The media's failure to recruit Dalits is a betrayal of the constitutional guarantees of equality and fraternity.

There were almost none in 1992, and there are almost none today: Dalits in the newsrooms of India's media organisations. Stories from the lives of close to 25 per cent of Indians (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) are unlikely to be known — much less broadcast or written about.

Unless, of course, the stories are about squalor and violence. An analyst once summed up the treatment of African-American and Hispanic issues in the American media: such people “rarely travel, eat or get married,” if all you knew about them was what you learned from the media.

Is it a calamity that Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are almost completely absent from newspapers and television? Of course it is. It's a calamity for at least three reasons.

First, it means that the Constitution is not being lived up to. The Constitution promises “equality” and “fraternity.” There's something deficient about “equality” if a quarter of the population is missing from the Fourth Estate. And it's hard to fraternise — to practise fraternity — with people who aren't there.

Second, a fitting presence in newsrooms, and the varied coverage that it brings, mitigates the resentment of people who are ignored and discriminated against. Recognition of tribulations and achievements combats discrimination. And if meaningful changes do not happen, resentment will bubble up destructively — as it already does in areas of Maoist influence in eastern India. Constant, probing stories about the triumphs and agonies of people on the margins help to effect remedies and turn barriers into bridges.

A section overlooked

Third, genuine media people, who believe in the old New York Times tag about ferreting out “all the news that's fit to print,” can never be satisfied with producing a newspaper, a magazine or a bulletin that robotically overlooks a quarter of the population (except when there's violence and squalor of course). Grizzled city editors (city editors are always grizzled) used to pose a single question to self-satisfied reporters at the end of the day: “What REALLY happened out there today, boys and girls?” It ought to flash in lights in every newsroom.

The Dalit absence from the media has been focussed on sporadically since 1996. That's when Kenneth J. Cooper, the Washington Post correspondent, himself an African-American, tried to find a Dalit media person in New Delhi. Cooper wrote about his failure to do so, and B.N. Uniyal publicised Cooper's inquiries in the Pioneer. “Suddenly, I realised,” Uniyal wrote, “that in all the 30 years I had worked as a journalist I had never met a fellow journalist who was a Dalit; no, not one.”

Not a single SC, ST

Nothing had changed by the time I published India's Newspaper Revolution in 2000. Nothing had changed by 2006 when a survey on the 10th anniversary of the Cooper-Uniyal inquiry found not a single SC or ST among more than 300 media decision-makers. And nothing much had changed a year ago when the Tamil journalist, J. Balasubramaniam, wrote a personal account in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Kenneth Cooper, now a media consultant and editor based in Boston, began a distinguished career on the St Louis American, an African-American daily that was commercially successful. If there are similarities between the plight of African-Americans in the past (and present) and Dalits today, then why are there no Dalit-oriented media voices like Ebony or Essence magazines or the old St Louis American or Chicago Defender?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that Dalits lack advantages that Black America enjoyed (though “enjoy” is hardly the right word) even in the 1920s. Most important was a black middle class of shop-owners and professionals. Such people could buy advertisements and put up capital to back a publication. Black America worked in a single language, English, and had networks of churches and their pastors who provided respected leaders, education and connections. Martin Luther King was one of many. Black America was also less divided internally: caste among African Americans was not a problem, though skin tone may have been.

If you're inclined to say, “Good journalists, regardless of caste, cover stories objectively” or “Quotas and reservations are the bane of modern India — only ability counts,” consider the nationalist experience. Did the old elites who confronted British rule feel they were satisfactorily represented in The Statesman and the Times of India? They didn't. And The Hindu, Amrita Bazar Patrika, the Hindustan Times, Young India and many others were the result. Babasaheb Ambedkar said it well: “with the press in hand it [is] easy to manufacture great men.”

What might be done to put a Dalit presence into media? Two suggestions. Neither an answer, but both worth considering.

Two suggestions

To begin with, the Editors' Guild could commit itself to carrying out an annual census of newsroom diversity of the kind that the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) began in 1978. In that year, “people of colour” were 4 per cent of people in U.S. newsrooms, though they were close to 30 per cent of the American population. The target was to reach more than 20 per cent by 2000. They missed the target. In 2011, “minorities” were about 13 per cent of American newsrooms, though they constituted 36 per cent of the U.S. population. (That includes African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asians). The new ASNE target date has been set to 2020.

Such targets in India would be difficult. (Targets, remember. Not “reservations” or “quotas”). Caste is so raw and sensitive. But if major organisations took a lead in conducting and publishing an annual audit of diversity, and included women and Muslims in such an audit, an embarrassment factor would kick in. Lesser organisations might feel obliged to follow or be singled out for ridicule.

A middle class is growing slowly among people at the bottom of India's pyramid (BOIP). People near the bottom, most of whom are Dalits, need a publication that looks at the world from their perspective — bottom up, not top down. A BOIP middle-class needs a first-class publication — an Ebony or an Essence, two of the glossy magazines of Black America that report achievements as well as outrages.

Classy & different

A slick, view-from-below magazine (English and Hindi) would cover stories from the margins in ways that people at the margins would recognise. And its journalism could be so compelling that others would want to read it for its classiness and its difference. In a tiny, budget-conscious way, the Dalit-focussed publisher, Navayana, already tries to do this in the book trade.

Such a publication would need to be run by a trust, and some of the capital would need to come from a Dalit middle-class itself. But the corpus of the trust could be built from donations from people-of-goodwill from all backgrounds and from one-off contributions from governments. Rs. 100 crore would make a realistic target — a mere $20 million, the cost of a couple of mid-priced battle-tanks or a small slice of 2G spectrum.

What about television? For about a year-and-a-half before I first came to India in 1967, I wrote a daily television column for a small-town newspaper in western Canada. I watched a lot of U.S. and Canadian television. There were no Black people on TV. When I came back to North America in 1970, Flip Wilson, an African-American comedian, had a popular TV show. Something dramatic had happened. Thirty-eight years later, the U.S. elected a Black President.

Are there any Dalits anchoring a programme or going regularly to camera on a major Indian television channel? My contacts tell me there aren't. It will be a big moment when that changes — and a daunting burden on the person who breaks that barrier.

Achieving “equality” and “fraternity” in India may be harder even than the path that African Americans have had to follow. There are more divisions, fewer resources and huge disparities. But until there is diversity on television screens and printed pages, the promises of the Constitution will be unfulfilled, unthinking prejudice will persist and simmering resentment will grow. Media diversity is a matter of national self-interest as well as justice.

(Robin Jeffrey is Visiting Research Professor, Institute of South Asian Studies and Asia Research Institute National University of Singapore. The article is based on the Rajendra Mathur Memorial Lecture delivered in New Delhi on 31 March, 2012.)

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