In these days of heightened sensibilities, a word, a phrase, a description can sometimes set off a storm. Even the most careful publication finds it difficult to traverse the minefield of politically correct language. was reminded of this in the past month when, for an excerpt of the autobiography of Eknath Awad, translated by Jerry Pinto, the writer was described as a “Dalit Mang activist”. That description was taken from the jacket of the book. It was not an invention of the desk at Yet, a reader took offence at this description, saying that Awad was much more than that. He also accused of making similar mistakes in the past, such as referring to BR Ambedkar as a “Dalit icon”. He asked why did not call Jawaharlal Nehru a “Brahmin icon” or Anand Patwardhan a “Brahmin filmmaker”.

The logic of the latter part of his argument is unfathomable as neither Nehru earlier nor Patwardhan now identified themselves as Brahmins, nor do Brahmins look up to them because of their caste identity. On the contrary, in today’s polarised times, Nehru is pilloried by Hindutva adherents, who include Brahmins, while Patwardhan, given the content of his films, is hardly likely to be a poster boy of the caste into which he was born.

That said, the reader does have a point about the shorthand that we tend to use in journalism to describe people. We need to pause and consider whether the prefix “Dalit” is being used too loosely and automatically? I am glad that these comments led to have a formal discussion in the newsroom about work towards framing editorial norms on this and related issues.

This needs to be done not because of the June Bombay High Court directive to the government in June to replace the term “Dalit” in official documents with “Scheduled Caste” and suggesting that the media too should be asked to do this. Subsequently, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sent an advisory to all private television news channels to stop using the term “Dalit” in news stories.

Such advice to the media is questionable. Even if implemented, it is unlikely to change the objective reality of being a Dalit in India. In fact, it is not that different from an earlier regulation that prohibited the use of Hindu or Muslim while reporting on communal riots. The media was supposed to say “minority community” and “majority community”. That cumbersome and disingenuous way of hiding an ugly reality has long since been discarded.

Tone, factual accuracy

I would argue that it is not whether we mention Hindu and Muslim in the context of communal riots that matters, but the tone and factual accuracy of our reporting. The media has contributed to inflaming communal tensions when it exaggerates, misreports and editorialises and not because it states that the clash was between Hindus and Muslims. Similarly, it is not the use of the term Dalit that is pertinent, but the context within which it is used.

TM Krishna, in his December 16 column in, makes several useful observations on this issue. He asks why Thol Thirumavalavan is often referred to as a “Dalit leader” and argues that such a description limits our understanding of the person. “I could not but wonder why Thirumavalavan is not seen as a person of deep thought and understanding beyond the Tamil circles,” he writes. “And why even in Tamil Nadu, he is bottled in as a Dalit leader. He is certainly a Dalit leader and we need him in that role, but shouldn’t he also be the leader for the rest of us?”

He goes on to argue: “Ideas emerging from the marginalised are always read and heard in terms of subaltern rights, emancipation and demands for their own equality. These sensibilities are at the foundation of their perspectives, but there is a universality about them that we conveniently choose to ignore. When Thirumavalavan speaks of equality, it is not just about Dalits, it is about humanity and larger togetherness.”

Yet, if people – writers, artists, politicians, thinkers – identify themselves as Dalit, is it wrong for the media to use that description? Does that term limit them or is it societal biases that do that? On the other hand, if we stopped caging people into a singular identity, as Krishna suggests, would they gain recognition for their contribution outside the label? There are no obvious or easy answers to these questions.

In some ways, the debate is reminiscent of the battles feminists have fought, and continue to fight, against sexist language and ways of expression that erase the existence of women. They asked, for instance, why the word “man” was automatically assumed to represent all of humanity, when the other half of humanity is “woman”. Also, why journalists were called “newsmen”, women referred to as “eves”, particularly in headlines, and the pronoun “he” automatically used for everyone, man or women. The odd “eve” still creeps in. But by and large, because feminists articulated their objections to language that stereotypes, infantilises or erases women’s existence, some change has taken place.

Diversity in newsroom

Another issue raised by some readers in this context is about diversity in the newsroom in terms of caste. We should add creed and gender. Diversity in the people who people our newsrooms can make a difference, yet only if they are democratically run and those with a different perspective are given a voice. The gender diversity now prevalent in much of the English language media came about by chance as many more women entered journalism. The same cannot be said of caste. Surveys have consistently pointed to the absence of caste diversity, particularly in the English language media. We must work to change that.

If some Dalits are asking questions about the use of language in the media, that is a good thing. Publications will never be able to please all Dalit groups all the time. There is bound to be someone, somewhere who will raise an objection. But the conversation must begin.