Independence Day is an ideal time to look at the state of affairs of both the Indian state and media. While the former represents the institutional framework to fulfil people’s aspirations, the latter represents the level of freedom and the ability to play a crucial watchdog role. As the state of the nation is a subject matter for the editorial team to explore, let me look at one element of the state of media — social inclusion.
In an ideal world, no section should be excluded from articulating its viewpoint and the public sphere should retain a rainbow character reflecting the plurality of the society. However, in the vertically arranged social reality of ours, people at the bottom of the pyramid do not find adequate representation in many forums. Media is no exception. The issue that stares at us is the low presence of Dalits among journalists.
In his three-part investigative report for the media monitoring website, The Hoot, senior journalist Ajaz Ashraf looked at the reasons for the poor participation of Dalits in media despite reservations for them in media institutes. He posed some important questions and the answers he arrived at were really disturbing. For instance he asked: “Why do they keep away from the media? Is it because they encounter discrimination, as they do in many other avenues?”
Ajaz could not come to terms with the poor presence of Dalits in newsroom despite the fact that they are trained in various institutes for at least three decades. In a 1996 article titled “In search of a Dalit journalist,” B.N. Uniyal said he could not find a single Dalit in the profession in spite of talking to most of the editors and going through every available list, including the PIB accreditation list. The questions before Ajaz were: “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?” He was also disturbed by the fact that 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, dozens of newspapers and interviewed more than 250 people.
In his journey to find answers to these questions, Ajaz traversed through the lives of media institute-trained Dalits covering their personal, political and professional aspects. Though he started contacting IIMC students in the third week of May, most of them wanted to talk only of after June 2. Herein lay the first pointer. They were preparing for the Prasar Bharati’s written test for recruiting 1,166 Programme Executives (PEX) and Transmission Executives (TEX), who constitute the backbone of AIR and Doordarshan stations around the country.
Ajaz was stunned by this response. He writes: “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 practised in the non-government realm. This idea now stood challenged.”
Based on lengthy conversations with them, Ajaz discovered: “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.” The positive element in Ajaz’s report is his assertion: “I can, with certainty, say the number of Dalits in the media has grown over the 17 years since Uniyal wrote his piece, “In search of a Dalit journalist.” He could not find a single Dalit journalist in 1996. I, at least, found more than a dozen in Delhi alone. There were also a few who did not wish to speak to me.”
I approached Sashikumar; Chairman of Media Development Foundation that runs the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) to get his reading of what ails our media system. ACJ has an affirmative scheme of extending full scholarship to four Dalit students every academic year to pursue their course — this covers the entire tuition fees and in some instances even accommodation and living expenses since 2004. He said: “it is unfortunate that not all years were we able to fill even these four seats as we do not offer any preferential treatment at the entrance test. It was a conscious decision not to undermine the confidence of these students when they join the course.” But Sashikumar feels that the vicious cycle can be broken only through further affirmative action. He is planning a pre-entrance orientation programme for Dalit students so that they can be equipped to face the challenges easily. This may well help to recast our newsrooms in a big way.