As narrative-hunting is increasingly defining the alarmist pitch in India’s English language media, last week was a stark reminder of its fault-lines. The way the English media approached two separate incidents in Jind and Nuh districts of Haryana revealed its blind spots starkly.
The gruesome rape and murder of a Dalit girl in Jind district and then recovery of the body of the key suspect (also a Dalit boy) hogged the headlines. The heinous nature of the crime, which evoked the horrific Nirbhaya case, was also seen with the prism of crime against Dalits. It was the latter that in large measure galvanised a section of the Delhi media – a grim indicator of how banal the acceptance of heinous crimes per se has become.
In the absence of any link with the Dalit status of both victims, the murders can now be seen as unspeakable barbarism claiming two young lives. In the same state, however, another unambiguous case of atrocity against a Dalit family came to the fore. Ironically, the nature of the case ensured that it was a misfit in the kind of narratives that a dominant section of the English press is interested in. In fact, it was inconvenient.
Hindi dailies didn’t have any such inconvenience to overcome while reporting it. In Molhaka village of the district (Mewat region), a Dalit family alleged that it was attacked and abused with casteist slurs by a few Muslim villagers for its refusal to convert to Islam.
Dainik Jagran and Navbharat Times carried reports by their correspondents as they gathered details about the incident. Dated January 18, a report in Navbharat Times said (as translated): “The issue of attempted conversion of a Dalit family in Mewat region has made religious organisations tense. A fresh case is from Mohalka village of Nagina division where a Dalit family was violently attacked when it didn’t agree to convert to Islam… According to a complaint filed by Mohalka resident Kishen, sustained pressure was exerted on their family to convert. When the family refused, they were assaulted with iron rods, batons and sticks. They were abused and humiliated with casteist slurs.”
Newslaundry correspondent Amit Bhardwaj, who visited the village, found that when the complaint was turned into an FIR, the charges were framed under Scheduled Castes and Tribes ( Prevention of Atrocities) Act and there was no mention of the alleged pressure to convert. However, speaking to the correspondent, the aggrieved Dalit family reiterated that pressure was exerted on them by a strongman of the area, Mohammad Islam, to convert.
Different versions emerged from the village about the immediate trigger of the attack on the family, which can be read in the correspondent’s report. Though all such versions don’t match the details of the Navbharat Timesreport, the veracity of the reported attack is confirmed.
Interestingly, taking a longer time-frame, the Navbharat Times report also mentioned that such attempts at forced conversion have been quite regular in the region.
India’s most read daily followed up the story with a report which gave an account of the difficulties being faced by the family in getting the case properly investigated by the police. Dainik Jagran reported that in the wake of the family alleging that the police were trying to cover up the case, a social organisation, Maharshi Valmiki Foundation, assured them that their case would be addressed to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
Whatever be the trigger behind the assault on the Dalit family, the mere fact of a violent attack on the family should have attracted the English media’s attention.
In plain sight, news about an attack on a Dalit family, and additionally the alleged pressure on it to convert, seems to be the stuff for outrage production – something the English media feeds off. Yet, its indifference to the news from Nuh (Mewat), to the point of not giving any space to it, wasn’t surprising either.
The incident was anyway disruptive for the neat narrative of victimhood which this section of media discourse has woven over a number of years. Even a casual observer of India’s English media scene can see this. When two claimants on social justice find themselves in a victim-perpetrator equation, an influential section of the media either looks away or refuses to identify social or religious groups of the victims and perpetrators.
In an earlier piece, the author argued the case for a victim-perpetrator binary and doing away with communal profiling. However, the agency of community in certain patterns of crime makes such profiling useful, and blended with editorial narratives, it has been the staple diet of the English media universe. That’s why lack of consistency in identifying perpetrators and victims makes the English media vulnerable to charges of selectivity.
While the Mewat incident is a reminder of the media’s complete disengagement with inconvenient facts, the way it reported the molestation of a Dalit girl by Muslim men in Uttar Pradesh’s Rampur district last year is one of the many examples of its selective indifference to communal labelling of crime.
The author had addressed this in an earlier piece on this site and also listed some recent cases where social and religious profiling of crime was selectively avoided. One could add more such incidents to the ones alluded to in the linked piece, and one of the recent ones can be about how the media reported the rape of a Dalit woman by two Muslim men in a movie hall in Meerut (the victim alleged that one of the culprits befriended her with a fake Hindu name).
Though it was reported in bits and pieces in a few English dailies, the story never acquired proportions of outrage.
Sometimes the price of such selectivity has to be paid by journalists themselves. When media houses are characters in the story themselves, they don’t expect journalists to tell every story. Such are the costs of narrative-hunting activism hosted by sections of the Indian media, especially the digital entities.
The recent social media post by Damayantee Dhar, a journalist reporting from Gujarat, makes it clear that the safety of a woman reporter was made peripheral to the centrality of editorial cheerleading of a Dalit movement. While she was heckled and manhandled by Dalit activists, she was advised to refrain from making it public because otherwise the movement would get derailed.
As if to remind how entrenched the selective sense of storytelling is in a section of the media, the author is tempted to reproduce something he had concluded the piece on Rampur molestation with. The Mewat incident and Dhar’s social media post somehow reinforce it:
Having a default setting of batting for the perceived underdog, with indifference to disturbing facts, is a sure sign of lazy journalism. The obvious trap of political correctness could be seen in the cherry-picked debates the media chatteratti indulge in. Often the danger of such political correctness is a kind of prudishness which shields it from the inconvenient truth, something that should be its primary calling.
The missing Mewat and Dhar in the English media’s Dalit story are reminders of how the headlines reveal, or alternatively conceal, the media’s selective “social” and “secular” battles.