Dalits Belong in the News, and Also in the Newsroom

According to the 2018 Oxfam report, 88% of leadership positions in Indian media were held by 'upper' castes. No positions were held by Dalits. Four years later, that number still remains zero.

Last August, Gautam Adani acquired a 29% stake in New Delhi Television (NDTV) Limited and completed his takeover of the media group by the end of December 2022. He now has full editorial control over its operations. Given Adani’s proximity to the Modi government, the change of guard has raised concerns about the future of the channel. To many, his acquisition of NDTV marked the death of free journalism in India.

The departure of NDTV primetime anchor Ravish Kumar soon after it emerged that Adani would have his way was termed the end of an era by academics, journalists and citizens — which it was. But apart from their pro-establishment bias, India’s newsrooms have a crippling lack of caste representation and NDTV is no exception. The fact that the channel – and other big media outlets considered progressive – got away  with massive caste disparities for years reflects poorly on Indian journalism’s lack of concern for workplace diversity.

In 2018, an Oxfam report found that the top 88% of leadership positions in the Indian media were held by ‘upper’ castes, who are less than 20% of the population. No positions were held by Dalits. Four years later, that number still remains zero. Today, more than half of all anchors and panelists in Hindi and English primetime shows are from ‘upper’ caste groups, while there are no anchors from the SC (Scheduled Caste) and ST (Scheduled Tribe) communities. Less than 5% of the articles in digital media are written by people from SC/ST categories.

Also read: Alienated, Discriminated Against and Few in Number: The Bahujan in the Indian Newsroom

Despite its independence from the government compared to other channels, NDTV has been no different from them as far as the preponderance of ‘upper’ castes in the newsroom is concerned. Though there is no official data, anecdotal evidence and surveys indicate that its anchors, editors and staff are also almost entirely upper-caste. According to Oxfam’s survey, 100% of those in a leadership role at NDTV’s Hindi news channel belonged to the ‘general’ category. Moreover, not a single anchor at NDTV’s English news channel was identified as belonging to SC/ST groups.

This lack of inclusion is compounded by the fact that many journalists at the channel tended to be – as former employee Sandeep Bhushan put it – ‘babalog‘, i.e. people with bureaucratic connections. In other words, the primary hiring pool may have been not just a caste club but a caste club of Delhi’s privileged elites.

A former senior journalist at the channel, a non-Brahmin, who wishes to remain anonymous told us about their experience at one of NDTV’s bureaus, “Irrespective of how good you were,” they said, “to rise you had to be from the right caste.” Giving multiple examples of assignments from their own experience, they added, “More often than not, you had to be a Brahmin.”

The journalist who worked at the channel for seven years before leaving over a decade ago told us the impression they formed: “While NDTV did all the right work in reporting on caste, this did not reflect in their newsroom. I’m not saying the underdog wasn’t represented in the reports, but the voice telling those stories never came from that reality.”

Upper caste gaze
Of course the problem, as we noted at the outset, is not that of NDTV alone. The effective exclusion of SC and ST communities has led to the distorted and wrongful portrayal of issues concerning ‘lower-caste’ communities, especially affirmative action for those who have historically been denied access.

‘Lower-caste’ communities form 77% of the Indian population – yet they are overwhelmingly underrepresented in mainstream media. Although Dalit issues are reported on television, in newspapers, and digital media, hardly any of their stories are told by Dalits. For instance, data shows that only 7% of news articles about caste issues are written by Dalits. In the print media, the Oxfam survey found that no newspaper had an SC/ST journalist writing on caste issues.

Dalits are kept away from telling the stories we feel, breathe, and live with every day. Our issues are often deemed unworthy of being reported on. The few that do make the cut are told from an upper-caste gaze, reducing Dalits to mere spectators in our own lived experiences.

Members of Dalit community raise slogans during Bharat Bandh against the alleged dilution of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Act, in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Representational image. Protesters oppose the dilution of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Act, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

As young Dalit writers, our story ideas are often rejected by several national newspapers to make way for upper-caste journalists to report on Dalit issues. Our articles have also been plagiarised by already established upper-caste journalists. This experience is deeply personal yet far too familiar for Dalit journalists.

Also read: Backstory: The Dalit Public and the Media

Sumit Chauhan, journalist and founder of The Shudra, talks about the burdens of constantly having to prove oneself as a Dalit in mainstream media. Chauhan says being the only Dalit journalist there made him the target of routine casteism for talking about Dalit issues or wearing a Dr. Ambedkar t-shirt. He mentions how a senior producer in the wake of the Una incident said to him, “Kutton aur Daliton ko ghee hazam nahi hoti, tumko laath maarke rakhna chahiye nahi toh tum bighad jaayoge (Dogs and Dalits cannot digest ghee, you will get spoiled if you aren’t kicked around).”

Chauhan’s ideas were dismissed, and his reports often did not see the light of day owing to casteism in the newsroom. There was no appreciation for performing well but a host of caste insults at every little mistake.

“My mistake is not only mine, but it is of my community, it is of my people, of my roots and where I belong. So, there is that responsibility and that fear. There is that psychological pressure to prove that we are good enough and capable,” Chauhan says. Chauhan has previously worked with Zee News and ABP news.

Bhumika Saraswati, a 24-year-old journalist and recipient of the UNFPA Laadli Award 2022, says casteism follows her wherever she goes despite her commendable achievements. “Why are you always pitching Dalit stories?” “Why are your ideas so radical?” are only some of the ridiculous questions Saraswati says she is asked by editors. Saraswati says the subliminal casteism in newsrooms often restricts her journalistic freedom and impacts her mental health.

Although corporate control of the media is dangerous for what little remains of democracy in India, the public reaction to NDTV’s acquisition by Adani sidelines the caste realities of Indian journalism, left, right and centre. It overlooks the many Dalit journalists who never found a place in elitist upper-caste dominated media and who have been abused and treated unfairly in the newsroom merely because of their caste.

Today, the dismal experience of Dalit and Adivasi communities in health, education and public policy – at home and even globally – is a pointer to the need for newsroom diversity, so that reporting on these subjects takes place from the lens of social justice. The caste divide in India’s journalism is fuelling exclusion outside its newsrooms. Media is the fourth pillar of democracy. The exclusion of Bahujan communities from the media only translates to our exclusion from the democratic process. This must change now. For it must not be so that India wants Dalit news, but not Dalit journalists.

Shreeja Rao is a law student and writer based in Pune, India. Her work appeared in The Guardian, Economic and Political Weekly, The Quint, and The News Minute. Sankul Sonawane is a writer and activist based in Pune. His work appeared in The Times of India, The Quint, and The News Minute. Sankul was also a speaker at the Oxford Human Rights Festival 2021.