New Delhi: Was it cancer or casteism that finally got Nagaraju Koppula, one of the few dalit journalists to make it in Indian journalism?
Nagaraju Koppula, who passed away in April this year after battling lung cancer, was the first Madiga dalit journalist to have made a mark in the mainstream English media. With his passing, the already miniscule number of dalit journalists in the media just got even smaller.
According to the Media Studies Group and members of the Justice for Dalit Journalist Nagaraju Koppula Campaign which organised a memorial meeting here last week, 71% of media jobs in India are held by upper caste males who make up just 8% of the country’s population and there is not even a single adivasi or dalit journalist among some 300 identified ‘decision-makers’ in the media. In 2013, senior Journalist Ajaz Ashraf was able to find only 20 journalists who were dalit and willing to talk about their experiences. No wonder that adivasi, dalit and minority issues don’t get the coverage they deserve, or get portrayed in the way they do.
A reporter for The New Indian Express, Koppula covered a wide variety of issues and was known to be a diligent reporter. But despite his will to succeed, he was still a victim of what many are calling blatant casteism and discrimination. His pay scale was not the same as other upper caste journalists despite his frequent contributions to front page news, he received close to no financial support or adequate sick leave when he was battling the disease, and he was removed from the rolls of his organisation without appropriate notice. The contract system that journalists work under gives them little or no security.
After Koppula’s death, the Telangana Union for Working Journalists staged protests outside the office of The New Indian Express demanding adequate compensation for his family, as well as a housing plot as part of the Journalists Housing scheme. Protests have also been staged against the hospital that allegedly incorrectly diagnosed him with TB and subsequently charged him for four months of treatment. They also called for the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court, but so far, nothing has happened.
While remembering Nagaraju and his contributions to the field of journalism, panelists at the memorial event delved deeper into the multiple barriers that socially disadvantaged groups face in the mainstream media. A senior journalist reminisced about teaching Nagaraju: “I sought his help for translation from Telugu for a documentary I was working on. I had often encouraged him to pursue a career in the regional media, but he was determined to succeed in English. His achievement is phenomenal, almost all the odds were stacked against him, but that didn’t deter him.”
Blanking out of dalit voices
Because of the lack of any dalit perspectives in the mainstream media, atrocities against them are either reported cursorily or completely ignored. This is evident right from the caste-based violence in Kilvenmani in Tamil Nadu in 1968, up to recent incidents in Bhagana in 2014. There is no coverage of the families of four Dalit girls from Bhagana who are still protesting at Jantar Mantar.
Several commentators at the memorial meet, like Paranjoy Guha Thakurta pointed out that while social media and online news was important, especially when initiated by marginal communities, the traditional media also had to change. Others like Doordarshan journalist Satyendra Murli spoke about double standards in the media: when dalit journalists talked about caste they are accused of being casteist, but the silent discrimination or neglect by upper caste journalists is not perceived in the same terms.
The Media Studies Group concluded the memorial meeting by presenting a charter of demands, which included appeals to the state, to media houses, to the employers of Nagaraju Koppula, and to civil society organisations on the need to create awareness on this issue.
Appeals to the State include:
- The implementation of a reservation policy for media houses and channels of the Indian Parliament i.e. Doordarshan, Rajya Sabha TV and Lok Sabha TV, Prasar Bharati etc.
- Affirmative action policies at private media houses; the setting up on an institutional mechanism for complaints of discrimination
- An elimination of the contract system to ensure permanent employment.
- Implementation of the Supreme Court judgment of February 07, 2014 on implementation of the recommendations of the Majithia Wage Board, 2011.
The same demands were also addressed to private media houses, but with the additional recommendation that they step up recruitment of journalists from marginalised communities, give them fellowships, and ensure parity in pay and other service conditions. The organisers also announced an award for dalit and adivasi journalists in the name of Nagaraju Koppula.