Backstory: If You Don’t Count Them, How Will You Report Them? Media Has Failed the OBCs

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

The Indian media has consistently failed at least 75% of the country’s population covered by the acronyms SCs, STs and OBCs. For proof of this, consider the wholly inadequate media coverage given to the political contestation over the need to enumerate Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the 2021 census operations. The controversy has in no way prodded journalists to go back to documents like the  ‘Report of the Backward Classes Commission, 1980’, more popularly known as the Mandal Commission Report; or pursue landmark court judgments on the issue; or attempt to understand the sheer anthropological diversity of the OBC community that cuts across religious lines.

There is in just the Mandal Commission Report, which begins with the quote, “There is equality only among equals. To equate unequals is to perpetuate inequality”, a wealth of stories waiting to be discovered, even though two decades have passed since it was formally handed over to then-president Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. In his letter to the president on the occasion, chair of the Commission B.P. Mandal complained about the huge hurdles it had faced in the absence of caste enumeration figures after the 1931 Census… and suggested a reconsideration of the policy of discontinuing such enumeration. After all, as he observed in his introduction, “in traditional Indian society social backwardness was a direct consequence of caste status and, further, that various types of backwardness flowed directly from this crippling handicap”. A recent articlein The Wire, ‘Why a Caste Census Is the Need of the Hour’ (September 5), provides a more recent backdrop to this argument.

Questions arise over the lack of media interest in OBCs who comprise at least 52% India’s numbers. Lack of curiosity is not a failing that should, generally speaking, be laid at the media’s door. Look at the enormous curiosity provoked by Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide a year ago, which had led to an avalanche of “investigations” and went far beyond the film star himself to even unearth rampant drug use in Bollywood. This leads to two further questions: given this, just what are the issues that excite the curiosity of Indian journalists and editors? And are these tropes linked to their own caste-class locations?

An excellent exposition of the problem was The Wire piece that came out a year ago (‘Alienated, Discriminated Against and Few in Number: The Bahujan in the Indian Newsroom’, August 11, 2020). The writer, after conducting an impromptu survey of the Indian newsroom, established not just the very well-noted phenomenon that it is a space dominated utterly by the upper castes, but that it is also emphatically an unequal space where experiences of those outside the dominant locations invariably fail to make their presence felt.

“The newsroom floor is dominated by journalists from English-speaking schools who come from well-off families… The topics of conversation may also seem foreign to Bahujan journalists. The lives of upper caste journalists in these cities revolve around shopping malls, fancy restaurants, coffee shops, bars, clubs, etc. Upper caste journalists also benefit from the cultural capital – in the form of books, art, music, theatre, films, etc – passed down to them from the previous generation.”

All this impacted the stories that finally emerged. One respondent quoted in the piece spoke of his story ideas being rejected; others of how they were left out of important discussions on the news menu of the day.

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, HAM president Jitan Ram Manjhi and other leaders after a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi over caste census in New Delhi, August 23, 2021. Photo: PTI

One can, in light of this, conclude that there are serious structural reasons for the lack of media interest in the story of OBC enumeration. Such epistemic silences are by no means new. Go back to the days when a maelstrom of protests swept through Indian cities after then prime minister, V.P. Singh, announced his government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission report on August 7, 1990. Journalist and political historian V. Krishna Ananth notes that while Singh’s initial announcement attracted no negative response immediately, the dam burst after the self-immolation of Delhi college student Rajiv Goswami, followed by a spate of copycat suicides in other northern Indian cities and towns.

Did the charged media coverage given to Goswami’s unfortunate death possibly propel the suicides that followed? His burning figure made it to the covers of several prominent magazines. The late social activist and author, Gail Omvedt, made a direct link between the newspaper coverage and the ‘self-immolations’, in a chapter that appeared in an anthology edited by Ghanshyam Shah, ‘The Anti-Caste Movement And The Discourse Of Power’ from Caste and Democratic Politics in India’ (Permanent Black). She wrote: “then a wave of ‘self-immolations’ followed, spurred by tremendous newspaper publicity and intellectual support… There was a chorus in the press against V.P. Singh, talk of the ‘Mandalisation of India’, and respectable social scientists who had made their careers analysing the reality of caste in India now rediscovered the economic factor and threatened a ‘brain drain’ of high-caste talent abroad.”

If you look at the media coverage of those days, there was no ambiguity about which side the media was on. Lines from a report appearing in a contemporary news magazine would indicate this: “…Sharad Yadav continued exhorting the backwards to come out into the streets for a numerical showdown with the anti-reservationists. He must have been dismayed when despite pouring rain an anti-Mandal rally was attended by over 50,000 while rainfall washed out a pro-Mandal rally the next day – a pointer to which way the views of the capital’s citizenry veer.”

There was also close detailing of the methods of protest in those news reports, including the manner in which medical students and doctors in Lucknow took to “polishing shoes and cleaning cars and taking out processions in which they ply rickshaws – to make the point that this is what they are likely to end up doing if the Government reserves more jobs.” These forms of protest, incidentally, had a long lease of life, and were repeated years later when organisations like Youth for Equality and the AIIMS Residents Doctors Association went on anti-quota stirs against the proposal to provide 27% reservations for OBCs in elite educational institutions – a move that was aborted by the Supreme Court. The irony is that such forms of protest only illustrated the disdain towards work done by professionals like rickshaw pullers and cobblers, and an assumption that only the lower castes should do such work and that jobs that command high social capital must necessarily be “reserved” (by implication) for the so-called meritorious upper castes. The irony was patent but no news report called it out.

Economist Ashwini Deshpande, in her short account, ‘Affirmative Action In India’ (Oxford) also notes that “public sympathy was fully with the striking students with no evidence of the usual middle-class disdain for and impatience with agitational activities.”

Media, if committed to the need for more and better data to achieve their much professed demand for evidence-based policy-making, should in fact be arguing in favour of OBC enumeration in the current census operations. After all, if you don’t count them, how will you report them? Reporting blind make for blind reports, without the credibility of adequate data. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the Indian media have chosen to continue siding with power structures defined by caste, class and political parameters and, in the process, persist with their historical role of being force multipliers for those who rule the country today.

Big media and farm protests

An editorial in the Times of India, ‘Jai Which Kisan’ (September 7) indicated the deep sympathy the corporate media has for the Modi government in its efforts to get the three farm loans mainstreamed. The editorial terms the passing of the laws as a “laudable ambition of creating a robust private market for agri produce”. It goes on to paint the protestors as “big farmers”, and advises the government to win over “the small and marginal farmers” so that they realise the benefits of reform. The hypocrisy inherent in this argument is obvious: struggling farmers who comprise a wide spectrum of the farming community have been sitting out in the cold and rain for close over a year are painted as the moneyed villains of the piece, while the real beneficiaries of the farm laws – powerful, globally-networked agribusiness – is never mentioned even in passing.

Meanwhile, television channels adopted all manner of innovative ways to minimise the gargantuan scale of the Muzaffarnagar mahapanchayat gathering of farmers on September 5. This included, in one instance, introducing vertical frames of the visuals from the ground – so that the eye could not register the impressive vastness of the crowd. It is precisely such cheap tactics that have raised the hackles of the protesting farmers when it comes to the “godi media”. There was an instance of the Aaj Tak reporter, Chitra Tripathi, being chased away even as “hai, hai, godi media” chants rang out. Such treatment of individual journalists cannot and must not be condoned. After all, each of these microphone holders are only working at the bidding of those who pay their salaries. What would be more useful, but of course more difficult is to adopt ways to discomfit the corporates who control the media, thus disrupting their business model.

Against this backdrop, the photographs of the event that The Wire put out (‘Will Oust Divisive BJP’: Farmers Stand Firm at Muzaffarnagar Mahapanchayat‘, September 6) were important. They were a reminder that there is great value in slow photography as opposed to the frenetic pace of television cameras, providing the viewer a chance to dwell on the faces and ambience of an event that was by any token a significant political marker. ‘Not Just a Farmers’ Stir But a Democratic Pushback Against Uncaring Rule’ (September 9) notes, thishistoric mahapanchayat was not just a farmer-related one…apparent from the diversity of attendance it drew and from the content of the speeches made at the happening.” What was also striking were the numerous young faces captured in the photographs of the participants – indicating that this movement is attracting a new generation in western Uttar Pradesh, not all of whom may be farmers themselves.

The Muzaffarnagar mahapanchayat. Photo: PTI

Such features indicate an attempt to think out of the box, and will go some way to broaden The Wire’s appeal. It has just been recognised by the International Press Institute (IPI) for its journalism. IPI’s executive director, Barbara Trionfi, writes, “The Wire is a leading force in India’s digital news transformation and its commitment to quality, independent journalism is an inspiration to IPI members around the world.” She congratulates its staff for “their tremendous work in the service of critical reporting and press freedom”, and assures them that her organisation “will stand with them in the face of increasing political pressure.”

Thank you Barbara Trionfi and IPI, for such a strengthening thought. Siddharth Varadarajan spoke for the organisation when he said that although The Wire has paid a price for its independence in so many ways, “there is nothing like recognition from our peers in India and around the world to make this journey totally worth it.”

Readers write in…

RSS and Taliban?

Khozema Mansure writes from Toronto suggesting a piece comparing the RSS and the Taliban:

“I hope everyone at The Wire is safe. I am taking the liberty of making the following suggestion as it could be of considerable interest to your readers.

Perhaps one of your staff writers or one of your regular contributors like Avay Shukla, or Badri Raina or Prem Shankar Jha, could develop the following points further. Some of these will surely need additional research/insights and there will be yet others which have been overlooked. Of course there are very wide divergences too between the RSS and the Taliban, but the focus here is on the similarities. Comparisons, as will be evident, are from the standpoint of a ‘very curious social sciences inspired bystander’.

*Command and control, clearly defined hierarchy which does not tolerate internal or external dissent   Implicit in their beliefs is a deep and abiding faith in their superiority.

*Both are at crucial turning points in their respective journeys which will significantly impact different sections of vast swathes of humanity in Asia and beyond.

*For good or bad, both are severely riled by their opponents; to the extent that the good work done by both is overlooked/sidestepped on account of the Hindutva and Islamophobia prisms.

*Shorn of all the opprobrium cast on them, the kernel of their basic ideology harkens back to the very sincere and ‘pure spirit’ embodied by the likes of a Mother Teresa or Abdul Sattar Edhi…

*Cutting through the fat, how sobering is the realisation that despite all the noise and din, both organisations (again shorn of their Hindutva and Islamophobia prisms) are essentially about how best society should be organised!

*Both have been misconceived and wrongly branded by the popular media as Hindu and terrorist organisations on account of considerations other than what they actually stand for.

*Both have grassroots, disciplined (RSS perhaps more), ideologically-motivated cadres.

*Both have very clear vision and are bold and daring

I continue to be in the awe of the wonderful work The Wire is doing. Keep it up!”

Javed Akhtar. Photo: Ramesh lalwani/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0


Irony overload

Leo Levy from Brussels writes appreciatively about the irony inherent in the image used in the piece carried in the Science section, ‘How Do We Address Information Overload in the Scholarly Literature?’ (August 29): “The image chosen to illustrate the paper about information overload comes from a notorious far-right French intellectual, Renaud Camus (his name is credited under the picture). As  Wikipedia notes, he is the creator of the conspiracy theory of the ‘Great Replacement’, which claims that a global elite is colluding against the white population of Europe to replace them with non-European non-Christian people.

Although and just because Renaud Camus is as shameful as his best equivalents in India, I thought you would appreciate the irony of the choice of the picture! I seize the opportunity to thank you for your work. I have been reading The Wire for a long time and I know the importance of independent news. I valued highly the function of ombudswoman/man when it started to appear in our papers. But as you know, it has now completely disappeared in the European press.

What is information if it does not develop the capacity of the reader to reflect about information? That’s why I consider myself lucky to be able to still read your column (and A.S. Panneerselvan’s in The Hindu).

Taliban and women

Radhika Coomaraswamy, chairperson, and Roshmi Goswami, co-chairperson, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) (excerpts): “We are deeply concerned about what Taliban rule will mean in practice, especially for women and girls…The Taliban has given assurances that women would enjoy equal rights within the framework of Islam, including being able to work and receive education. They also gave the impression that they have become more moderate and that they are ready to be more inclusive and protect minority rights. Even though it appears to be an encouraging sign, life under the Taliban remains difficult to predict as they remain vague on rules and restrictions, and how Islamic law will be implemented…

We  call on the Taliban leadership to: Assure Afghan citizens, especially women and girls, security and safety and guarantee equality for all citizens; Promote and protect the rights of Afghan women and children and address the needs of victims of sexual and gender-based violence in the conflict; Women must be fully included at all levels of decision making and their voices must be heard; Protect the rights of minorities and the vulnerable in Afghan society; Abide by international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and facilitate humanitarian access;  Ensure safe passage to all Afghans who wish to leave.


Remembering Syed Ali Geelani

Ghulam Nabi Fai, secretary general, Washington-based World Kashmir Awareness Forum writes about Syed Ali Geelani, late chairman of the Tehreek-e-Hurriyat (excerpt):

Syed Ali Geelani was an intellectual, deep thinker, visionary, a brilliant and articulate scholar and above all an institution in himself. He was a giant in Kashmir’s turbulent history… In 1990 the winds of change blew across the world, destroying dictatorships and occupations, and the people of Kashmir also renewed their struggle for freedom…It was at this crucial juncture that Geelani Sahib emerged to present a much larger aspect of his leadership. He not only rekindled the issue afresh but also gave it a new vigour and meaning. The people of Kashmir will never forget the selfless contributions and tireless efforts of Geelani Sahib.


Finally, this observation from a reader of The Wire, Kalyani Menon-Sen: 

The horrors of punctuation, remember ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves”? This headline in today’s Wire — ‘The Impact of COVID-19 on Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives in West Bengal’ (September 8) — is almost as funny. But still good to see trafficking recognised as an anti-human act.

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