be reached email@example.com)
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