This is a guest post by SAJAer Arthur Dudney, who's currently doing graduate work in South Asian Studies at Columbia University. He asks: Why do Indian publications generally deride or ignore Dalits - lower-caste Hindus - when they could be courting them? (He's also provided some useful resources at the end of his piece). SAJAforum welcomes your feedback.
According to a recent BBC poll, most Indians think that “caste is a barrier to social harmony.” Dalits – as many of those formerly called “Untouchables” now prefer to be known – often find themselves and their political aims derided or ignored by the media. Nonetheless, there has recently been more coverage of their concerns in the mainstream media, which has often been accused of promoting an upper caste agenda.
The most controversial Dalit issue in India today is the constitutionally mandated reservation system, in which certain institutions are required to reserve a percentage of places for people from disadvantaged groups. (A good introduction — from a pro-reservation perspective — is this Indian Express piece by Yogendra Yadav)
A recent development in the reservations debate provides a good illustration of reporting on Dalit issues:
In The Times of India on April 28, 2006 an article appeared on front page above the fold with a striking photograph. Half a dozen medical students wearing white coats are holding traditional brooms in front of India Gate. They are protesting the government’s announcement that certain institutions, including medical colleges, would now be subject to quotas. A banner overhead reads “YOUTH FOR EQUALITY SAYING NO TO RESERVATION” and the students are mostly smiling, although the article repeatedly refers to how “angry” they are. The caption for the photograph is innocent: “Is this our future? Medical students seem to pose this question to HRD minister Arjun Singh during their stir against quota in New Delhi on Thursday.” Other media outlets provided a large amount of coverage of the students with their brooms; however, it was run without acknowledgement of the intent of the students’ stunt.
What did the brooms actually mean? As I read it, the symbol is an insult and a vicious one at that, equivalent to telling African-Americans that they should be picking cotton instead of attending a university. The Times of India’s caption is deliberately ambiguous — it suggests that the students are worried about their job prospects or something like that — even though the brooms unambiguously express the opinion that people whose groups are associated with menial labor should not be doctors.