03 June 2006

Caste matters in the Indian media

If television and newspaper coverage of the anti-reservation agitation was indulgent and one-sided, the lack of diversity in the newsroom is surely a major culprit.

3 June 2006
The Hindu

Caste matters in the Indian media

Siddharth Varadarajan

MY FIRST brush with caste prejudice in higher education came in 1999, when a group of Dalit students from the University College of Medical Sciences (UCMS) came to see me at my office in another English newspaper where I worked at the time as an editorial writer.

The students were residents of the hostel and had silently borne the brunt of casteist abuse and discrimination for some time. Whether by happenstance or design, the Scheduled Caste students were confined to two floors and not assigned rooms elsewhere in the building. In the dining hall, they were forced by the forward caste majority to sit together at one end. If a Dalit student sat somewhere else, he would be abused. "Bloody shaddu," one of them was told when he sat amidst others by mistake, "you cannot eat with us."

The Dalits put up with this harassment and humiliation because, as one of their parents told them, "you have to become a doctor at any cost." But the abuse eventually turned to violence and when one of the students was badly beaten and another had his room ransacked, they decided to go on a dharna. This is also when they ended up in my office.

After hearing them out, I requested the head of the Metro section to send someone to UCMS to cover the story. I was promised a reporter would be sent soon. Several days went by but nothing appeared. It turned out no reporter was assigned. I tried again, this time going one notch higher in the editorial chain-of-command. Again there was no response. Eventually, I decided to do the story myself. I spent half-a-day at the college, interviewed the college authorities, the students on dharna as well as the general category students. One of them admitted reluctantly to using the slur `shaddu' for the Scheduled Caste students but only as a `pet name'.

I filed the story but it did not appear the next day or the day after. Nobody ever said the story was not interesting or not up to scratch but for some reason space could never be found. The story finally appeared, in a cut and mutilated form, a full month after the Dalit students began their dharna. Needless to say, the travails of the Dalit students at UCMS were not considered newsworthy enough by other newspapers or by any of the news channels.

I narrate this story because of how it contrasts with the extraordinary indulgence the national media showed the nearly month-long anti-reservation agitation of doctors and medical students at AIIMS and other colleges. Despite the 24x7 presence of TV cameras, the daily protests in favour of reservation by AIIMS doctors and staff under the banner of `Medicos Forum for Equal Opportunities' were virtually blacked out. One channel showed the counter-protest last Sunday only when a `citizen journalist' presented it with footage he had shot. Often, it was impossible to separate the breathless TV reporters from the anti-reservation doctors they were reporting about. The insensitive and casteist forms of protest some of them adopted — the `symbolic' sweeping of streets, the shining of shoes, the singing of songs warning OBCs and others to `remember their place' (`apni aukat mein rahio') — were put on air without comment by the channels. Nobody asked what kind of doctors these `meritorious' students were likely to become if they had such contempt towards more than half the population of India. And in a media discourse which routinely reports the protests of the underprivileged only as "traffic jams" and other disruptions to the "normal" life of the city, the suffering of poor patients as a result of the AIIMS strike figured largely as a footnote to the "heroic" struggle the medical students and junior doctors were waging.

Amidst the hysteria induced by the media coverage, no one cared to point out how indulgent the AIIMS authorities themselves were being towards the anti-reservation strike. Earlier this year, when a section of doctors concerned about higher user fees being imposed on poor patients sought to protest, they were warned of dire consequences. Under the terms of a High Court order, no protest or demonstration is permitted within the AIIMS campus. Yet nobody demurred when the anti-reservation students occupied the lawns, put up shamianas and coolers and received the "solidarity" of traders, event managers, and IT employees (whose employers usually ban their own staff from ever striking work.)

While there were honourable exceptions — Outlook, The Hindu , and Frontline among them, as well as individual reporters in some newspapers and channels — would the media's coverage have been more balanced had there been a greater degree of caste diversity in the newsroom and editorial boards of our newspapers and channels? Put another way, in egging the forward caste students on to oppose any extension of reservation, were forward caste editors and reporters reflecting their own personal impatience with the idea of affirmative action? Was the media coverage, then, a display of trade unionism by the privileged?

There are no official or industry statistics but every journalist is aware of the extent to which forward castes dominate the media. When B.N. Uniyal surveyed the scene in 1996, he found not a single Dalit accredited journalist in Delhi. Today, the position is unlikely to be much better. At a recent meeting of Journalists for Democracy, it was reported that an informal survey had found that the number of accredited North Indian OBC journalists in Delhi was under 10. I myself have counted the number of Muslims with accreditation to the Press Information Bureau and they barely cross the three per cent mark. In Chhattisgarh, a recent attempt to send Tribal journalists on a training programme had to be dropped because there was none.

One is not saying the absence of Dalit or OBC journalists is the product of conscious discrimination though that factor cannot be ruled out. But the reality of their absence is something the media must have the courage to acknowledge.

In an ideal world where professionalism is paramount, the caste or religious affiliation of a journalist should not matter. But journalism that has little or no space for the majority of citizens is bound to end up missing out on the complexity of the society it seeks to cover. Story ideas will not be taken up, or if taken up then covered only from a particular perspective. To be sure, many of the negative trends so evident in Indian journalism — the shrinkage of space, the lack of coverage of rural India or of the problems of poor Indians, the episodic, frenetic nature of news, the cult of the Sensex, the preoccupation with trivia and sensationalism — will not be cured by newspapers and TV channels hiring more Dalit, OBC, and Muslim journalists. But greater workplace diversity will certainly infuse a greater degree of vitality in the newsroom as wider varieties of lived experience intrude upon and clash with the largely urban, rich, forward caste Hindu certitudes of the overwhelming majority of journalists.

Far from seeing affirmative action as a threat, India's media houses should look upon the entry of Dalit, Tribal, OBC, and Muslim journalists as an opportunity to broadbase their journalism and make it more professional and authentic. Last year, Ankur and Sarai-CSDS provided teenagers in the now-demolished slum cluster of Nangla Machi with computers. The daily diaries and fly-sheets they produced even as their homes were being brought down by bulldozers is journalism of as high a quality as anyone can find in India today (Interested readers should visit the Nangla Machi site here). Certainly their writings tell us more about the reality of "slum clearance" than any of our TV channels, and in prose that is better than what one normally gets to read in our newspapers.

As the OBC and SC-ST youths who want to become doctors and engineers are saying, merit is not simply a score that can be bought by parents who have the money to invest in the most expensive education for their children. It is also about the talent that all children have within them regardless of their caste or socio-economic background. A society — or an industry like the media — which does not find a way to tap that talent will only end up impoverishing itself. Specifically, media houses must seriously think about starting internships and training programmes for Dalit, Tribal, Muslim, and OBC students interested in becoming journalists.

Reservation, affirmative action, targeted expenditure, and investment are all means of society helping people unlock their inherent talent. As pro-reservation scholars such as Yogendra Yadav, Satish Deshpande, Purshottam Aggarwal, and others have argued, the United Progressive Alliance Government's current approach is not necessarily the best one. But by conducting a shrill campaign and encouraging forward caste students to launch an ill-conceived agitation, the media themselves foreclosed the possibility of a rational debate on what the best way of building an inclusive education system really is. When the dust settles, the media should introspect and ask what they can do to make society as a whole more inclusive. Encouraging conversation and not hectoring is one way. But another is surely to diversify the newsroom by consciously bringing in those sections of society who have hitherto been excluded. There are a million stories out there waiting to be told. If only we allow the storytellers to do the telling.


we support obc reservations said...

good one. i was disgusted with the electronic media's hoarse cry for the past so many weeks on the plight of indian education if reservations happen! even logic seems to have taken a complete back seat of these meritorious lot when they threatened to leave the country because of reservations!

sudhakar said...

Dear Sir,
I have read many of your editorials and i am a big fan to your vocabulary.Few years back i was little uneasy with reservations but after i travelling to many villages i changed my thought.I saw many backward caste people living in the outskirts of villages and many dalits not allowed into Temples.Media should show to those city rebellions who are aganist reservation these conditions in villages in their stream up.In fact it is THE HINDU which put up an excellent article on The Magzine last sunday

T. Jayaraman said...

Dear Mr. Siddharth Varadarajan, Your article provides a much needed corrective to the torrent of anti-quota propaganda in the media and draws attention to its roots. However,
even some of the publications of the Hindu group have gone overboard in their pandering to anti-quota upper caste interests. A particularly bad instance is the piece titled ``The great leap backward'' by Jack Nathan in the Business Line of 30th May, 2006. The URL is


I must say I was shocked at its appearing in print.


Anonymous said...

You people are all stupid. Reservations will kill the growth trajectory of the Indian economy.We might as well forget about Vision 2020.

Zaphod Beeblebroxx said...

Mr. Varadarajan's specious bile might fly with his cohorts at the unofficial leftist mouth piece that is N.Ram's Hindu.

Nobody debates the need to reach out to the
millions of poor in India. But, not at the cost of the state playing favorites. The state has no right to discriminate for or against any section of a democratic polity.
For years Shri Varadarajan and his leftist cabal occupied major postions in the Indian Government and failed abysmally in providing basic education to the suffering millions. Now you want to play God by distributing the fruits of labor as though India were a communist tyranny.

Shri Varadarajan's profile elsehwere shows an LSE and Columbia pedigree. Little wonder that he does not understand the toil that middle class "upper caste" folk have to go through to crack entrance tests to get into the mediocre schools that go for education in India.

It is disgraceful and reprehensible to categorize and demonize wholes peoples by labeling them "upper castes", as though they are sheep with no individuality or variation in thoughts and ideas.

Reading your article makes me glad that I left India. Inshallah!! there ain't no turning back.

Siddhartha Shome said...

Thank you !! An axcellent and illuminating article. Goes a long way in explaining the very one-sided media coverage on the reservation issue. I have written about my own ideas about the anti-reservation protests here.

Kumar said...

Please publish the details of Dalits and Muslims in The Hindu. I request Mr Siddharth Varadarajan to do that.

arvindh said...

Hats off to you for your brilliant article on this volatile issue! We need more journalists with integrity like you.

Son of India said...

If Mr. Siddharth Varadarajan can please explain how reservations work in the following senario, i would change my views altogether on this volatile issue

1. Me and my neighbour both have the same income ( and therefore same affordability and living comforts), now is there any difference btw my kids and his ??? Is my neighbour's child in a postion of disadvantage even if he is a SC/ST/OBC ???
Then why shall he have it easy ???
Why shall he have to pay half the fees i have to pay in government colleges ??

2.Who is disadvanteged:
Laloo Prasad's children or the children of a Pandey or a Sharma sweeping HINDU's offices

The problem with the pro quota people is that when such anomalies are placed before them, their answers are everything under the sun the what's been asked ....
When case number 2 was pointed out in NDTV's We the Ppl, the answer was
" Laloo has turned around the railways "
Is this what was asked....
why bring up arjun and ekalavya again and again ????

All Pro-quota people use the rich-poor divide and urban rural divide to support a system of reservations that is based on neither

Anonymous said...

1) Shameful fact one: N Ram owes his job to the fact that he was born in a certain uppercaste family.

2) Shameful fact two: the editor of The Hindu has always to come from not just the same upper caste, but from the same uppercaste family.

3) Sahemful fact three: Mr Varadarajan owes his job not to the fact that he was the most deserving candidate fittng the bill, but because of being on the same side of the political fence as Mr Ram.

Given these facts, a lecture on uppercaste domination in the media coming from Mr Varadarajan and published in The Hindu sounds rather rich.

shivam said...

Thank you for this!

Prof TB Vijayakumar said...

Your article is hard hitting and wonderful.
We should be truthful to facts,
and honest.
Sidharth is rated as First class intellectual.

Memoryking said...


No! Let’s join the self-proclaimed snobs protesting with slogans “Remember your place”, polishing shoes and cleaning premises? Let’s pretend not to see it at all! Damn Reservations!

vishk said...

Judgements about media coverage of the protests are usually tinged with the same bias as the media coverage itself.

For instance, I haven't read a single opinion yet, of pro-reservation journalists thinking the media coverage was fair, just as I haven't read a single opinion of anti-reservationists thinking the media coverage was unfair.

In any case, to believe that the Hindu presented a balanced picture of the protests reflects the sort of naivete and hero-worship that even fans of Rajnikanth cannot muster.

mineguruji said...

Wondeful work, Mr Rajan as far as this article is concerned, it was timely and very well written.
It was quite balanced and i believe that it could be published in HIndu alone, as no one else will be able to get over his caste feeling.
well done.


what comes outof this article is that it's media and not medicine that needs reservation.then lets see if if 50% of seats in NDTV,CNNIBN,the hindu,HT,and TOI are reserved for these SC/ST and OBC's do people like Mr rajan ,N.ram remain pro reservation.
this step of mr.Arjun is just for getting votes.

Anonymous said...

The problems of Dalits , rich or poor , are entirely different, from those of OBC, years of ignornace and limited activity to only certain kind of work, Definitely have brought about about neurological, hormonical ,if not genetical changes. This fact should be acknowledged. If realism is needed, they some generation of studies r needed, for example, have the sons or daughter of the richer dalits been "consistently good" in studies or successful in profession? Hence for example if in school admission cut-offs if Open marks are 298/300 OBC-297/300 and SC/ST-296/300 for one year does not mean that "casteism" is gone, since difference is just less then 1%. Statistics should be collected over the year and an median over the years should be taken, only when in aprroximately 50% of the cases we find that SC/ST,OBC,Open have surpassed each other then we can say we dont need reservations. A Simpler example is if their is a proponinate percentage of caste representation in all professions or businesses can we say that we are equal. Problems of dalit are way to different from that of OBC in the sense that , making a person not a part of city life, itself takes off a lot of mental faculties needed to be successful in the material world. Now, this does not indicate being less intelligent, but it means "not mentally oriented" towards the working of society in other rules not being done in past. For example, among the youths of backward caste maybe more prone to do physical work then mental, this maybe genetically or maybe from the upbrininging and silently watching activities of their parents. Only if many such statistics are collected over the years can the real "distinction" be told. The inhuman practice of "untouchability" or any other form of caste prejudiced, should be sentenced to death. (who will do that ? the "tolerant" government or the judge who is a forward caste member). Laws cant change anything, for example, laws cant force someone to do charity or be philanthropic. Only people can change that.

Sreekala Sivasankaran said...

You've touched upon very important aspects, where the print and visual media are exposed of their actual bases of appeal and motivations. Ideally, I, for myself, wonder why a matter that would bring sections of populations into important professions and thereby benefit the whole of Indian society by raising the status of larger sections get mired up in singular aspirations of the privileged? Privilege is not just about money power, but also about the social status and acceptability one has in the choice of marriage partners, in the matters of living a dignified life, visible and respectable. Practically in my experience as a Sociology teacher for a short while in a Law University in the state of Chhattisgarh, I saw in close quarters the struggles of dalit and tribal students to get access and sustainability in an empowering discipline such as Law. We talk about unemployment, we talk about quality in education and then why don’t we recruit faculty and build up infrastructure to train those students who come from extremely poor and humiliating caste backgrounds? Quality is not just money and the ability to speak English language; quality lies in bringing larger sections and training them to excel in their work and life. Some Sociologists think that caste is a dead matter, and then why we cherish it so dearly when it comes to choosing our life partners, social companions and professional colleagues? Some others would say that it is the social and moral order and we can’t really change it, as we are Indians living within this order. Aren’t we also individuals, citizens and atleast human beings who have the ability to feel, think and act? I have heard some people say that it is high time that the dalits should not feel ashamed of their caste identity. Yes, wait for the day, when the members of those sections who are far removed from enjoying the fruits of wealth and resources of this country themsevels say that we are proud to be what we are...

webaddict said...

well written article sir...thanks for providing the other side of the story...but don't you think that the way OBC reservation's have been implemented smells of populist propaganda, pandering to vote banks and not for providing "equal opportunities" to the poor and marginalised. i mean offer a crutch to someone who can't walk but don't cushion someone's backside just because of his 'birth'!!!

MONTY said...


Anonymous said...

Although too late, I just wanted to add that all those high profile, English speaking anchors and editors are more casteist than the Hindi ones.
Hindi channels are those who have only just entered the civilized world along with their baggage of jadoo-tona. Confused in a new world they are bent upon justifying their old lifestyle.

chinki sinha said...

I stumbled upon this. On Sunday, I covered a Dalit ceremony where they were being given the sacred thread ... I filed the story and wait for it to appear in the paper every day. Hoepfully, they will carry it. But reading this, I am a little doubtful. I might just post it on my blog.

Anonymous said...

Never thought you are so much short sighted and supportive of a discriminatory idea like Reservation. This will end up creating perennial social conflicts. Only way is to get out of this country. You will realise it one day

Anonymous said...

In reply to "Reservation" to OBC's like Laloo some body has said about his "Turning Round" the Railways! Turning ound of what? Head? Why is it that none of the so called un-biased media/persons like Hindu/N Ram? Vardarajan never published the CAG Report on Railways which was so highly critical and damning?
Is it because that would have upset the apple cart of "Harward Expert" Laloo? Does Varadarajan has any answer to this?

Anonymous said...


I'm reading this article 6th time. I have forwarded this among my friends who do have issues with the reservation and other affirmative action policies, and we used to have good discussion on the issue.Caste is a harsh reality in India.You have presented it clearly and convincingly. Kudos to you.

Ravishanker C N

Anonymous said...

Many countries believe that democracy is a tyranny of the majority over the minority.So the political leaders in our country believe that since the reserved categories are in a majority it is necessary to back them.Some leaders will admit in private that there are better forms of affirmative action but won't dare to speak out in the fear of losing majority vote.If they don't they think they will lose the next election.These are the people who really matter when a bill is to be passed.What powers does media have?Can it pass a bill when it is against a majority?Should it always support the perceived minority and who is the minority in this case?