We need to battle the media mindset

Chandra Bhan Prasad

(First published in January 2002)

How do temple priests treat Dalits? An educated, decently dressed Dalit with some dignified source of income may be acceptable to them. Dalits with similar qualities may even get some acceptability among Varna landlords. But how does the media treat Dalits and the issues which concern them?

Last Sunday, the 18th Annual Convention of BAMCEF kicked off in Delhi. The four-day convention is a gala event which the Dalit intelligentsia awaits each December. Even Dalit NRIs turn up in considerable numbers. This year, over 6,000 BAMCEF delegates from 26 states/276 districts descended on the Ramlila Ground in Delhi. The ground was renamed BAMCEF city with all essential facilities, including a media centre and online internet facility, being made available. There was also a Dalit book fair where some 20 leading Dalit book distributors put up their stalls.

The BAMCEF Annual Convention is considered to be a Dalit intellectual mela, where most ideological streams amongst the Dalits/Bahujans are allowed to take part. Every participant, from a civil servant to a grade four employee, resides in the pavilion of his state, eats his food in the common dining hall and uses the same bedding provided by the organisers to all. The sessions begin at nine every morning and ends at nine at night. During these mammoth sessions, the issues facing the community are discussed threadbare. Late in the evening, children present cultural programmes. Plus, a large presence of women delegates gives new hope to the Dalit movement.

The BAMCEF Convention is the largest and the only genuine all-India platform for educated and socially enlightened Dalits. In the words of novelist Sagarika Ghose, who visited the venue; "... most Dalit delegates I met appeared highly educated, sophisticated in their articulation and most spoke excellent English." As a matter of convention, the BAMCEF chairman, Mr Vaman Meshram, whom I think of as being next only to Kanshi Ram and Mayawatiji, does not leave the venue for the entire four days. But how did the media treat the just concluded event? Barring The Pioneer and Hindi daily Rashtriya Sahara, no other mainstream media outfit wrote a word about the event. Most media organisations were invited to witness and cover the event.

I spoke to the news editor of an important English daily and asked him to send a representative from his organisation. He fumbled, trying to figure out what the BAMCEF was. I wondered how a journalist, holding an important position in a newspaper, was ignorant about an organisation which has produced leaders of the stature of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati and which is the Dalits' most celebrated intellectual forum? Can any journalist show similar ignorance about the existence of the RSS?

I was in Andhra Pradesh over December 19 and 20. I was invited to attend a Land-Liberation Movement in Rajamundhry town of the East Godavari district. In this coastal district of Andhra Pradesh, a "gentleman" politician is believed to hold about 1,500 acres of agricultural land, illegally. Dalits under the banner of the Dalit-Bahujan Forum (DBF) are waging a battle. Some 12,000 Dalit writers, social and cultural activists and student leaders from all over the state had assembled at Rajamundhry. Any Dalit intellectual worth his name in Andhra was there to stage a dharna at the Sub-Collector's office and participate in the grand rally. Even Prakash Ambedkar, grand son of Baba Saheb Ambedkar, graced the occasion.

"Since politicians themselves defy the ceiling legislation, we are targeting them first," said the movement's leader Vinai Kumar. The organisers had invited Hyderabad-based representatives of the national media. I arrived in Delhi on December 21 but didn't see a single report filed by any of the national dailies.

The BAMCEF's Ramlila Convention and DBF's Rajamundhry rally characterise the Varna media perfectly. What if BAMCEF declared that it would convert five Dalits to Islam or 5,000 to Buddhism or suppose, under its aegis, 5,000 Dalit intellectuals staged a march in their kaccha-baniyans with a vow to never wear clothing again. NDTV would probably have arranged for live telecast of the event and several editors of the print media would probably personally station themselves at the site. Or, if DBF decided to line up 10,000 Dalit intellectuals at a tea shop practising "cup reservation" in the Khammam district of the Telengana region, with the Brahmanical practice of sacred-threads hung around their bare torsos, the national media would probably turn it into a "media event." This is how the media treats Dalits and their movements. It finds it extremely hard to reconcile itself to any thing positive and serious within a movement but merrily promotes every thing comical or ridiculous about the same. This is the mind and conscience of the Varna media which looks at Dalit genius and substance in their movements with utter contempt.

[Courtesy: Pioneer, January 3, 2002]

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