Ranjona Banerji: Privilege, Appropriation & Caste Bias in the Media

06 Oct,2020

By Ranjona Banerji


The question of caste in newsrooms has not been addressed in newsrooms. Now you can add any qualifications you like to soothe your conscience or paper over collective transgressions. Maybe apologetically: not been adequately addressed, has been marginally addressed. Or with faux outrage: my newsroom has hired one Dalit in the last 400 years. And so on.

But the fact remains. Caste has not been addressed in newsrooms. This includes inherent casteism in selection of news and portrayal of news. And far more damagingly, in the selection of candidates. The Dalit presence in Indian newsrooms is minuscule. It may have increased in recent years, but it is largely non-existent.

The gangrape and murder of a young Dalit woman in Hathras, with four upper caste men being the accused, has opened up many questions in Indian society. And one for the media is the Dalit question.

Several journalists, many of them women, have expressed the opinion that rape is an issue of women’s rights and “caste need not be brought into it”. This is an accepted upper caste, privileged way of thinking. You meet it at various crossroads: do not bring religion into it, do not bring politics into it.

Well-meaning as this sentiment sounds, it is deeply toxic. It tries to boil everything down to one factor when absolutely nothing in human life is bereft of various often contradictory factors. The fact the that woman was Dalit and the accused upper caste adds one more significant layer to the larger issue of sex-based violence and attacks on women.

I am giving these journalists the slim lifeline of the benefit of the doubt only because so many of us have internalised a privileged paternalistic approach to social oppression and discrimination. But it is not possible to forgive the underlying ignorance here. Everyone should know, by education or lived experience, that sexual assaults on women are an age-old form of suppression and oppression by privileged or majoritarian forces. By upper castes on lower castes in India, by conquering forces on indigenous peoples from the Americas to Australia, by invading armies across the planet. It took some years for it to filter into my head what exactly loosely used words like “rape and pillage” meant in history books, because they were books written by men. To the victor belong the spoils, the spoils very often being the licence to rape women.

As the Hathras incident proves once again, caste cannot be left out the equation when covering the incident. Since 1947, caste has remained our biggest shame and we have steadfastly refused to accept it, including within the media.

I give you two examples. The 1990 protests against the Mandal Commission, where parts of upper caste Indian society protested for days against job quotas in the Central government for socially backward castes. Death and mayhem were the results, with most of the privileged, mainstream media glorifying the protests against the underprivileged.

The second is the recurrent outburst against Dalit inclusion in elite education institutions like IIT. Where upper caste students insist that Dalits must eat separately, be prepared to be bullied and harangued and put up with all manner of discrimination because the upper castes feel that way.

I have worked in newsrooms during both these events. And with no Dalit presence in either, the general mood is that the inclusion of Dalits destroy “merit”, that reservations should be poverty-based not caste-based and that upper caste Hindus are badly done by because no one loves them and everyone loves Dalits and Muslims. These are journalists speaking, mind you. And that is why the news is spun the way it is: pro-upper caste, pro-Hindu.

It is another matter that “merit” is the most bogus argument ever. If indeed “merit” was the sole proprietorship of upper castes Hindus, India would not be in the current mess. And as for the media, well. Take a look around you. Most people who pass as journalists should not have even merited the first look at a job interview.

I’ve conducted a lot of those, by the way. And before all the HR nonsense entered newsrooms (and doubly so after HR nonsense actually), there is no way you can tell how a fresh candidate will pan out. You make a hunch, you give a test, you make a value judgment. An exam topper can be completely unsuited for journalism. A high-risk candidate may be the best you’ve ever hired. Merit has nothing to do with it. Nor have caste, privilege, birth and often education. Almost every bad journalist you see today will have been hired because their parents were important and influential, or they had a fancy education. Neither of those contribute to a person’s journalism quotient. At best, media house owners will use them to get non-journalism work done.

Sadly for me, my career ended before strong, feisty Dalit women and men entered mainstream journalism. In the Hathras case, they have called out privilege and appropriation. We are a long, long way from equal opportunity and non-discrimination.

But hopefully, some of us may have learnt when to rid ourselves of our mantle of privilege, and listen.

Meanwhile, here are two voices:



Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

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