B R Ambedkar: 130th Birth Anniversary Editorial
By: Sashwata Saha
The many facets of B R Ambedkar’s life have been interpreted in innumerable ways. On the father of the Constitution’s 130th birth anniversary, we put the spotlight on the ones that have crafted our perception of the social reformer — the media and what Ambedkar thought of them.
In the early 20th century, much like now, the upper-caste communities enjoyed complete hegemony over the mainstream newspapers and magazines. Meanwhile, radio was strictly government-controlled and cinema unaffordable to the lower-caste and untouchable communities. Ambedkar realised early on that he will never get the press’s support in his battle against social disparity. These hurdles paved the way for him to launch a network of journals — Mookanayak (1920), Bahishkrit Bharat (1924), Samata (1928), Janata (1930), Aamhi Rajkarti Jamaat Bananar (1940), Enlightened India (1956). With the help of the media, Ambedkar ran his socio-political movement and raised his voice for the rights of the untouchables.
An example of the mainstream media’s distaste for Ambedkar’s publications can be traced back to when Bal Gangadhar Tilak refused to publish an advertisement for Mooknayak in his popular journal Kesari despite being offered fair prices. Mooknayak‘s editor was PN Bhatkar, a college graduate from the untouchable Mahar caste.
In one of his earliest articles for Mooknayak focusing on the idolisation of leaders, Ambedkar had written, “People from abroad believe that Congress is the sole institution representing the people of India, including even the untouchables. The main reason behind this is that the untouchables have no medium of their own through which they can contest Congress’s claim. They have no press of their own and the doors of Congress press are shut for them. They have taken a vow to not to give even an iota of publicity to the untouchables.
“The untouchables cannot establish a press of their own. It is crystal clear that no newspaper can survive without advertisements. Advertising revenue can only be generated via commercial advertisements. All businessmen, big or small, are associated with the Congress and they cannot side with a non-Congress institution. The staff of Associated Press of India, which is India’s news agency, is full of Tamil Brahmins. In reality, India’s entire press is caught in their stranglehold and they are completely loyal to the Congress. They can never publish any news against the Congress.”
Ambedkar’s views remain relevant even today as the country is helplessly witnessing an entire section of the mainstream media engage in the deification of the Prime Minister, insisting that criticism of the government equals criticism of the nation and acting as de facto spokespersons of the Hindu right-wing brigade. These news shows are sponsored by ads from corporations with clear links that can be easily traced back to the ruling party.
A 2019 study of the social background of media persons by Kenya based charitable organisation Oxfam and Newslaundry to determine the participation of marginalised communities showed that the social characteristics of media have not changed, even in the 21st century, and caste-based dominance in newsrooms continues to prevail even today.
According to their data, nearly 89% of the leadership positions across India’s seven major TV channels — CNN-News 18, India Today, Mirror Now, NDTV 24x7, Rajya Sabha TV, Republic TV, and Times Now — were held by upper caste journalists and none by members of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, or OBCs. Between October 2018 to March 2019, these channels had together telecast 1,965 shows of their prime time debates in which 1,883 panellists took part. Of the 47 anchors of these shows, 33 were upper caste.
Leadership in print media has not fared any better either. Nearly 92% of the newsroom leadership positions across the English newspapers selected for the Oxfam-Newslaundry study – The Economic Times, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Indian Express, The Telegraph and The Times of India – were held by upper caste individuals, with no representation for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs, or religious minorities. It was also categorised that upper-caste writers accounted for 55%-65% of the articles across various beats.
In digital media too, the report which included Newslaundry itself among the 11 outlets studied, found that while minority representation, here, was slightly better due to the sheer volume of content - in absolute terms it is almost equal to that of its traditional counterparts.
In January 1945, the All India Scheduled Castes Federation launched its weekly mouthpiece - People’s Herald - looking to voice the aspirations, demands and complaints of the untouchables. Speaking at the inauguration of this journal, Ambedkar said, “In the modern democratic system having a good newspaper is the basic foundation for having a good government. We cannot succeed in eliminating the incomparable misfortune and plight of the Scheduled Castes of India until the eight crore untouchables are politically educated.”
At the same event, while citing the role played by Marathi periodicals during the 1937 legislative elections under the Crown, he said, “I have edited a weekly in Bombay for 16 years. The proof of the enormous impact generated by this journal manifested itself during the Bombay’s legislative polls, in which I garnered votes from every section of the society and managed to defeat my opponent from Congress.”
The Indian media has transformed in folds since Ambedkar’s era but many things are still the same. Doors of mainstream media are usually still closed for Dalits. In the post-Ambedkar era, Kanshiram published many journals to take his movement forward. Today, sporadic efforts are being made by some individuals and organisations for publishing journals and magazines.
Meanwhile, countless social media pages, Twitter threads, Facebook groups, YouTube channels and blogs are also being run on his teachings. But why is it so that despite having Dalit representation in federal politics, the national parliament and capitalism, there is barely any Dalit reporter or editor at mainstream English or Hindi newspapers and TV channels?
Which brings us to the final question — how much of the mainstream media’s views on and representation of Dalits can be trusted?
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