The largest among them, National Dastak, has around 35 lakh subscribers. Bahujan TV has 17 lakh, and National India News (NIN) has more than 13 lakh subscribers. Other YouTube channels in the five lakh-plus list are Awaaz India TV, Dalit Dastak, Mulniwasi TV (MNTV), Samta Awaz TV, Dalit News Network (DNN), SM News, and Voice News Network. Individual vloggers like ActivistVed are also running popular YouTube channels. Videos on National Dastak have over 88 crore views.
This data tells us that something is happening below the surface of Indian society, which is not visible to media analysts (or perhaps they just don’t want to see and report it).
Why are Dalits and people from ‘lower’ castes subscribing to this interesting phenomenon of Dalit-Bahujan media outlets? In the 21st century, is this another kind of segregation or should we see it as the emergence of a much-needed diversity in media ownership?
Need for ‘Dalit media’
That Dalits have their own media platform is not at all a new thing. In 1920, B.R. Ambedkar started his own fortnightly publication Mooknayak. Last week, Dalit Dastak organised a grand ceremony at Delhi’s Ambedkar International Centre to celebrate the centenary year of Mooknayak. Ambedkar went on to publish four more periodicals — Bahishkrit Bharat, Janata, Samata, and Prabuddha Bharat. His most successful disciple Kanshiram also ran a media house and published his own newspaper — Bahujan Sangathak.
Ambedkar had his reasons.”I know the Congress Press well. I attach no value to its criticism. It has never refuted my arguments. It knows only 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,” he had said.
From 1920 to 2020, the world has changed a lot, and so has the media landscape. It has seen changes in terms of content, medium, and technology. But the quest of the Dalits to have their own media is something that still exists, maybe with more fervor now.
Let’s look at what these platforms say about themselves and why they exist.
- National Dastak says that “the mainstream media caters only to the requirements of the elites and it ignores the needs and aspirations of the marginalised sections of the society like — SCs, STs, women, minorities, farmers and laborers.”
- Bahujan TV, with a total of 16 crore views, claims that it will propagate the ideas of Jyotiba Phule, Shahuji Maharaj, and Ambedkar, and at the same time also strive to end superstition and irrational beliefs.
- National India News, with 21 crore views, asserts that the mainstream media silences the voice of struggling masses. It claims that Indian media functions as the enemy of the Bahujans. It says there are some benevolent voices in the mainstream media, but adds that they work only as camouflage to push its ‘upper’ caste agenda.
I have observed some common traits in this emerging phenomenon of digital Dalits running their own media outlets. These will be useful for those interested in pursuing a systematic study or those with an interest in learning the intersections of social and communication processes.
There has always been a separate category of Dalit literature, at least since the early 20th century. Hundreds of book publishers and distributors deal exclusively in this domain. In north and central India, Dalit literature is more popular in Marathi, Hindi and Punjabi languages.
Prior to the digital revolution, running a media house was a mammoth exercise and involved big money. With the democratisation of technology, it has become easier to start a media venture, especially in terms of finances.
In the digital era, one only requires a smartphone, a tripod, a freely-available editing app and an internet connection to run an audio-visual channel. The total capital expenditure to start such a channel is less than Rs 10,000. This has created an opportunity for Dalit-Bahujan youth to start media outlets.
Caste bias in media
Newspapers and TV channels are largely run by ‘upper’ caste Hindus and they decide what will be published and what will be the tone and tenor of the content. This sociological structure of the Indian newsroom has been a subject of regular scrutiny and it has been proven, with empirical facts, that SC/STs and OBCs are almost missing in the newsrooms, especially in decision-making positions.
As the Indian media is advertisement-driven, there exists a bias to produce content that is suitable to the consumption-friendly upper strata, because it is this group that the advertisers want to have in their media plan.
With the government being the biggest advertiser in India, media houses try not to antagonise the establishment on most occasions, even if it results in publishing something that is not in the interest of the masses.
The progressive section of the media produces only a small part of the content that is available for public consumption, which mostly has pro-elite biases.
Content for the mainstream
These factors create a void in the media landscape, because it is simply not possible for media houses to cater to the needs of the subaltern. This happens because of the structure of their business. And since the ‘upper’ caste-dominated newsrooms also have an agency of their own, they can’t focus on the issues of the marginalised.
This existing matrix of structure and agency has resulted in a strong upper-caste bias in media content. This is more visible whenever there is news involving caste, like reservation, caste census or SC/ST Act.
All politics of this era is driven by shareable content and virality. If you can control how content is created, published and distributed, then you can shape politics. Instead of sending press releases to mainstream media and waiting for them to publish it, the Dalit-Bahujan media owners now publish the content themselves and have the ‘upper’ caste media chase those leads.
It is not that that the mainstream media is not aware of these things. They too are trying to come to terms with this reality. But it will not be an easy task for them to create an all-encompassing, inclusive content that suits the need of all social groups with conflicting interests.
Moreover, media houses are not yet ready for the diversity debate, which the US did 50 years ago. In the US, media houses embraced diversity with a conviction that it is good for the business. In India, that idea is yet to sink in.
Until that happens, we can all watch Dalit channels for their side of the story.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.