Caste is the social reality of this country and caste permeates every social sphere. And for the same reason, issues should be looked at from the lens of caste, too.

Image of Hathras gangarape victim's body burning on a pyre.
Voices Caste Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - 13:13

The alleged gangrape of a 19-year-old Dalit girl by four Thakur men in Hathras, in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, has forced the media to acknowledge the caste dynamics and the role caste plays in our society. Some media houses continue to maintain that the perpetrators of the crime, and the people supporting them, are ‘upper castes’ – a blanket term used to not offend any community. Other media houses have rightly identified the caste location of the perpetrators and their supporters. This change in the media’s perspective, which usually refrains from calling out a community, also comes from the fact that the state is governed by a Chief Minister who belongs to the same Thakur caste. And there is credible evidence that the Thakurs – a dominant community in the state – have unleashed violence upon Dalits under Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s regime.

It is commendable that some sections of media are finally acknowledging caste realities, and are helping their readers understand that the rape incident in Uttar Pradesh was not just about the mainstream notion of a sexual assault against a hapless woman, but also about the impunity the Thakurs enjoy, which has been enabled by the social dictum of caste hierarchy.

As academician and Hyderabad-based anti-caste activist Sujatha Surepally puts it: “All crimes have caste behind them.” 

Caste is the social reality of this country and caste permeates every social sphere. And for the same reason, issues should be looked at from the lens of caste, too. 

In the wake of the Hathras incident, prominent TV news personalities like Barkha Dutt and Faye D’souza took pride in giving ‘representation’ to Dalits by asking them to join in their debate on the barbaric Hathras crime. While their earnest effort is appreciated, intellectuals and social scientists from marginalised communities should not be invited only during discussions on caste-based violence. These intellectuals are otherwise kept out of their ‘regular’ debates and deliberately alienated as if their voices don’t matter. 

One Dalit advocate who was featured prominently in multiple news channels and news portals during prime time in the wake of the incident was Kiruba Munusamy. Kiruba is a lawyer in the Supreme Court, and law is her area of expertise. However, she has been hardly ever invited to talk about law previously, except to talk about the discrimination Dalits face. “If I recollect, previously only twice I have been invited by a Delhi-based news channel, and that too was a caste issue,” Kiruba says. News channels, she says, “never call me to offer commentary on economy, law or other subjects.” Besides, giving a token representation of having one Dalit person is not how you address an issue.

The idea that caste is just about Dalits, has somehow deeply penetrated in the society. But everyone is born into a certain caste, and the onus is on everyone to annihilate it. Unfortunately, caste is always associated with only Dalits. When Tamil filmmakers like Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj make anti-caste films, these films are immediately bracketed as ‘caste films’ but the truth is mostly all films talk about the social location of the protagonist. In fact, films of Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj – being anti-caste – don’t ever mention the caste names of the protagonists, while others boast their caste names in the film title. Some include scenes of rituals or other imagery to establish the caste of the protagonists, which is never questioned. These films somehow escape the degree of scrutiny that the former receive.

Like in any instance of crime, it’s important that perpetrators should be focussed on mainly, instead of the victim from the marginalised community.

For days before Rohith Vemula died, he and other members of the Ambedkar Students' Association were agitating in the public. But most media houses did not find that newsworthy. One young Ph.D. scholar had to die to be considered worth news. And after his institutional murder, the media shifted its focus on covering ‘controversies’ around his life. In the four years since his death, we ‘know’ everything possible about Vemula, but very little about the alleged abettor of his suicide, the University of Hyderabad vice-chancellor Appa Rao.

Covering a marginalised community has seldom been about resilience and resistance. Journalists when reporting about caste issues, should not just focus on individual stories of victimhood but the resilience and resistance of the community as a whole has to be documented, too.

Activists also urge the media to specify the caste details of both the perpetrators and victims when reporting about caste-based violence. “It is very essential to mention these details. Even among Dalits there are many vulnerable of the vulnerable communities. And since there is no support to these communities, the brutalities committed against these community members don’t find their way into newspapers,” says Sujatha.

Journalists should also do away with words like ‘clashes’ when reporting caste violence. A clash is something which happens between two equally powerful groups. And dubbing a violence against a Dalit or Bahujan community by a powerful upper caste community wielding power as a ‘clash’ does great amount of injustice to the victims.

Views expressed are the author's own.

This piece was first published on Here's the thing, an exclusive newsletter for TNM Members, on October 7, 2020.