Discrimi-Nation III: 'Caste is a volcano'

For Devashish Jarariya, getting to grips with his caste was a life-changing development. He became a student activist, and then joined the Bahujan Samaj Party to fight the caste discrimination he experienced from his schooldays. His perspective:

 
I was born in a middle class family. My father was a government employee. We moved to the city when I was about six years old. I didn’t face any comment on my caste until I came to Class 9, though it’s not like I didn’t know what my caste is. In primary classes, I used only my name without my surname. My father used the surname Jatav so my teachers added it to my name. It was in Class 8 that I used my family name for the first time. Some people still ask me why I don’t use the surname my father did. The first instance of discrimination I remember is from Class 9 when a classmate refused to eat with me, saying I was a “low caste” and that his parents would thrash him if they got to know. Some classmates supported me, and I faced that situation. Later on, that classmate became one of my best friends. As one grows older, caste becomes like the air you breathe day in and out. I got by, however, because most of my friends were from the general category both in school and college. We did talk about caste, but it was peaceful: it seems caste has its boundaries, and if nobody crosses them coexistence is pretty much easier. In my village, every caste has its own cluster of homes. I rarely visited other caste neighbourhoods in my childhood, something I don’t do even now as a matter of fact. I don’t remember going to any wedding in village that was between people outside my caste. We never questioned this because it was the existing system. I didn’t have the intelligence to understand it then or I didn’t try to. The caste system works in different ways in rural and urban settings. Caste is a dormant volcano; if you work within the limits of the system, it is peaceful but things change rapidly if you start exploring and questioning it. Caste differences for me were tied in with the issue of reservation; it was the flashpoint. I knew how to defend my position on it but also understood that contrary views on this cannot be harmonised. You can support reservation or you can hate it. The reservation policy doesn’t hurt relationships with people from the unreserved categories because a certain level of acceptance has been reached. But things changed for me when I started taking a stand on issues as my public life commenced. I start writing about what’s happening in society which the middle class doesn’t bother to look at, or at least as I presumed. I realised my growing understanding was at odds with the balance of system; the dormant volcano inside began to rumble. The more I wrote on caste atrocities, the more real my own caste identity became. It was like my whole life in the system was made up, and that the foundations of society were rotten. With my Dalit identity coming to the fore, all those who knew me for years saw and felt the change in my outlook. For them, I am a changed person now. There were no caste problems in their world but I had injected harsh reality into it. When a Dalit was killed in Gujarat for twirling his moustache, I started a campaign #MrDalit #DalitWithMoustache. My friends asked me what had happened to turn me to caste politics. I have tried to question the system. For instance, during the recent Dalit agitation on the dilution of the SC/ST Act, I confronted media houses to tell them that no Dalits were responsible for the violence. Now, being Dalit is my only identity for my friends and acquaintances; that’s how powerful the embed of caste in our society is. Even writing this piece will only add to my caste identification.
 
 
More From Discrimi-Nation 
Part II: The Dalit Life Sentence
Part I: Northeastern Distress

—With editorial assistance from Lokmarg      ]]>

Who Pays When Media Gets Desperate For Revenue?

“Every inch, every single inch of their lifestyle and entertainment supplement is up for sale,” the senior advertising manager at the publication I was working for then told me wistfully, his eyes lustful as if he was yearning for a bite of a forbidden fruit. He was referring to a rival publication whose fine honed strategy of publishing sponsored or “paid for” content had reaped for it revenue that is estimated to run into hundreds of crores of rupees. It was content that masqueraded as being journalistically created without readers knowing that it was actually sponsored by advertisers—in this case, marketers of brands, organisers of events, or producers of films. In most cases, such content would go unmarked, just as the rest of the genuinely, editorially produced stories were, leaving the reader none the wiser about its antecedence or credibility.

Those were the early days of paid content. Over the years, that practice spread. It was soon emulated by major publications, first in the lighter, lifestyle-oriented sections of newspapers but later creeping into the more serious sections where brands would be plugged, often unsubtly in stories, or logos placed strategically in editorial content that could have a positive rub-off on them. Disclaimers were few and far between—sometimes an ambiguous declaration tucked away in the print line in extra small sized fonts that few would read. With print media earnings from advertising under increasing pressure, although few will admit officially, such “innovative” approaches to earn revenue have become common practice among India’s print publications with the rare exception of a handful that still thinks it’s a malpractice that is not much more than an insidious attempt to mislead readers.

It is a caper that is a marketing win-win. Consider. If a marketer can plug his brand or event or anything through something that looks and seems like editorial content rather than advertising, it can appear to be more credible to those who read it (potential consumers) and yet, it could also cost much less than what he would have to pay for expensive advertising that can often be wasteful. When the practice began, usually in lifestyle and entertainment supplements, publishers rationalised it by explaining away credibility concerns by assuming that readers of such sections look for vicarious pleasure from reading about showbiz, celebrities and the glitterati and not for hard-nosed journalism. An unsound rationalisation that was and is: why should the principles applied to journalism in other areas not apply to lifestyle and entertainment? Yet it found takers galore. Soon it became more dangerous. Insiders at publications can tell you how the practice has spread to sections focused on subjects such as education and real estate, which ostensibly people don’t read for “vicarious pleasure”. Later during pre-election coverage of political campaigns in the 2000s, several Indian newspapers faced allegations that some of their “news stories” on political parties or candidates may have been paid for.

The Cobrapost sting operation on a large number of media organisations has brought the focus back on the practice of paid or sponsored agenda-driven editorial coverage. Ironically, the “sting” variety of journalism is in itself controversial and, many feel, unprincipled where the subjects of the sting are duped not very dissimilarly to how paid content misleads readers. In its operation, a Cobrapost reporter posed as a leader of a hard-line Hindu organisation and offered lucrative payments to marketing executives at media organisations to push its religious and political agenda. Some of those that the Cobrapost exercise has stung have cried foul. A major media group has even said that it was actually doing its own reverse sting to expose the Cobrapost reporter.

Nevertheless, the Cobrapost “expose” has opened the lid on a can of deceitful worms once again. It has shown that those in charge of garnering revenue for media groups are driven by money-grubbing motives and little else. India’s media market, particularly for print publications, is hugely dependent on advertising and not subscription revenues. The price of Indian newspapers is among the lowest in the world and companies that own them make most of their money from selling ad space and adding sections that are really paid-for advertorials that straddle the thin line between editorial content and advertising. With print advertising on the wane, India’s print media companies have become what their marketing folk like to call “innovative”. The more accurate word would be: desperate. And desperation can sometimes give rise to venal instincts.

For those media professionals who still uphold the basic principles and values of journalism, the abject pliability on display in Cobrapost’s surreptitiously recorded videos of those tasked with earning revenue for media companies may be shamefully embarrassing. But spare a thought for those at the very end of the line–the readers, viewers and ultimate consumers of print, TV and other media—whose trust, faith and confidence in India’s media has not just been rudely shaken but brazenly violated.

—The author tweets @sanjoynarayan]]>

A Marriage 150 Years Too Late

th century.  Her life was not without racist taunts. Although almost white in colour, her paintings were sometimes deliberately made to exaggerate ‘african’ features. On the other hand the Roman Empire had black Emperors and the Mughals married Indian women. The Chinese Emperors  also married into other races. Empires eventually run on the ability to co-opt local powerful warlords and Chiefs. And Empires, like countries, survive by being flexible and integrating different communities and indigenous powerful lords into the Empire as collaborating rulers. Racial purity has never survived for long anywhere or it weakens the community’s ability to be dynamic in the face of competition, challenges and invasions. The Indian civilisation which stratified itself in some spurious theory of purity supported by rituals, found to its cost that it could not defend itself against aggressive invaders. In pre Islamic invasions,  Indian ‘Generals’ did not emerge through merit, but by birth. Birth alone does not endow ingenuity and ability to fight in battle, experience and character does. A society divided by race and birth eventually crumbles at the core. And so were the British pushed out of the Empire they had built. They were not seen as ‘integrating’. Racism was one of the major factors that led to much of the Empire’s populations to rise against it. There was a collective sense of persecution within the communities ruled in the name of the crown. Even though ‘Maharajahs’ and Chiefs collaborated, they were not really rulers nor part of the London court nor did any non whites rise to the ranks of generals or chief administrators. Nor were they ‘citizens’. It is a mark of the racist nature of the Empire that the only major countries where the British monarch is still head of State are white dominated Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Although some of the Caribbean countries still have the British Monarch as head of State, there is increasing movement within Barbados and Jamaica now to replace the Queen. Other States are likely to follow if this happens. So does Meghan Markle’s marriage into the Royal family change its fortunes? As far as the Empire is concerned, that is history now and the marriage is too late even to change the minds of republicans in Jamaica and Barbados. Had a marriage like this happened 150 years ago, the nature of the Empire would have been different and the struggles within it would have been of a different nature. The marriage nevertheless marks a recognition of the multiracial character of contemporary United Kingdom itself and will endear the monarchy to Britain’s growing ethnic communities.  Britain may get a coloured Monarch sometimes in the future if the monarchy continues. It will be an irony after centuries of racism and racial slavery that kept the monarchy in the style it is used to. Will it stop rumblings within the commonwealth to seek change of head of commonwealth from British monarchy to rotating post. Too early to say.]]>