This is the English translation of a speech given by Jeya Rani, a journalist for over 15 years from Tamil Nadu at the Network of Women in Media in India (NWMI) conference last week. NWMI is an informal collective of women journalists across the country.
Jeya spoke of her experiences as a Dalit woman journalist and the caste, class, gender bias in mainstream media. The speech was given in Tamil and has been translated by Kavitha Muralidharan.
As responsible journalists and people with creative instincts, let us imagine an interesting scenario. What if tomorrow a law is enacted insisting that all the media houses in the country should prioritise and publish/telecast only caste related atrocities. Let us remember this is just a wild imagination. What would happen then? What if there is an emergency like situation? What if a media house is threatened with the cancellation of license if it fails to adhere to the law? Again, this is just an imagination. We all know what would happen. The media houses will be forced to expose a caste atrocity every second. They will have to expose caste related violence every minute. But they would not be daunted by the task.
Even as I stand here speaking to you, somewhere someone is being killed or raped, humiliated or outraged, just because she or he was born in a lower caste.
The ‘not so changing’ statistics of National Crime Records Bureau say that a Dalit is assaulted every two hours in India. So we would get breaking news every two hours.
At least three Dalit women are raped every 24 hours. Call it exclusive, mask the face of the woman or you can even leave it unmasked since she is a Dalit and keep breaking the news.
Two Dalits are killed every 24 hours. Two Dalit houses are burnt down. There would be no dearth of breaking news or good TRP ratings. In an era where violence incites more sensationalism than a porn video, commercialising Dalit atrocities will only be beneficial. As long as the six lakh villages in India are segregated as oors (where the dominant castes live) and cheris (where the Dalits live), as long as the hands of dominant castes write and enforce the living laws for Dalits through khap panchayats, there would be no scarcity of news related to violence against Dalits.
If there were such a law, as we are now imagining, breaking news would become the norm of the day. Like channels created war rooms to encourage the war against Pakistan, there would be caste clash rooms, violence rooms, untouchability rooms, protection of cow rooms and ghar wapsi rooms.
I wish this would happen for us to really understand how bad the caste domination is in India today. To many of us, caste atrocities are just what we hear or see. We never get a complete idea about what really happens in terms of caste atrocities throughout the country. It is like blind people touching the elephant. I believe the country’s indifference to the caste atrocities largely arises from this blind men and the elephant idea.
Now let’s go back to the real world.
So now we know the violence against the Dalits are like Akshaya Patra to the news hungry media. The thousands of print media houses and hundreds of television houses will always have something new to give its readers and viewers. But how does the media actually see the atrocities against Dalits? What is the space, in terms of percentage, given to violence on Dalits in a day, a week, a month and a year by the media houses?
Crimes against Dalits see a rise of 10-20% every year. In a just society, the media’s space to violence against Dalits should have correspondingly increased too. But has it happened? We all know it has not. Now let us understand why it has not happened.
Just like in a society where we have rigid caste hierarchies, the media and journalists too operate on the basis of caste hierarchies. The fourth pillar of democracy has come crumbling down under the pressure of caste hierarchies when it should have stood upright holding the torch of justice.
There is a term called oozhikaalam in Tamil. The closest English word to it is apocalypse. As a responsible journalist, I would call this era the apocalypse of the media world. Because, it is precisely this media world that controls the entire movement of society. The media decides what should happen today, what I should be discussing today, how I should think on an issue, what decision to take, what to eat or what to buy. The media’s influence on individual decisions is largely conditioned by the one-dimensional approach of the powers-to-be. What media sows in the morning is harvested by society in the evening. What media writes every day becomes the judgment on anything and everything in the following days.
The mainstream media is not for the poor, not for the oppressed. It has carved its kingdom out of loyalty to the powers, to bureaucracy, to domination. It is neither for minorities nor for women and children. Most certainly not for the Dalits. Over 95% of owners of the mainstream media including print and television come from dominant caste backgrounds. About 70-80% of the topmost positions are occupied by dominant caste men. Dalits don’t even constitute 1% when it comes to deciding power in the country’s media. When the diversity of media is butchered, how can Dalits and the oppressed expect any justice or even space from them?
English media, once in a while, does carry news on caste atrocities. But the possibility of even carrying anything remotely connected to violence on Dalits is ruled out completely in the vernacular media. Dalit journalists invariably end up in the vernacular media due to various factors. That includes their family and societal factors. Most Dalit journalists are first generation graduates. They lack the ‘desired colour’ and they lack proficiency in English. Vernacular media accommodates them but treats them badly. They are not considered on par with journalists from other communities when it is time for promotions or salary hikes. And this I also say from my own experience.
After ten years of media experience, the channel I worked for paid me a meagre Rs 18,000. I was a scriptwriter for a daily show, worked through days and nights and had earned respect for my work. But when it was time for salary hike, I did not even get a 100 rupee raise. A junior employee, with less work load, but obviously from a different caste, was given a greater hike. Her salary was Rs 40,000. This is what Dalits face in media. They have only two options: to shrink themselves to fit the space media offers them or to leave the profession altogether.
When I was a student of journalism, I had written a story on the struggle of Dalit labourers in Manjolai Tea Estate and the state violence against them, which resulted in 17 deaths.
The story had appeared in my university magazine and after that, I almost faced suspension. That was my first story and the experience fuelled my passion to write more against caste related atrocities. But when I transitioned to mainstream media looking for employment opportunities, I was in for a rude shock. There were two things that acted as speed breakers. For a vernacular journalist to go about working on socio-political stories was considered unwanted. Unless there is a mass murder, violence against Dalits was never taken into account. All my ideas for stories were trashed. I was seen as something of a rebel.
As soon as I began my career, in a matter of few months I ended up as a reporter for a women’s magazine. I suggested a serial on women panchayat presidents. The idea was trashed several times as not being fit for a women’s magazine, but I kept persisting. Finally when it was accepted I made a list of five leaders I could meet and set up my first meeting with Menaka.
She was then a panchayat president with Oorapakkam panchayat in Kanchipuram district. I had no idea that she was a Dalit.
I had wanted to speak of the challenges she faced as a woman. Menaka was speaking about the challenges she faced as a Dalit. She told me the members of dominant caste never allowed her to sit in the chair meant for the panchayat president. She was receiving death threats. They wanted her to quit her post. She had filed a complaint against police station, but there was no action on her complaint.
After spending a day with her and gathering her experiences, I went back to the office next day and filed my story. It was trashed again. It was apparently not suitable for the magazine. My editor insisted I write recipes instead. I distinctly remember the evening. Under huge mental pressure I was walking on the road contemplating if I should quit the job that wanted me to write only recipes. Something in the posters of the evening newspapers caught my eye. The posters screamed about the murder of a panchayat president and I was trembling when I bought the paper. My worst fears had come true. Menaka was murdered for sitting on the chair in the panchayat office.
I took the newspaper to my editor and fought with her. She was not even slightly rattled. All she would say was to finish my recipe assignment. I went to Oorapakkam without my office’s permission that night and took part in Menaka’s funeral. After coming back to Chennai I spoke to the editor of an investigative magazine published by the same group and he agreed to publish Menaka’s interview. After all, it was her last interview before being murdered. It had news value now. I couldn’t work in the group any longer. After much thought, I understood how the media worked. I need the economic independence of the mainstream job. And I need to take anti-caste journalism forward. I understood this is not possible in mainstream media. I made my space in the alternative media.
Dalit Murasu, a magazine with the sole aim of annihilating caste, became my forte. I wrote on caste issues that I could never write in the mainstream media. But I published them under different pseudonyms. My articles in Dalit Murasu over a span of 15 years have been published as Jaathiyatravalin Kural (the voice of a casteless woman) and have been well received.
This is my story. My personal story. I am aware that not all Dalit journalists are as lucky as I have been. Even if my ideas have been rejected in all editorial meetings, I kept suggesting ideas on caste atrocities. I made it a point to do so. I stopped worrying about what people would think of me. I reminded myself that my duty as a journalist was to be a voice to the voiceless. But if and when a Dalit journalist writes on Dalit issues or even speaks about it, their colleagues call it caste affinity or caste pride. How can a Dalit feel proud about her or his caste?
The effort of Dalit journalists to record the violence against Dalits is only an expression of their anti-caste emotion, not an attempt to promote their own caste. But my Dalit colleagues, affected by such baseless criticisms, would not show the same interest in caste issues as they would in a political issue. Several of them had to even conceal their identity and live with that. It is shameful that media houses have still not created a free and fair atmosphere where the Dalits can work without any kind of inhibition.
After all that they have gone through, after their voices were throttled into silence, how can a Dalit journalist even speak? Caste violence is never an issue for journalists from other castes. Because they are related by blood to those who spawn the violence outside the media houses they work for.
Many of us would know about journalist Ajaz Ashraf’s research on Dalit journalists for The Hoot. He says the Dalit journalists wanted to empower their communities and throw some light on Dalit issues through the work they do. He also says there are more Dalit journalists in Hindi and vernacular media when compared to English media. But there is also a lot of discrimination in the Hindi and and in the vernacular media. He says a lot of Dalit journalists quit jobs that neither offer them security or development. They begin looking for government jobs. Many Dalit journalists are left with no choice.
When Ajaz was doing this research, he got in touch with me. I was then with a lifestyle magazine as its editor. Something he refused to believe. He kept asking me how can a Dalit journalist be an editor of a lifestyle magazine. I can understand he was pleasantly surprised. Due to several personal reasons, I couldn’t answer his questions. But I was not surprised about his reaction. For me it was easy to become an editor of a lifestyle magazine. But despite my fieldwork of 15 years as a socio-political journalist, I can’t think of becoming an editor for a socio-political news magazine or paper. I don’t see that happening even after ten years.
Of course I don’t say this in a negative way. I place before you the reality of this society. The society is still not bold enough to hand over the responsibility of exposing socio-political issues to a Dalit journalist. You can have no shred of doubt that if handed over such a responsibility, a socially conscious editor would expose the caste hegemony in a mainstream area.
We also know what happened in Khairlanji in 2006. Why hadn’t the violence against Khairlanji by an entire community become as important to media as say, a Nirbhaya. Or like any other violence against women from other communities? Why hadn’t Kairlanji made headlines?
Today, media organisations find news value even in a non-news item. But they are still not concerned about manual scavenging in this era, about cooks refusing to cook for Dalit children in schools, or about Dalits displaced for urbanisation. These atrocities are never capable of hitting the headlines in front page. We have seen screaming headlines when an Indian is racially attacked elsewhere.
How could the same media turn a blind eye to the racist attacks in the name of caste happening right under its nose?
In a conference against racism at Durban in 2001, Dalits demanded that caste be ratified as racism. In its response, Indian government said caste was an internal issue and would be dealt with internally.
To shrink an issue that has been alive for 2000 years now, that has trampled on all human rights, that has made every Dalit child born to bear the symbol of slavery on its back as an internal issue is an outrageously blatant human rights violation.
In Tamil Nadu, hundreds of discriminatory practices still exist and thrive. From two-tumbler system to honour killing, the discriminatory practices only keep growing. Our villages are still divided as oor and cheri. The discrimination faced by Dalits there has existed for over thousand years now. Dalits have been killed for refusing to do menial jobs, for wearing slippers, for going to school. They suffer punishments worse than death, in these days when consciousness about human rights has become sharper.
A Hindu woman made two Dalit men eat human excreta when they refused to do a job she wanted them to do. This happened at Thinniyam in Tamil Nadu some years back. When this hatred is passed through generations, how can it be shrunk to an ‘internal issue’?
Caste is not a civil issue. It is a national issue. It is a disease that has affected national integration. But caste violence is seen as crimes by individuals. Leave alone the national media, even the local media is not interested in a caste atrocity.
I strongly believe Rohith Vemula’s letter would not have got the attention it did if it was not written in English or if it had lacked that poetic language. When Rohith Vemula’s death was being debated across the country, a similar suicide happened in Aasanur at Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. Ayyaru, a Dalit youth, decided to end his life unable to bear the caste violence inflicted on him. He too wrote a letter. Ayyaru worked as a peon in a panchayat office. Because he was a Dalit, the panchayat president Shanthi and her husband forced him to clean toilets. In his letter Ayyaru writes, ‘Fear is a drop of poison.’
The letter did not create even one percent of the impact that Rohith’s letter did. Because Ayyarus are murdered often. Murdered by ordinary people like us. No media makes news out of atrocities faced by Dalits in villages where they are forced to live in cheris. It is not even seen as a caste violation. It is not seen as a violation worthy of our intervention. Society recognised injustice in Rohith’s letter but it could not recognise the injustice in Ayyaru’s letter. Many of us are not even aware of Ayyaru’s suicide. Like he says, the fear Dalits carry in their hearts for years now is a drop of poison. When it grows, it becomes an ocean. This fear is not something that plagued Ayyaru as an individual. It is the fear transferred through various hands to reach Ayyaru. By his death, Ayyaru hands it over to the next generation.
In several revolutions and changes that have happened in independent India, this fear remains conspicuous, unconquered. What is our role and responsibility as journalists towards this fear factor that seems to have gripped the Dalits?
How qualified should Dalits be to seek the attention of the media? Why isn’t the media concerned about Ayyaru as it was about Rohith if it opposes caste related deaths?
On the day we begin reading Ayyaru’s letters, on the day we begin demanding justice for Ayyaru’s death, on the day we oppose violations by people like us, we can be sure that the media is actually changing. That it has begun scrubbing itself up.
I believe a journalist’s first and foremost qualification is being casteless. If journalists can practice equality in all other platforms, they can as well do it in caste too. They should become casteless and work against caste. Dalits expect non-Dalits to work for annihilation of caste just as we would expect men to practice gender equality. Sadly Dalit journalists are sometimes used to document caste violations. To ask Dalits to involve themselves in annihilation of caste is as funny as asking women to practice gender equality.
We should work on strategies that will bring more news on Dalit issues into our newsrooms. By doing so, we should bring their travails into light. There can be no second opinion on this. But how do we go about it? How many journalists and organisations are pro-reservation? How can we expect private players to grant reservation when government media has not done so?
Journalist organisations should make just representation as one of their demands along with other rights. They should come forward to monitor violations against Dalit journalists and ensure action in the event of such violation. The field should become more open and independent for Dalit journalists. The workplace should offer them dignity and respect. I am sure that organisations like NWMI can take a lead role in this.
Imagine the multiple challenges faced by Dalit journalists – they are first generation graduates, they carry the centuries of shame in their hearts, they learn English the hard way, the dress up well and enter into offices as a personality of their own and once again they face discriminations there. Yet they stick on for money and something more. To document the plight of people like them. Isn’t this a challenge enough? The research by Ajaz concludes that Dalit journalists face this challenge.
Change might happen only after several generations. Till then, national and mainstream media will not accommodate Dalits. The vacuum has to be filled by non-Dalit journalists who believe in equality. It is the primary responsibility of the non-Dalits to transform this country as casteless. To understand the difference between a crime and an atrocity, they should wean themselves from oors and set their foot in cheris. If you want to see the violations faced by Dalits, the discrimination suffered by them, you cannot see them with a naked eye. You need the vision of castelessness to see it and to understand it.
This is my final appeal to everyone here. If you identify yourself as a journalist, be casteless. When everyone who believes in caste starts believing in the annihilation of caste, the miracle that I am now speaking of will happen. It certainly will. Some day.
Jeya Rani is a journalist for over 15 years from Tamil Nadu.
Her Tamil original has been translated into English by Kavitha Muralidharan.