B.R. Ambedkar is renowned as a multidisciplinary scholar and a visionary institution builder. There are many facets associated with his life that can be interpreted in innumerable ways. As Ambedkar’s first ever journal Mooknayak completes hundred years of its publication, it’s a good time to look at Indian media’s approach towards Ambedkar’s views and the latter’s opinion of the media.
In Ambedkar’s era, print media — newspapers, magazines, journals — and radio were prominent mediums of mass communication. During those days too, the Brahmin/Savarna community enjoyed complete hegemony over the media outlets. Ambedkar realised early on that he will never get support from the mainstream media in his battle against social disparity and that he was more likely to face resistance from them.
So it was not without a reason that Ambedkar launched a number of journals — Mookanayak (1920), Bahishkrit Bharat (1924), Samata (1928), Janata (1930), Aamhi Rajkarti Jamaat Bananar (1940), Enlightened India (1956). Besides working as the editor and writer, he also provided guidance to these publications as consultant. With the help of the media, Ambedkar ran his socio-political movement and raised his voice for the rights of the untouchables.
Back in those days, Bal Gangadhar Tilak used to publish a newspaper named Kesari. Tilak refused to publish an advertisement for Mooknayak in Kesari despite being offered.
Mooknayak‘s editor was PN Bhatkar, who belonged to the Mahar caste and was a college graduate. Ambedkar wrote the first thirteen editorial articles for Mooknayak. In the first article, Ambedkar described Hindu society as a multi-storey building in which there is neither a stairway nor an entrance to move from one floor to another. All of its residents are forced to live and die on the same floor they were born.
Congress press and Ambedkar
Ambedkar’s lecture titled ‘Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah’, delivered on the occasion of the 101st birth anniversary of Mahadev Govind Ranade at Gokhale Memorial Hall in Poona on 18 January 1943, is quite important for understanding his viewpoint towards mainstream media and its characteristics. He said, “The condemnation is by the Congress press. I know the Congress press well. I attach no value to its criticism. It has never refuted my arguments. It knows only [how] to criticise, rebuke and revile me for everything I do; and to misreport, misrepresent and pervert everything I say. Nothing that I do pleases the Congress press. This animosity of the Congress press towards me can to my mind, not unfairly, be explained as a reflex of the hatred of the Hindus for the Untouchables.”
Ambedkar’s views remain relevant even today, especially after seeing how various media outlets engage in deification of a person, and insist on proving criticism of the government as criticism of the nation while acting as de facto spokespersons of political parties. It is not hard to guess the party, leader and ideology that Dr. Ambedkar would have criticised, had he been alive today.
Caste dominance in media
While highlighting the role and limitations of mainstream media with respect to the lives and movement of untouchables, he wrote, “People from abroad believe that Congress is the sole institution representing the people of India, including even the untouchables. The main reason behind this is that the untouchables have no medium of their own through which they can contest Congress’s claim. There are several other reasons for this weakness of the untouchables. They have no press of their own and the doors of Congress press are shut for them. They have taken a vow to not to give even an iota of publicity to the untouchables. The untouchables cannot establish a press of their own. It is crystal clear that no newspaper can survive without advertisements. Advertisement revenue can only be generated via commercial advertisements. All businessmen, big or small, are associated with the Congress and they cannot side with a non-Congress institution. The staff of Associated Press of India, which is India’s news agency, is full of Tamil Brahmins. In reality, India’s entire press is caught in their stranglehold and they are completely loyal to the Congress. They can never publish any news against the Congress.”
The study of social background of media persons by the Media Studies Group is relevant to determine the participation of Dalit, Adivasi and backward communities. This research conducted in 2006 shows that the social characteristics of media have not changed even in the 21st century and the caste-based dominance continues to prevail even today.
Political education of Dalits
In January 1945, All India Scheduled Castes Federation launched its weekly mouthpiece ‘People’s Herald’. Its main motive was to give voice to aspirations, demands and complaints of the untouchables. Speaking as the inaugurator of this journal, Ambedkar said, “In the modern democratic system having a good newspaper is the basic foundation for having a good government. We cannot succeed in eliminating the incomparable misfortune and plight of the Scheduled Castes of India, until the 8 crore untouchables are politically educated. While reporting about various representatives’ behaviours in various assemblies, newspapers should tell their readers to ask them about why it is so? Then I have no doubt that there would be a drastic change in the behaviour of these representatives. This way the chaos that currently exists, which is the reason for the sufferings faced by our community, can be kept in check. I am looking at this newspaper as an instrument which can purify people who have transgressed in the wrong direction in their political life.
While citing the role played by the Marathi newspapers during the 1937 legislative polls, he said, “Newspapers not only train the voters, they also ensure that those who they have voted for are standing by them, performing their duty properly and not misbehaving with anyone.” He further added, “I have edited a weekly in Bombay for 16 years. The proof of the enormous impact generated by this journal manifested itself during the Bombay’s legislative polls, in which I garnered votes from every section of the society and managed to defeat my opponent from Congress.”
It is obvious that Ambedkar had acknowledged the important role of newspapers as the watchdog of democracy and its pivotal role in the political training of the populace.
The media world has witnessed a lot of transformation since Ambedkar’s era but many things are still the same. Doors of mainstream media are usually still closed for the Dalits. In the post-Ambedkar era, Kanshiram published many journals to take his movement forward. Today, sporadic efforts are being made by some individuals and organisations for publishing journals and magazines.
Similarly countless social media pages, Twitter, Facebook groups, YouTube channels, video and text blogs are also being run. But why is it so that despite having hundreds of Dalit millionaires, organisations like DICCI and BAMCEF, hundreds of MLAs, parliamentarians and ministers, dozens of powerful national leaders, thousands of bureaucrats, there is no mainstream English or Hindi newspaper and TV channel that can raise issues related to Dalit and backward classes and can claim to represent the global perspective from their point of view?
It clearly portrays the intellectual boundaries and limitations of leadership and the newly emerged middle-class among Dalits.
The author is an Associate Professor of History at the Hindu College, Delhi University. He has also conducted research work on Kashi Prasad Jaiswal. Views are personal.
This article has been translated from Hindi. Read the original here.