Missing the Story

Lessons for Indian journalism from Dalit mobilisation online

01 March 2016
Rohith Vemula’s suspension from the University of Hyderabad had been news in online Dalit forums for months, but was only picked up by the mainsteam media when protests broke out following his suicide.
VIPIN KUMAR/HINDUSTAN TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES
Rohith Vemula’s suspension from the University of Hyderabad had been news in online Dalit forums for months, but was only picked up by the mainsteam media when protests broke out following his suicide.
VIPIN KUMAR/HINDUSTAN TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES

On the evening of 17 January, the journalist Dilip C Mandal, one of the most formidable Dalit voices on social media, wrote to his over 20,000 followers on Facebook of news from the University of Hyderabad—“perhaps the most terrible news of our times.” A few hours earlier, Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar suspended by the university in a manner that reeked of caste discrimination, had committed suicide. Vemula’s death immediately sparked large-scale protests on his campus, and, as the news spread, five student unions called a state-wide bandh on educational institutions in Telangana. Later that night, Mandal posted on Facebook that protests would be held the following day at three venues—the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, and outside the office of the minister of human resource development, Smriti Irani, in Delhi.

But on 18 January, none of this turmoil was reflected in the Delhi editions of the country’s four biggest English-language newspapers. The Times of India summed up Vemula’s death in a small, single-column report on page 13. The Indian Express gave it one paragraph in its news digest, on page 10. The Hindu gave it a single column on page 13, with a small blurb on its front page pointing to the story. The day’s Hindustan Times didn’t cover the story at all. Meanwhile, the protests, which had been mobilised on social media, fed television news channels the kind of spectacles they relish most. Throughout the day, channels carried videos of the police showering lathi blows on young women and men, and yanking them around by the hair. That night, all the primetime debate shows discussed Vemula’s suicide.

On 19 January, Mandal, a former managing editor of the Hindi edition of India Today, again took to Facebook, writing that he had been invited to appear on a number of these shows but had turned them down, because he didn’t want to lend the channels any credibility. “Before the channels first aired it, and before the newspapers first published their stories, the crores of social media journalists made Rohith’s murder a national issue on their own,” he wrote. “This is where journalism is happening. Channels and newspapers are only following it … I’m here despite TV. Not because of it.”

Martand Kaushik is a senior assistant editor at The Caravan.

Keywords: India caste media television Dalit movement Dalit journalism social media Indian media caste discrimination Rohith Vemula newsrooms Dalit twitter Indian journalism Talkshows Ambedkar's Caravan Round Table India Casteism Martand Kaushik martand kaushik
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