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Sensation and sympathy

By S Anand

Dalits can figure in contemporary media only under two conditions: when they are pushed to doing something dramatic and spectacular (like burning a bogey of the Deccan Queen to protest the Khairlanji killings), or when a bleeding-heart publication carries a sad story on "suffering" dalits. But daily atrocities against dalits and democratic assertions of civil rights by dalits are not covered

May 21, 2002. Murugesan and Ramasamy, two dalits in Thiniyam village in Tiruchirapalli district, Tamil Nadu, were branded with hot iron rods and forced to feed each other human excreta by an OBC Thevar family of the village. For weeks, the news was not properly reported even in the Tamil media. There was no outrage in civil society except in dalit circles. In June, the Dalit Panthers of India (known as Viduthalai Chiruththaigal Katchi in Tamil) under the leadership of Thirumavalavan staged a massive protest against the incident in the district headquarters of Tiruchirapalli. Nearly 200,000 people gathered. The local and national media remained indifferent.

Cut to September 2005. Actor and TV star Khushboo was being attacked for her comments on how young women should have safe sex and how men should not expect their wives to be virgin. These comments were deliberately twisted by sections of the Tamil media to make Khushboo appear 'anti-Tamil'. Tamizh Murasu, a forgotten eveninger that had been recently acquired and re-launched by the Dayanidhi Maran-owned Sun TV group (which then owed allegiance to the ruling party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) noticed that Khushboo's as-told-to column in the Tamil edition of India Today (in its annual 'sex issue' targeted at sales and advertising revenue) had gone almost unnoticed for over a week since it hit the stands on September 18. Tamizh Murasu was looking for some sensational news that could boost its sales and visibility. It chanced upon Khushboo's comments—a Gujarati Muslim who had made Chennai her home, and someone who was hosting a show on the rival Jaya TV. A soft target. Before running the story, the newspaper sought the opinion of various Tamil cultural/ political/ film personalities on what they interpreted as Khushboo's "disparaging comments sullying all Tamil women". Many, including DPI's Thirumavalavan, initially refused to comment, saying they were not aware of Khushboo's remarks. Yet Tamizh Murasu ran the story with the banner, 'Tamil women have no chastity, says Khushboo' on September 24, 2005, with indignation expressed by some nonentities from the film industry. The Sun media group orchestrated a campaign around Khushboo's comments. There were Tamizh Murasu posters across the state and the Sun group used its television arm, the most-watched channel Sun TV, to run short teasers on Khushboo's 'sensational' comments exposed by Tamizh Murasu. The group's FM radio Suryan also encouraged people to read the eveninger. The many arms of the Sun media empire fed one big mouth.

In the next few days, several political parties were forced to react and condemn Khushboo. Leaders of the BJP, Paattali Makkal Katchi, Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Dalit Panthers of India aired their views about how Khushboo was "denigrating" Tamil women and "encouraging women to be immoral". The DPI and PMK were especially shrill since they had joined hands to launch the Tamil Protection Movement earlier that year. Some DPI cadre, led by women, held street protests with chappals and brooms, demanding that Khushboo apologise or leave Tamil Nadu and "return to her Bombay". A Khushboo effigy was made to ride a donkey.

Since 1998-99, I had witnessed the rise of Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) as a social movement that had once called for the boycott of parliamentary politics, saying dalits had no future in such a system. The DPI raised several issues related to the oppression of and state brutalities against dalits in the late-1990s and later. For their participation in agitational politics, many of its young cadres were jailed both by the DMK and the AIADMK governments under the draconian Goondas Act and National Security Act. Riding on a wave of protests, especially after a dalit-inclusive Third Front was forged with the late G K Moopanar of Tamil Maanila Congress in 1999, Thirumavalavan gave in to the temptation of electoral politics and contested the September 1999 Lok Sabha elections from Chidambaram (reserved) constituency. Large-scale violence was witnessed. The PMK and DMK unleashed organised terror on dalits and prevented them from voting; dalit houses were burnt in several villages. The state police, however, arrested scores of DPI cadre. As a People's Watch report then noted, "the state DGP was trying to portray the DPI as a 'terrorist' organisation". Yet, Thirumavalavan secured 2,25,768 of the 7,24,305 valid votes polled. The media and civil society were not perturbed. For many of them, the militant assertion of civil rights by the DPI was only an expression of 'terror'—not the injustices perpetrated on dalits by society or the state. The DPI was demonised by the media and civil society as a disruptive, antisocial force.

However, the same media actively solicited DPI and Thirumavalavan and incited them to speak out and act against Khushboo and her ostensible attack on Tamils. When 40 to 50 DPI cadre demonstrated before and for television cameras demanding that Khushboo apologise or go back to Bombay, the national media got very interested. Over 200,000 people demonstrating peacefully against the dehumanisation of dalits in Thinniyam did not count for the media. The force-feeding of human shit to dalits itself did not make for news. However, a few DPI cadre wielding brooms on a Khushboo effigy mounted on a donkey makes for a suitable portrayal of dalits. This is the image of dalits as barbaric, as a community that is anti-modern and opposed to civil expression, that suits the media.

Since May 2001, as a correspondent of Outlook magazine, I had sought to report on the significant interventions the DPI had made on a range of issues: when the DPI had battled the state and a feudal society to ensure elections in the reserved panchayats of Keeripatti and Pappapatti in Madurai district where Thevars had repeatedly opposed the very idea of dalits heading the civic bodies; when the Thinniyam incident had happened; when over 400 dalit homes were attacked by the state police in collusion with local Thevars in November 2001 in Sankaralingapuram, Tuticorin district; when on December 6, 2002, Thirumavalavan staged a unique protest against J Jayalalitha's anti-conversion legislation in a ceremony where thousands of Dalit Panther cadre and other secular Tamils shed their Sanskrit-inflected Hindu-sounding names and assumed secular 'pure Tamil' ones. Outlook, representative of mainstream print journalism at its liberal best, never deemed it necessary to allow space for reportage of such 'caste issues'. The magazine's readers were ostensibly not interested in the struggles of dalits at the grassroots level. The first and only opportunity I got to write about the DPI and Thirumavalavan in Outlook was when they had been pitchforked to national attention thanks to their anti-Khushboo demonstrations.

There's no question of defending the odious position that Thirumavalavan and his party cadre were manipulated into taking by the media over Khushboo. That some foolery, a show of chappals and brooms, ensured space on prime-time national television, made the dalit cadre offer repeat performances for the sake of the camera. They came to relish their 15 seconds on television. Several times in Chennai, such protests came to be staged specifically for the media. The same cameras would not travel to Thinniyam to record what was perhaps one of post-independence India's most dehumanising acts.

Elite media like Outlook and NDTV took an active interest since their constituency - the liberal, secular middle classes - saw the attack on Khushboo as an attack on themselves. New forums to protect freedom of expression were launched in Chennai. Civil society actors who had been routinely indifferent to atrocities against dalits and the DPI's activism on this front were quick to condemn the DPI without considering how the party and its cadre had been manipulated into posturing on this non-issue.

Such a script was repeated in the case of Khairlanji in Maharashtra's Bhandara district, where month-long dalit-led protests against the rape and lynching of the Bhotmange family in October and mid-November 2006 were ignored by the media. However, when agitating dalits in Mumbai burnt two emptied bogies of the Pune-Mumbai Deccan Queen and a local train on November 30, 2006, to draw attention to Khairlanji and to the desecration of an Ambedkar statue in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, the corporate media began to take notice. Whatever the context, we see that democratic assertions of civil rights by dalits are not given attention; whereas a desperate recourse to violence and sensationalism are magnified and condemned as typical of dalits.

Why does this happen? Routine atrocities against dalits - that two dalits are murdered in India every day according to official records - cannot be commodified by the media: be it local Tamil newspapers like Tamizh Murasu or channels like Sun TV, or by more elite media like Outlook or CNN-IBN. Whereas when the media sets the stage for a conflict over Khushboo, they can create a constituency for such news. Dalits can figure in contemporary media under two conditions: when they are pushed to do something dramatic and spectacular (a show of brooms against Khushboo, or burning a bogey of the Deccan Queen), or when a section of the media that passes for the conscientious (the odd bleeding-heart liberal newspaper/channel) seeks to shower 'sympathy' on dalits who are 'suffering' (like when a BBC television reporter tells us, "because of their extreme poverty, rat is often the only form of protein the Musahars get to eat", as he munches on a burnt rat leg, something an Indian reporter is unlikely to do). Sympathy-driven journalism, bereft of a deeper political and social understanding of caste dynamics, wins awards for reporting the unreported world, the invisible India. Sensation-seeking journalism, driven by commodification of the spectacle, brings in advertisements, revenue. The dalits are crushed between these two.

(S Anand has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and Tehelka. He runs Navayana, a publishing house that exclusively focuses on the issue of caste from an anti-caste perspective)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009