July 04, 2023
Roughly 70 per cent of Indians are from the OBC/SC/ST castes, 15 per cent are Muslims, and 15 per cent are ‘upper caste’. This does not automatically mean that every occupation should or will also reflect these numbers proportionally. That is, we cannot expect the proportion of people in, say, banking and sports to be 70 per cent OBC/SC/ST, 15 per cent Muslims, and 15 per cent upper caste. It is natural that representation of people across professions will vary widely. But, if 100 per cent of successful startup unicorns belong to upper caste people and 100 per cent of manual scavengers are Dalits and tribals, then it cannot be dismissed as a mere statistical oddity or a natural outcome. Why is it that 94 per cent of senior officers in the government are upper caste while 80 per cent of the MGNREGA labourers are OBC/SC/ST? These are legitimate questions that any society should confront and answer.
Rahul Gandhi’s “jitni abadi utna haq” call raises this question while his demand for a caste census is an attempt to find the answer. But the caste census is just cold data and only one part of the information puzzle of India’s social inequality. The more important missing piece is the warm human stories, ground reports, and actual life experiences of people suffering such inequalities and caste prejudices in their daily and occupational lives.
One’s ‘birth lottery’ shapes one’s professional future in caste-ridden India. Who a child is born to is the most significant determinant of their success. The magnitude of the impact of this ‘birth lottery’ can only be studied better with quantitative and qualitative information. The caste census may provide the quantitative part, but the media, which bears the onus for qualitative information, has failed.
Why discourse is stilted
Stories of caste discrimination in social mobility do not get nearly as much attention and space as stories that impact the privileged do. For example, why do tax rates that impact 33 million professionals who are predominantly upper caste dominate television news and newspaper stories much more than, say, the stories of 150 million MGNREGA workers who are mostly backward castes or Dalits? If backward castes, Dalits, and tribals constitute 70 per cent of India’s population, why is 70 per cent of daily reportage or opinion pages in media publications not about issues that affect these people? Perhaps the answer lies in the identities of those that make such content decisions in these media organisations
Of the 44 chief and senior editors of the top 18 national English television, print and digital media publications that we analysed, nearly all are upper caste. These are the influential people that shape daily news content, make editorial decisions, set narratives, and guide policy discourse in the country. None of them belong to the OBC, SC, or ST groups that constitute nearly three-quarters of India’s population. Of the 600 authors that wrote opinion articles in the top six national English print newspapers between January and May this year, 96 per cent are upper castes (including me) (proprietary analysis). When editors and opinion makers are so overwhelmingly upper caste people, it is no surprise that the national media discourse is tremendously skewed in favour of issues that afflict just them.
To be clear, I am not insinuating that upper caste editors and opinion makers won’t or can’t raise issues of the oppressed and argue cogently in their favour. In fact, the oppressed castes may be served better with people from upper castes making a case for them than mere tokenism such as a weekly column space dedicated to Dalit authors or some such. But it is impossible for upper caste editors and opinion writers to understand and articulate the lived experiences of oppression and discrimination that can often be subtle and subconscious. Proportional representation of various identity groups in editorial and opinion positions in media is a very critical and necessary ingredient in shaping society’s ability to acknowledge, confront, debate, and resolve identity cleavages and social inequality.
Caste blind or privileged?
The standard response to the lack of social diversity in leadership teams is that these organisations are ‘caste blind’. Which means that they do not ask for the caste of people they recruit, and hiring is based entirely on ‘merit’. This is as flimsy as Narendra Modi’s response of ‘sabka saath sabka vikas’ to the Wall Street Journal reporter’s question about the persecution of minorities in India. When any individual or organisation claims they are ‘caste blind’, it is very highly likely they are from the privileged caste. Only the privileged can claim to be ‘caste blind’, when caste is such a big fault line in Indian society that is empirically so evident.
In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) pledged to ensure newsrooms reflected America’s racial diversity when just 4 per cent of the media workforce was black. While this was neither a mandate nor a law, it was a conscious effort and an acknowledgement of the need for media to appropriately reflect the diversity of the underlying population. As a result, 22 per cent of newsrooms in the US today are black, and the number of stories on diversity and inclusion has shot up by more than 10,000 per cent. Wokeism or not, American society is far richer now for its ability to acknowledge and debate racial matters.
Any civil society and particularly a liberal democracy must acknowledge and confront identity fault lines. Media plays an inordinately important role in the nation’s ability to witness, experience and debate these issues. For that, media organisations must ensure their own newsrooms and leadership teams mirror the social diversity of the society that they report on. Perhaps, media organisations in India should be the first practitioners of Rahul Gandhi’s “jitni abaadi utna haq”.
Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and a senior office bearer of the Congress party. He tweets @pravchak. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)