Where are the dalit journalists?
By Chandra Bhan Prasad
Why is it that from a population of over 205 million Dalits, roughly equivalent to the combined population of France, UK, and Germany, there is not a single Dalit with a press card in the main stream media?
Some five years back, on November 16, 1996 to be precise, BN Uniyal published his "In Search Of a Dalit Journalist", in The Pioneer. Mr. Uniyal was confronted with a 'strange' query from a foreign correspondent who wanted to meet a Dalit journalist. The foreign journalist wanted to seek the opinion of a Dalit journalist over the reported dispute between Kansi Ram and few journalists. Mr. Uniyal wanted to help his foreign counterpart, and thus begun his hunt for a Dalit journalist.
He spoke to a number of editors, media personalities, social activists, but could not find one. He wrote, "Suddenly I realized that in all the 30 years I had worked as a journalist, I had never met a fellow journalist who was a Dalit; no, not one. And worse still, was the thought that during all those years it had never occurred to me that there was something so seriously amiss in the profession, something which I should have noticed as a journalist. In all these years I have traveled almost every district of the country in the company of numerous journalists and met hundreds of others in different in different cities and towns and yet do not remember having met any Dalit journalist".
His queries at Delhi's Press Club too turned futile, and finally he examined the Accreditation Index, 1996, of the Press Information Bureau. The Index contained 686 journalists, in which, 454 bore their Caste surnames, but of those none was a Dalit. Of the remaining 232 names, Mr. Uniyal checked out 47 names at random basis, and none of them turned out to be a Dalit.
I myself have studied in JNU, know a lot many people in Delhi, but barring one Dalit who worked for Observer of Business & Politics [now closed] I am yet to meet a Dalit who is a journalist in Delhi. But I believe there could still be one or two Dalit journalists in Delhi, who may have camouflaged their identities for the sake of survival.
I still remember that memorable day when The Pioneer had carried Mr. Uniyal's piece, and expected a heated debate in media. But nothing of that sort happened. In January last year, when The Pioneer had given its eight-page Millennium supplement to us bring out a special Dalit Millennium supplement, we approached Mr. Uniyal to write a piece. He requested us to repeat his November 16 article with following note: " The article reproduced above first appeared in The Pioneer in November 1996, but was totally ignored by our journalistic establishment. No editor, columnist or commentator, no professional association like The Editors Guild and no public organization like Press Council took any notice of it. None felt aghast or alarmed at the situation described in the article.
It did not provoke a debate. No one felt there was a need for making special efforts to draw qualified Dalits into the media".
The Pioneer's Dalit Millenium Supplement, which contained Uniyal's November 1996 article with his note, was published on January 30, 2001, but till date no editor, columnist, or any other non-Dalit public organization has reflected upon Uniyal's quest. We, as a small group of Dalit activists, took upon ourselves to draft a memorandum, where we quoted extensively the American experience of affirmative actions in media, and posted a copy to each major media establishment in Delhi. But, barring The Pioneer, no one responded.
The Pioneer has been the only newspaper to start the first weekly column on Dalits, authored by Dalits. The Dalit Diary begun on April 4, 1999, and since then, over 100 articles have appeared, but barring one or two instances, no one has taken any note of it.
However, it is all together a different question that within a year, word spread about the Dalit column in The Pioneer, and a number of Dalit organizations from all across the India are subscribing for The Sunday Pioneer. In fact, the Telugu daily Vaartha, [second largest circulated Telugu daily newspaper] reproduces the Pioneer Dalit Diary every Tuesday and the most popular Dalit web site [ambedkar.org] too flashes Dalit Diary every week. Needless to add, the Dalit Diary is being translated in several Indian languages.
The big question before us is: why from a population of over 20.59 Crore Dalits [roughly equivalent to the combined population of France, UK, Germany], there is not a single Dalit in main stream media with a Press-Card? This question needs some credible explanations, and the explanation has to come from editors/columnists/commentators of the mainstream media establishments. Further, why did, barring Uniyal, no regular columnist or editor ever took up this question for a nationwide discourse, particularly when we have been posing this question since 1996?
The Dalits' near total absence [read exclusion] from could owe to many factors. The non-Dalit commentator may say that there are no 'qualified' Dalits available! Then question arises as what kind of society we live in where from a particular social segment, which has been historically excluded from the formal notion of citizenship in the Chatur-Varna Order, there is not a single Dalit journalist? Is it due to a long legacy of hatred/exclusion against/of Dalits, or due to the failure read success] of the masters of society who have been unable to create a Social Order where inclusion of Dalits could not become a reality, or it is due Dalits' inability to sneak into the zealously guarded fortress of the media world, or a combination of all the above factors?
If India's intellectual 'class' has failed to include Dalits in the media world, or cannot come out with credible explanations over the question of Dalits' exclusion, what right do they have to speak from a high moral pedestal about unworthy politicians, or about practice of Untouchability in the countryside? To me, it seems the Indian media is still prisoner of the Chatur-Varna worldview, which we can establish if media hawks are prepared for an open debate?