It is a commonplace observation that the media struggles to understand and report on minority groups. This is not unique to India; it is so the world over. Editors, reporters and opinion writers rarely have an awareness of what is happening among the lives of minorities, economic, social and religious. The absence of diversity in the newsrooms makes its own contribution to this inadequate understanding.
Bread and butter reporting covers “the middle”, which is usually also the majority. Publications cover minorities only when there is a crisis event.
This has been in some evidence in the reporting of the violence against Dalits and then the Dalit anger in Maharashtra over the past 10 days. Reporters in all outlets struggled to make sense of it. At times prejudices and agendas came to the surface. (There was prejudice expressed in homes, offices and on social media. Fortunately, there was the occasional reporting and comment on this as well.) In this case, both the events and the larger issues involved were themselves complex, making it difficult to give readers and viewers a comprehensive view with all the nuance.
As is usual in these times, such subtleties did not bother the more widely watched among the English news channels. Their usual prejudices were strengthened by their constant need to protect the ruling dispensations in Maharashtra and the Centre, and they used these prejudices to target their new object of dislike: Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani.
Scroll.in did do a decent job in all respects, though on one or two occasions it seemed to struggle to be on top of a rapidly unfolding set of events.
The Bhima Koregaon news story
In one of the earliest reports on the evening of January 1, a brief story by a reporter of Scroll.in spoke of “people with saffron flags” attacking Dalit visitors to the memorial at Bhima Koregaon near Pune that commemorates the British-Peshwa battle of 1818, which Dalits see as marking Mahar resistance to Peshwa rule.
The follow-up stories on Scroll on the morning of January 3 were of two kinds. One brief story reported the anger of Dalits from Mumbai who had been to Bhima Koregaon on January 1 and who had been attacked on the road on their way back. The second story was a longer one and a report from the ground. The main part of this report from Bhima Koregaon had extensive interviews with people from the village (essentially Marathas) who complained of being subject to violence by the Dalits visiting the memorial, though they said they had traditionally welcomed their annual visitors.
Readers who depended only on Scroll.in for their information would have been confused with these stories. What was the violence then about and what was the background?
It was only in the latter and shorter part of the ground report that there was mention of violence that had taken place earlier in the village of Wadu Budruk, a village a few kilometres to the west of Bhima Koregaon, where the samadhi or tomb of a Mahar icon from medieval India had been vandalised. This violence had set the stage for the subsequent violence. Towards the end, the report also spoke of the hand of upper caste Hindutva groups – not Marathas – whipping up anger and then attacking the Dalits.
The complexities of the crisscrossing tensions were explained in an insightful article that was published later on January 3. The opinion piece tried to put everything together, the Dalit anger, the Maratha assertion of recent years and the rise to power of a tiny crust of RSS/Brahmin ideologues. The local violence in Bhima Koregaon remained explained, but with this piece the readers would have had a better idea of the many axes of conflict in Maharashtra, the new targeting of Dalits and the efforts to build an alliance between the Marathas and Dalits.
Over the next two days, a new set of events and issues cropped up for reporting and analysis. As Dalits called for a shutdown in Maharashtra, which was most effective in Mumbai, Scroll.in published a couple of articles speaking of and explaining Dalit anger in the city, that it was not “just” about a battle fought 200 years ago but about experiencing continuing discrimination and now being subject to new aggression by a ruling Brahmin (“Peshwai”) class.
These stories (this one and this one) were necessary for when the hartals proved effective in many parts of the city, the prejudices and ignorance of upper caste and upper class Mumbaikars came to the fore on social media, and of course on TV. The Scroll.in reports did a good job of giving a voice to the protestors.
An article that I found particularly relevant was the one that dissected five sets of prejudices and myths about Bhima Koregaon, Dalit oppression, protests and hartals. These are prejudices that many upper caste upper class urban Indians hold and such critiques are useful. (The Letters column soon after the violence against Dalits was a good illustration of the views of members of the dominant groups).
There was also an article with links to seven interesting pieces put out by other publications. This is something that Scroll.in does every day on the day’s events. It also does so when there are major events. This is unusual for a publication since most media houses think only what they publish is worth reading. They only need to acknowledge the articles put out by others when a follow-up is needed. Everything else must be mediocre.
As the week progressed, Scroll.in published a number of reports and analyses, all of which enriched our understanding of what was going on. Still, it would seem that the publication must as a matter of routine regularly cover issues relating to minorities of all kinds. That may be the only way to develop a deeper understanding of the lives of minorities. A very diverse editorial team would be an important pre-condition for such an outcome.
At a time when members of the ruling groups tell us that “homogeneity is inherent to most of our cultural traditions”, it has never been more important to have regular in-depth coverage of minority issues.
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