The Dawn of Dalit-Led Media and Journalism

India is a diverse country with numerous languages, religions, indigenous communities, castes and ethnic cultures. But the same diversity is not reflected in popular culture, politics, media, sports, entrepreneurship and beyond. The representation is skewed and positions of power are mostly occupied by privileged identities. The diversity of India is thus hierarchical and exclusionary.

Leave aside the question of Bahujan media ownership, India’s mainstream media is one such area where representation is weak with hardly any employees who are from the Dalit, Adivasi and Other Backward Castes (OBC) communities.

However, empowered with access to the internet, social media platforms and with the increasing attention to the caste question, Dalit youth have recently rightfully been carving out space to represent themselves in media and journalism.

As this year marks the centennial anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s Mooknayak, I discuss the emerging new alternative platforms embraced by Dalits to raise their voice at a time when the mainstream media continues to be an exclusive space.

Beginning with Jyotiba Phule’s Satyashodhak, efforts by the Dalits and OBCs in holding the reins of the media to educate the society on caste issues were later on followed by Dr Ambedkar’s Mooknayak, Bahishkrut Bharat, Janata and Prabuddha Bharat. These newspapers were found to be highly impactful in creating awareness and mobilising people in the anti-caste movement.

Whilst covering caste atrocities, these newspapers also enabled Dalit intellectuals like Dr Ambedkar to communicate with the society at large and influence the shaping of public opinion towards caste and various other social issues and events. Hence, diversity in Indian media is important not just for the sake of diversity or representation of the oppressed, but also because their presence contributes to ongoing social movements and subsequently drives social change.

Also read: ‘Bhimayana’: Why You Should Be Reading This Anti-Caste Narrative

Even after 70 years of independence, diversity in the Indian media is nowhere close to what could be deemed as inclusive. A recent Oxfam and NewsLaundry study revealed that the percentage of people from the upper caste holding leadership positions is 100% in Hindi television news; 89.3% in English television news; 91.7% in English newspapers; 87.5% in Hindi newspapers; 84.2% in digital media; and 72.7% in news magazines. And the survey reports the complete absence of Dalits among the decisive positions in India’s news media. Even anchors, panelists and writers are predominantly from upper castes. Except for Hindi newspaper Amar Ujala, the percentage of anchors and writers from upper castes reporting on caste issues in India is more than 50% in the mainstream media.

This is problematic because decades of affirmative action (reservations) has also proved to be unfruitful in achieving inclusion of the oppressed and the underprivileged in several domains. It is also worrisome because, as discussed, this leaves out a large share of oppressed people who need a platform to represent themselves.

Enabled by technology and enhanced educational levels, however, this challenge is being creatively dealt by the current generation of Dalits.

With social media, the ability to communicate with larger audiences has grown unprecedentedly. Social media platforms have spread widely across the country through mobile phones (being the largest medium) which are supported by cheaper internet data packages. In effect, these developments have enabled users to gain a wider outreach with minimum material requirements.

Thus, vexed with the existing system that is ignorant and apathetic towards the marginalised lives and their representation, many Dalit movements, organisations and individuals themselves have created several platforms on social media and shed light on their invisibilisation. Over the past few years, these platforms, in the form of Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and Instagram accounts, have resonated the voice of Dalits and contributed to ongoing social movements.

Round Table India, Dalit Dastak, Dalit History Month, Velivada, Dalit Camera, Dr BR Ambedkar’s Caravan, Dalit Feminist, Dalit Women Fight and The Dalit Voice are some of the well-known examples of online pages and social media pages that strive to keep the anti-caste discourse alive. These platforms are followed by thousands of people and cumulatively the number would be in lakhs.

They have gained a significant level of virtual reach to educate people about the caste discourse, and also act as nodes to organise social movements. These platforms, with their activities in publishing or sharing content such as articles, memoirs, archives, Ambedkar’s writings, videos, and memes, have been successful in reviving Dalit journalism which aims at eradicating the caste system. They also share information about other organisations working for a similar ideological cause and share notifications of important, virtual and physical, events so as to promote active participation.

Also read: Where do I Place Ambedkar at My Home?

Some of the recent events like Bhima Koregaon violence and the suicide of PhD scholar Rohit Vemula, who has become a contemporary Dalit icon, have played a role in triggering the anti-caste movement and mobilising educated youth. This re-energisation may have also resulted in the creation of these platforms that acts as the alternative to mainstream media that shamelessly trivialised Vemula’s suicide by questioning his identity as a Dalit.

We often hear sweeping statements like ‘caste doesn’t exist anymore’, ‘it’s just a part of modern India’s past’, ‘there’s no caste discrimination or untouchability in our India’ and ‘there’s no caste in urban areas, it’s limited to villages these days’. These are baseless statements but are often propagated in the mainstream media. Even though such propaganda is constantly challenged by anti-caste scholars through their research, such casteism always finds a way to be seen and heard – all thanks to the skewed representation problem.

There is an absence of adequate media coverage on caste atrocities and discrimination in contemporary India. The emerging Dalit media platforms – with their increasing popularity and reach – are powerful elements not only to carry Dr Ambedkar’s legacy in sustaining the anti-caste movement but also because they have the potential to re-imagine the scope of Dalit representation in the media beyond tokenistic and patronising politics.

Goutham Raj Konda is an independent researcher with a postgraduate degree in Urban Policy and Governance from TISS, Mumbai.

Featured image credit: Pixabay/Illustration: LiveWire