It would be pertinent to begin by repeating that the formal structure of the media industry in India began taking shape with the launching of the Bengal Gazette by James A. Hicky in 1780. The Varna system, prevalent in a large geographical area of India, formed the background of the society for which this structure was being built. The Varna system had its economic, social and cultural base. Every system develops a structure for communication and dialogue between its members. This structure has its own language and its own manner of presentation. The meanings implicit in the words and sentences of this language are communicated with ease. The language and the presentation, which the Varna system, developed for communication between different castes, has, more or less, remained unchanged till date.
An old Bengali newspaper Samvad Kaumudi published an appeal, urging Hindus to acquire the skills of various kinds of mechanics forgetting their caste prejudices. The correspondent counselled the Hindus that they should not think that if they become a technician of some kind, their status in the society would stand diminished. Samvad Kaumudi also emphasised that eminent Hindus should become businessmen. The publisher of the newspaper was Bhawanicharan Bandopadhyaya. Thus, we see that a language was developed for communication between higher caste Hindus.
Many such streams are visible in the means of communication of the initial days, but, fundamentally, they are the same. Samvad Bhaskar, also published from Bengal, was a progressive publication. It drew attention to a new kind of social problem. In its issue of 20 September 1856, the journal said that English education had given rise to a social problem of a new kind. The members of the lower castes have developed a yearning for acquiring English education, it reported with alarm. The sons of carpenter, barber, dhobhi and bhangi families were learning English and obtaining jobs as clerks, agents, and so on. They were giving up their traditional occupations. This was giving rise to a new social problem – the paucity of tradesmen!
Many research projects have been undertaken to study the communication structure that developed in Bengal through the mass media but there has been no study on how the media developed a communication structure that worked for the protection of the interests of the caste system and its prejudices. Although, admittedly, research in itself is also an academic component of the communication structure. Words like ‘reform’ and ‘progressivism’ have casteist overtones. They are not rooted in the language of giving the deprived their due. In this communication structure, the highest manifestations of liberalism and progressivism are sympathy and pity. And that too not at the cost of one’s own interests; but while protecting one’s interests.
An interesting example of the ‘progressivism’ of the media was the coverage of the Santhal uprising. Samvad Bhaskar supported the government action against the rebels while, at the same time, hinting that it was sympathetic to the demands of the Santhals. Simultaneously, it also criticised the police and army personnel for committing atrocities on the tribals. This mixture of support to the government, opposition to the repression by army and police officials and sympathy towards the tribals survives even today. What is amusing is that after carrying reports of this kind, the newspaper also published a letter that came from Birbhum – the epicentre of the Santhal uprising – which described the excesses committed under the leadership of a local magistrate. It is also mentioned that had the magistrate been from an upper caste, such atrocities would not have been committed. Thus, the ‘Varna system’ was also duly protected.
Is the attitude of the media towards the happenings in tribal areas till the initial years of the 21st century not indicative of the fact that the communication structure that was put in place during the Santhal uprising was inherited by the mainstream media and it continued to serve the interests of everyone except the tribals? Whenever the question of sharing of resources with the deprived sections crops up, the media conveniently forgets the real definitions of sympathy and progressivism. It is thus that the structure of the mainstream media developed.
We can understand the practical import of this structure via an example. The English daily The Hindu, as we know it today, was launched in 1878. Ravi Kumar, a writer from Tamil Nadu, in his book Venomous Touch noted that The Hindu was launched with a loan of one rupee and twelve annas. It was an eight-page weekly, which was sold for 25 annas per copy. When it was launched, the print order was 80 copies. By 1905, The Hindu was selling around 800 copies. In that year, Kasturi Iyenger bought it for Rs 75,000 and today, it is a big brand in Indian media. Now, look at another example. In the same part of South India, in October 1883, Rettamalai Srinivasan took out a monthly called Parayan. Rs 10 was spent on the publication and advertising for the magazine. That means an investment many times over was made in a monthly than what was made in weekly The Hindu. The publisher of the magazine was a Dalit. Around 400 copies were sold in two days. That was equal to four weeks’ gross circulation of the The Hindu. The level of literacy in the Dalit community at that time can be gauged by the fact that in the entire Madras Municipal area, only 112 Dalit candidates were found eligible for bi-lingual posts. But this magazine came out regularly only till 1900. It ceased publication in that year. Now the question is that why ‘The Hindu’ could find buyers with ease while no one was ready to buy and run Rettamalai’s magazine.
If we compare the situation in the beginning of the 20th century with that in the beginning of the 21st century, do we find any fundamental difference? Hardly any, one must say. The truth is that no media institution grows from the capital of the owner. It grows courtesy the dominant group whose political, economic and socio-cultural interests it serves. According to a study undertaken by the Media Studies Group, Upper Caste men who form 8 per cent of the population of the country, occupy 86 per cent of the top 10 decision-making positions in the media groups. Here, it is also important that when we say ‘mainstream media’, it only means media of a particular class but it conveys the meaning as if it is the primary voice of Indian society. Interestingly, even members of Dalit, Backward and Tribal communities use the term ‘mainstream media’ and describe the media institutions under their leadership as ‘Dalit media’. There is hardly any thinking on how a comprehensive structure for the communication of Dalit philosophy can be brought into being.
Published in the March 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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