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Journalism and caste in Bihar

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  • Shaji John K
    =====[www.thehoot.org]======== /12/2003 Journalism and caste in Bihar The media here has evolved into a force which is expanding rapidly in the rural
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 17, 2003

      Journalism and caste in Bihar

      The media here has evolved into a force which is expanding rapidly in
      the rural hinterland, yet has relatively little influence. The
      reasons have to do with caste.

      Sevanti Ninan

      Recently in Patna, Bhagalpur and Muzafarpur

      In 1889, a man called Mahesh Narayan who has been described as the
      father of journalism in Bihar, started a weekly newspaper called the
      Kayastha Gazette, aimed at the Kayasthas who are one of the forward
      castes in the state. It ceased publication in 1891 for want of
      financial succour. This weekly was not Narayan's major claim to fame,
      a few years later he would start the Bihar Times to campaign for the
      separation of Bihar from Bengal. But it provides a historical
      starting point to the association between caste and journalism in
      this state.

      The relationship between Rabri Devi's government and the press in
      Bihar is fundamentally defined by caste equations. The limitations
      of media influence upon a government that has much to be castigated
      for, the absence of certain kinds of reporting in the media, the
      irrelevance of the press to recent electoral outcomes in Bihar—each
      of these parameters in the equation between politics and media,
      harks back to a relationship established before the advent of Laloo
      Prasad Yadav, or even before the implementation of the Mandal
      Commission report in the state.

      Subsequently, with the advent of Laloo Yadav and the lower and
      backward castes in the political mainstream, with the criminalisation
      of politics over the last decade, the media here has evolved into
      a force which has numbers, is growing rapidly in the rural
      hinterland, yet has relatively little influence.

      To travel around Bihar is to discover a state that defies its most
      common media stereotypes of backwardness, poverty and general
      breakdown of governance. All three are there, but along with these
      it is an amazingly sought-after market, those who know it well say
      it has far less starvation than many other states, there is money in
      the form of substantial deposits in banks, and considerable
      agricultural wealth. Even before the monsoons have come, parts of the
      state are, without exaggeration, as verdant as Kerala. It has several
      rivers and plenty of ground water, its dominant problem is floods not

      On the downside the number of criminal gangs in operation have grown
      from 12 or 13 in 1988 to 70 in 2003. The administration has its own
      reasons for not keeping them in check. But they have an effect on
      both development and prosperity: investment simply stays away.
      Power supply is horrendously poor: cities get some power every day,
      villages a few hours a week, or may be in ten days. The press rants
      about this, but nothing much changes. As the leader of the opposition
      in the Bihar legislative assembly, Sushil Kumar Modi, puts it
      pithily, journalists attack the government on power, water and other
      such issues. But they are careful not to be specific when they
      criticise corruption or the criminalisation of the state. They never
      mention the names of the Chief Minister's henchmen or his relatives
      who wield power for him. They dare not.

      The caste profile of the media in Bihar is similar to that in
      neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and other states in the Hindi heartland.
      It is more than eighty per cent upper caste. In the current caste-
      based politics of Bihar that makes its credibility suspect. Being
      upper caste need not mean alienation from the polity if the media is
      professional in its response to it. But in Bihar it was not. Caste
      consciousness in the media developed shortly after the Emergency
      when an earlier backward caste chief minister, Kapoori Thakur
      implemented the Mungheri Lal Committee report for the reservation of
      other backward castes. The Janata Party which was in power at the
      Centre was divided on this issue in Bihar. The media which was
      predominantly upper caste at that time opposed it, though not
      stridently, according to Sukant Nagarjun, currently resident editor
      of the Hindustan in Muzaffarpur, and earlier with Jagran and the Nav
      Bharat Times.

      Then came the Mandal Commission recommended reservations, which
      again were opposed by the majority of the press in the state. As
      Surendra Kishore, political editor of the Hindustan in Patna puts
      it, "they did not treat the issue professionally." A few prominent
      inDIVidual journalists supported it, editorially, newspapers did
      not. Laloo Prasad Yadav took advantage of that to underscore the
      caste profile of the media in the state at that time, which was
      overwhelmingly upper caste, as it is today. He told his supporters,
      the media is upper caste, do not trust it. Kishore points out that
      this affected the credibility of the media with the electorate. "If
      an upper caste chief minister misbehaved earlier and the media
      criticised him, it affected his political fortunes. That does not
      happen today." Laloo Prasad Yadav (who decides the fortunes of his
      party and government even if it is his wife who is the chief
      minister), flourishes despite media opposition.

      Others in the press use the same argument to make a different point.
      Nalin Varma, who represents the Statesman here, says that the media's
      response to Laloo Yadav is a casteist response. Many of the
      horrendous things he does have been done by other chief ministers and
      Central ministers from this state in the past, many of them from the
      Congress party such as the Mishra brothers, L N and Jagannath. (The
      latter in fact began his own newspaper which survived briefly, The
      Pataliputra Times. Caste representation within it too was
      predominantly upper caste.) But the media's reporting reflects a bias
      which you do not to be very perceptive to discern.

      He cites an example. The famous absconding of a Brahmin woman with
      the Muslim leader of a criminal gang was described as an abduction
      because the media went entirely by her family's version. Her version
      was not sought, and certainly not that of the Muslim. Later she
      testified to a women's commission that she had gone with him on her

      Two prominent local newspapers owned by the Maharaja of Darbangha
      which later closed down, the Aryavarth and The Nation, were
      predominantly Maithili Brahmin in their editorial composition. And if
      they highlighted floods, inevitably those in Mithila got a lot more
      coverage, he says. In a caste-ridden state the caste composition of
      the media is reinforced in different ways. Since there are no laid
      down parameters of recruitment, when you are recruiting, you are
      likely to hire more of your own kind, so a caste bias that is already
      there gets perpetuated. Secondly, in a state were everything has a
      caste colour, politicians, media, and the bureaucracy alike function
      along caste lines. The Hindu correspondent here, K Balchand, makes
      the point that the bureaucracy in Bihar is casteist, so when you
      write you may or may not reflect the whole picture because your
      source is likely to be from your caste. When you criticise a
      politician, he adds, the latter will immediately say he wrote this
      because he is not from my caste.

      Not all journalists are upper caste, some Dalits and Yadavs came into
      the profession post Emergency at the time when Kapoori Thakur was
      CM. But since the beginning of the process of broadening the media's
      social base began only then, in the late nineteen seventies, a very
      small percentage of representation in this profession has been
      achieved till now. It is also naïve to think that a reporter's
      lower caste background automatically makes him pro-downtrodden.
      Nagarjun cites two instances when he tried to get reporters to write
      about people doing good work among Musahirs and backward class
      women.. But in both cases the response was one of surprise and
      disparagement on the part of the reporter. "You mean that person who
      moves around with Musahirs/backward women?" One of them was a
      backward caste reporter.

      Journalists here tell you that media in neighbouring Jharkhand, a
      part of Bihar until November 2001, was recently extremely aggressive
      with former chief minister Babulal Marandi over the domicile issue
      which he tried to implement with regard to non tribal ownership of
      tribal lands. The aggression certainly had something to do with the
      media's own upper caste, non-tribal profile, and the landowning
      interests of owners of the media in the state. How journalists
      behave with leaders is also indicative of whom they feel superior
      to. There will be more aggressive with a Babu Lal Marandi, or a Laloo
      Prasad Yadav than with a George Fernandes.

      However if the preceding paras sound as if there is an established
      pattern of casteism with a predictably antagonism between the two
      estates, that is not the case. The net result today is paradoxical,
      the reality somewhat complex. Laloo is powerful because of his social
      base, the media is not. The papers which call the shots in the media
      scene are outsiders, not newspapers native to Bihar. The Hindustan,
      headquartered in Delhi and the Jagran headquartered in Kanpur are
      carving out territories for themselves in the state. They are here to
      make money. The Hindustan has been here for seventeen years, when
      the Jagran came in 2000 the forward castes thought it would take on
      Laloo but it soon became clear that it was planning to do nothing of
      the kind. Though its founder-editor the late Narendra Mohan was a
      Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament, the BJP here says that
      the Jagran is cleverly pragmatic in Bihar, it attacks both the ruling
      party and the opposition by turn, and it does not attack to hurt.

      The media is not influential in this state because it does not
      influence either the government or public opinion. The latter
      believes that the press has a caste bias, the former believes, for
      precisely this reason, that the media cannot hurt it because it has
      no credibility with the electorate. The media itself fears the
      criminal elements in the ruling coalition. It has business interests
      at stake. It would like to play safe. Sukant Nagarjun says Laloo is
      not affected by what the media writes because it never summons
      evidence damning enough to really take him on. Either because it
      cannot, or because it does not want to.

      One positive result of this state of affairs (from The Hoot's point
      of view) is that it keeps the profession as a whole from being
      mollycoddled by the present government. No government housing is
      giving to journalists in Bihar, and no prizes for guessing why not.

      Contact: sevanti_ninan@...

      (This article is based on ongoing research funded by the National
      Foundation for India)
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