CHENNAI: Every year, starry-eyed journalism students leave behind classrooms to chase stories in dynamic newsrooms, dangerous conflict zones, or behind desks. While traversing the real world, a sharp pen, empathy, and understanding how to write narratives are crucial tools. On the ground, another tool is undoubtedly understanding identities.
As violence rages across the world in Manipur and Palestine, Patricia Mukhim, editor of Shillong Times, reminds students that identities are “a socially and historically constructed concept linked to power and ideology”, and to grapple with them. During a day-long colloquium, ‘Media and Identities, Caste, Tribe, and Gender in India’ at the Asian College of Journalism, she says, “As mediapersons we use images, words, characters, and persons to convey ideas and values related to culture, identity and society…With so many ethnic diversities, beyond the northeast, we must report conflict in such a way we give voice to both sides.”
In her lecture ‘Ethnicity, Identity and the Quest for ST status’, the editor explains to the audience at MS Subbulakshmi Auditorium the complexities of the cultural fabric in northeast India. “India has 8.6% of tribes, we don’t have a caste system but we have a tribal elite who have more access to resources because they are close to the political power and that is the problem,” she says, adding, “If you look at a map that shows you where resources are located, minerals are in the land of indigenous people, many live in areas where they are no longer a majority, even languages are not recognised and access to resources is not available to all.”
Capturing caste and hierarchy
In a session, ‘Media and Marginalised Women: A Critical Reflection’, Sunaina Arya, a senior research fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University, displays a page in her book Dalit Feminist Theory: A Reader. Artist Savi Savarkar etches an unclothed devadasi staring ahead with a crow perched on her head, and deep scars on her stomach, suggestive of abortion. This image lingers in the mind of every reader.
“The present picture of South Asia does not depict the advancement of human rights of Dalits, especially Dalit women. Ten Dalit girls are raped every day according to NCRB data and Dalit women die 20 years earlier compared to other women,” points out Sunaina. Citing the examples of the Hathras gang rape and murder, Khairlanji massacre, and Bhanwari Devi case, she describes how these cases were “not just of sexual violence but attacking their sense of dignity, humanity, and respect.”
She explains how caste and gender are inseparable, and endogamy and graded hierarchy uphold Brahmanical patriarchy. “Dalit representation in media board is 0.01%. Representation will help but we need an understanding of constitutional morality...What we need is Dalit feminism, not feminism for Dalits or by them but as an answer to caste,” she says.
James Ponnaiah, head of the Department of Christian Studies, University of Madras, delves into the history of Dalit Christians, conversion laws, and the act of othering by religious majorities. “Dalit Christians undergo five-fold discrimination, by the state, caste Hindus, Dalit Hindus and one’s own Hindu Dalit sub caste and caste Christians,” he explains in ‘Dissonances of Dalit Christians, Nation State, and its Emerging Public.’ But he adds, recently, there has been a greater unity among Dalits where they transcend class and religion, and become much more aware of their rights. “If religious nationalism takes the nation five steps backward, Christian Dalit activism propels the nation one step forward to make it more inclusive and more democratic,” he concludes.
Structure of society
In ‘Sanatana Dharma and Caste System’, Sanskrit scholar TS Syamkumar decodes the complex and often-inaccessible shastras, vedas, and documents. He explains, “Dharma refers to values, Sanatana to eternal; so eternal, unchanging order of the universe.”
According to Syamkumar, the caste system is promoted in the guise of Sanatana Dharma. “No temple in Kerala has a non-Brahmin priest, they are there nominally not in main temples, famous temples like Sabarimala and Guruvayoor. This is why Sanathana Dharma, in Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu, is still prevalent because society still believes in the Varna system,” he says. The scholar adds that Savarna-Brahmins still hold 68% of land in Kerala, despite the Land Reform Act.
P Thirumal of University of Hyderabad, author Braj Ranjan Mani, Editor-Views of Hindustan Times Dhrubo Jyoti, and ACJ’s Akash Poyam delivered talks. Filmmaker Rajesh Rajamani showed his film The Discreet Charms of the Savarnas.
For journalists still grappling with their identities and ideas, Sunaina aptly puts it, “anyone can transform themselves”, and to diagnose the disease of society, we must have the cure.