FROM THE READERS’ EDITOR Readers' Editor

Fair reporting demands appropriate words

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Why the media uses the term Dalit

Some issues tend to keep surfacing, no matter how many times you address them. On August 20, 2018, I wrote a column, “Why context matters”, to explain why news reports use the term ‘Dalit’. When the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry issued an absurd advisory to the media in 2018 on the use of the term Dalit, this newspaper carried an informed editorial, “What’s in a name?” (September 6), which once again explained not only the rationale but also the ethical imperatives for using the term.

Yet, recently, a reader, Tarun Pal, wrote an angry letter to us asking why The Hindu, an English language newspaper, uses the term Dalit, a Hindi word, and not Scheduled Caste. Mr. Pal argued that if the idea is to describe the daily ordeals of a section of people, it would be prudent to name the specific community rather than use the general term Dalit. Another reader, Mahesh P. Padukone, wondered about the efficacy of using the term. He wrote: “Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal stating that ‘Fifty two per cent of Dalit respondents feared their caste would be ‘outed’ and 67% said they faced discrimination at the workplace’ in the U.S. is far-fetched because I seriously doubt an American even knows or cares about ‘Brahmins’, ‘Dalits’, ‘Adivasis’... For them, it’s an ‘Indian’ without the ramifications of caste.”

This brings us back to the question, is the word Dalit used without any application of mind? Is it discriminatory? How did the change happen from Mahatma Gandhi’s Harijan to Dalit? And where does the official term Scheduled Caste fit into this narrative?

Historical context

Eminent economist and former chairman of the University Grants Commission, Sukhadeo Thorat, in his book, Dalits in India: Search for a Common Destiny, explained the significance of the term Dalit. He said that this term was invoked in a conscious manner in 1932 when B.R. Ambedkar worked out the Poona Pact with Congress leaders to secure reserved seats for the depressed classes to the provincial legislatures and the Central Legislature. Mr. Thorat argued that the term Scheduled Caste is a legally defined category, but that the media and academics can use other words to capture the context and problems faced by communities. He also made it clear that Dalit is a Marathi word, and means the oppressed and resourceless.

Scholars have also consistently argued that the term Scheduled Caste remains neutral, while the term Dalit provides the cultural and political context to the struggles of a people. In this newspaper, the academic Ananya Vajpeyi wrote an article, “A modern-day enlightenment” (April 17, 2014), explaining some of these contentious issues. She cited D.R. Nagaraj’s influential essay, “Self-Purification v/s Self-Respect: On the Roots of the Dalit Movement” to make several points: “First, that it was Gandhi who initially grasped untouchability as a political problem (albeit his own concerns were spiritual and not material); second, that Gandhi and Ambedkar debated their divergent approaches to the problem of untouchability in a vigorous manner both before and after the Poona Pact of 1932; and third, that by the end of their long encounter with one another, Gandhi and Ambedkar had internalised one another’s ideas.” She examined how Nagaraj explained the difference between Harijan and Dalit as the “difference between the caste Hindu’s struggle for self-purification and the outcaste’s struggle for self-respect” because the “self” in the two situations is not the same.

Pregnant with meaning

History apart, the Press Council of India, the statutory body that regulates the print media, has ruled that there cannot be a ban on the use of the word Dalit in the media. When the I&B Ministry advisory, which was based on an order of the Bombay High Court, was issued, the regulatory body said: “Our reading of the Bombay High Court order is that it did not seek a ban on the word ‘Dalit’. We deliberated on the order and have come to the conclusion that it is advisable not to issue directions/orders prohibiting the use of word Dalit.”

This newspaper is alive to the fact that the term Dalit is “pregnant with meaning, reflecting the struggle of a community to reassert its identity and lay claim to the rights that were denied to them for centuries”. Hence, it becomes the duty of the media to use it.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2020 5:44:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/fair-reporting-demands-appropriate-words/article28235606.ece

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