Dr. B.R. Ambedkar
Chronicle of a diary's progress
by Chandan Mitra
[ Editor, The Pioneer daily, established in 1864, and published from Delhi and Lucknow]
My brother-in-law sounded quite flabbergasted on the telephone. "Are you launching an edition in Calcutta," he asked. "No. Certainly not now," I replied, puzzled. "Why then are copies of last Sunday's paper being distributed at street corners all over the city," he persisted. No idea, I had to confess. Flummoxed, I checked this out with our circulation manager and he, too, was unable to shed any light on this mysterious event.
During a subsequent telephone conversation, my brother-in-law pointed out that the main issue of The Pioneer was wrapped inside "something called Dalit Millennium". The mystery began to clear. Various Dalit organisations had asked us for extra copies of that day's edition. I recall we had printed a few thousand copies in addition to our normal run. Who took them and for what, I had never asked. Evidently, Dalit organisations in different parts of India decided to publicise our Millennium supplement containing exhaustive commentaries on the Dalit in Modern India. Articles for this special issue were organised by them and The Dalit Millennium, which appeared along with The Pioneer on Sunday, January 30, 2000, was also edited by Dalit writers (including Raja Shekhar Vundru, an IAS officer).
The idea of producing a Millennium issue of the Dalits, by the Dalits and for the Dalits came during a gathering at our office some time in late 1999. A group of Dalit intellectuals, including some IAS officers, had come to felicitate me for being the first mainstream newspaper in India to provide a weekly column to a Dalit writer. I was deeply touched by their spontaneous warmth and impressed with the lucidity of their perceptions and clarity of thought. While discussing the need to create space in the mainstream for Dalits to communicate and connect with other people, especially policy makers, it was proposed that one issue of our Millennium series be dedicated to them to reflect both their angst and aspirations. Dalit Millennium was a magnificent success and I received excellent feedback even from non-Dalit readers who, in any case, constitute the overwhelming majority of English newspaper subscribers. President K R Narayanan was presented the first copy of the supplement at a dignified ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan on Saturday, January 29, and he was very impressed with the sophistication of the new Dalit intelligentsia. I don't intend this to be a patronising remark. But, it is a fact that denial of access to education for centuries has handicapped the growth of a Dalit intelligentsia. As a result, Dalit intellectuals sometimes sound carping and shrill. Much of their argument gets drowned in the shrillness of their protest against an unjust and discriminatory system.
The Dalit Millenn-ium, however, was only the outcome of something else that happened precisely this week on the pages of The Pioneer. It was this Sunday two years ago that Chandrabhan Prasad's weekly column, Dalit Diary, was launched in our Agenda section. Now that he has penned nearly 100 diaries, it is time for me on behalf of the entire Pioneer family to felicitate him. I have been amazed by the response his column generates week after week despite its appearing in a relatively low circulation newspaper like ours. About a year ago, the mass circulation Vaarta of Andhra Pradesh began reproducing Chandrabhan's column and, from all accounts, it is a runaway success. So much so that he has established a huge network throughout that sprawling State which he visits quite often. In May, I am supposed to travel with him to Guntur to speak at a Dalit conclave expected to be attended by several thousand. I know for a fact that Dalit officers in all-India services spread across the country especially order copies of Sunday Pioneer. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh is an ardent reader of Chandrabhan's expositions. During my recent heli-hop with him, we spent about an hour discussing Chandrabhan's writings, ideas and commitment to securing a place of dignity for the Dalits. And they say that print is a sunset industry, that it doesn't make much impact any more, that cutting edge journalism only means using hidden cameras to trap people into committing indiscretions!
My first encounter with Chandrabhan was, however, rather ironic. I had been invited by residents of JNU hostels to a debate on the Mandal issue. V P Singh had just thrust Mandal down our reluctant throats and Delhi, in particular, had exploded. I was a high-decibel campaigner against Mandal and the since deceased Sunday Observer, which I then edited, spearheaded the media blitz against the Mandal Report. At the jam-packed late night meeting outside a JNU hostel (I forget precisely which one it was), the audience was broadly with me as I poured venom on the merchants of casteism. Then, somebody got up to ask an extremely inconvenient question. Very politely, he sought to know the exact number of Dalit journalists we had on our rolls and could I please also indicate their total number in the media. I managed to fudge my way through that night, but the question still haunts me. The questioner, as I learnt many years later, was none other than Chandrabhan himself. After taking over as editor of The Pioneer in 1996, I was impressed by one Chandrabhan Prasad who periodically sent me unsolicited articles with a Dalit perspective. The intellectual clarity and logical finesse of these were remarkable. We published many of them and I started my inquiries to locate him. Meanwhile, my friend B N Uniyal wrote a piece "In search of a Dalit journalist" for our opinion columns, posing the same question that Chandrabhan had asked me in 1990. Shortly thereafter, he came to see me along with Avijit Ghosh, a former colleague.
It was suggested we formalise Chandrabhan's writing arrangement and he start weekly column. I readily agreed. And Dalit Diary was born.
Tokenism, some might say. An attempt to salve a guilty upper caste conscience, others could argue. My Leftist friends, always on the lookout for conspiracy theories, have often wondered what is the "plot" behind my promotion of Dalit issues. How can an unabashed right-winger do this? Fortunately, they have not found an answer and they won't. In any case, a four-part series by Chandrabhan recently demonstrated that the status of Dalits has significantly worsened under 24 years of communist rule in West Bengal.
Dalit Diary began modestly as just some space earmarked for a huge section of the Indian people who have no forum through which to communicate with the intelligentsia. I believe every publication has a social responsibility to devote space for such endeavours while not necessarily agreeing with the opinions of the writers.
Chandrabhan has, through his sincerity and command over contemporary intellectual discourse, carved out a niche not just for himself but for his entire community. In the process he has made The Pioneer proud. I wish him many happy returns of this day.