Media is regarded as the 4th estate of democracy and commands immense power over the formation of public opinion. Proliferation of print and electronic media has further led to information revolution. Today, information has become the most potent form of empowerment. Whoever controls media or has access to information is in a powerful position to sway public opinion. It’s not that Ambedkar did not realize this; in fact, he came up with a series of journals to highlight the plight of Dalits in a society which was heavily biased in favour of the upper castes. The Congress controlled most of the print media and it was in a position to provide leadership in the national movement.
After independence, there has been a rapid growth in print media and the number of TV channels has also multiplied but the sad part is that the media industry is not yet socially diverse. Most of it is controlled by the big corporate houses in which Dalit representation is minuscule. When we look at the demographic profile of the employees working in the media organizations, it is rare to find persons belonging to lower castes in higher positions. Cases have been reported when Dalit employees had to keep their caste identity secret for fear of being victimized by their senior upper caste colleagues. The harsh reality is that unlike the state, the media is not under any compulsion to provide representation to the scheduled castes.
Issues that are of significance to Dalits rarely get any substantial coverage in the media which gives more importance to news that have more TRP ratings. Since the media houses have their own vested interests, the reporting of the information they provide tend to be biased. A recent survey of the World Economic Forum has revealed the low credibility of the Indian media which has lost connect & trust of the people. This was evident in its biased reporting on issues like intolerance & demonetization. How the agenda driven media tried to portray anti national figures as heroes was evident to everyone. Media has lost the pulse of the people, failed to read popular mood on more than one occasion during elections and has become mouthpiece of vested interests. Most of the pages are not about people but about boosting TRP.
Whatever little coverage is there about Dalits, most of it is about the atrocities committed on them. The media is guilty of bringing out a negative image of the Dalits in which they are painted as weak & incompetent whereas their leadership is shown as greedy, self serving and nuisance creator. It has never made an attempt to give coverage to news that celebrate Dalit achievements or put Dalits in better perspective.
But all is set for change with the growth of alternate media. Internet and social media have democratized the information sector by creating a level field in which anyone can express his opinions. The best part is that there is no external control that takes note of your caste, gender & skin colour in allowing you access to information. This alternative media platform can act as a sort of interactive space for the various subaltern forums to put forth their views strongly and forge unity among them. The marginalized voices were previously restricted in print and electronic media due to lack of deep financial pockets but the likes of Twitter, Face book and Google have removed this barrier.
Whatever information you want can be obtained by the click of a mouse or a swipe on your mobile screen. The nation saw how the Rohith Vemula incident and the Una incident gave vent to Dalit angst and aspirations in a very forceful way. The social media uproar was so vociferous that it forced the main stream media & TV channels to give due attention to the issues of atrocities committed on Dalits. The social media exposed the hypocrisy and the agenda driven coverage of the main stream media to such an extent that its credibility was in tatters.
Most of the Dalits live in rural India in which the information revolution is yet to penetrate in a big way. The print media is still basically confined to the urban places. Availability of electricity despite some improvement is still not good enough in the rural interiors. The Digital India Mission is a wonderful initiative to connect the rural people with internet and mobile telephony. The ultimate vision of any digital revolution should be to make technology available to the common people that empowers them. It is highly pleasing to see the youths of the marginalized communities taking readily to internet and mobiles. More and more voices highlighting issues touching the lives of downtrodden are on social media. This has provided more visibility to the Dalit aspirations but more often than not, it’s the urban middle class Dalits who are making all the noises and not the rural Dalits. It’s high time all the layers of the Dalit population articulate; after all, their views are not as monochromatic as the leftist Dalit groups would like to make us believe.
The rise of the Dalit middle class has also led to growth of Dalit capitalism. If this capitalism finds expression in Dalit ownership of media, then this will be a harbinger of Dalit hopes for expression. Finding voice and then articulating it forcefully is very vital in representational democracy. Dalits need organs to present their side of the story to convince public opinion. After the Hindu temples of India, media remains the strong citadel of the caste Hindus. The Dalits have stormed the temples and now the time has come to make their presence felt in media. They are present in the executive, the legislature and the judiciary but the 4th estate of democracy has still eluded them. A strong independent media is the life blood of any democracy and Dalits have no option but to take to media in a big way to highlight issues that can have significant bearing on their lives. Visibility is very vital in democracy and this is where media will benefit Dalits. It will get them to present their side of the story.
Of late, media organizations like National Dastak & certain websites have taken the lead in raising issues related to Dalits which is a very positive thing in Indian democracy. They have brought to public domain issues that were previously swept under the carpet; no wonder, their popularity is increasing but all said and done, they need to be cautious in their coverage. Issues have to be dispassionately and neutrally examined and reported rather than attempts to present one sided biased view by distortion of facts with the intention to sensationalize matters & play victim card.
People are matured enough to separate facts from fiction. Public purpose and national interest are important yardsticks that have to be kept in mind by every media organization. As far as social media is concerned, intemperate and vitriolic language as used by some of the left leaning radical Dalit groups, is simply uncalled for. Debates have to be reasoned and responsible to elicit public attention. Access to a platform should be for highlighting genuine problems, dialogue with other stake holders and putting forth view points; it should not be hurling abuses and breeding animosity among people. Empowerment is not about confrontation & blame game but finding ways to seek engagement on an equal footing.