November 2006 
Year 13    No.120

Cover Story


Caste out

Dalits and Dalit issues are largely absent in the Indian media

BY RAJA SEKHAR VUNDRU

On Dussehra day, which fell on October 2 this year, the Dalits of India celebrated a great occasion. It was the
golden jubilee of Dr BR Ambedkarís Dhamma Deeksha (conversion to Buddhism). On the same Dussehra day in 1956, 15 lakh Dalits embraced Buddhism along with Ambedkar in Nagpur. The occasion was of such importance that Dalits who had embraced Buddhism arrived in lakhs, coming to Nagpur from all over the country as the jubilee neared. An estimated 16 to 20 lakh people thronged the streets of Nagpur and converged at Deeksha Bhoomi, the memorial constructed to mark Ambedkarís great conversion.

A two-day World Buddhist Convention was organised as part of celebrations in the city along with scores of other programmes beginning several days prior to the actual celebration. The convention, which was organised mainly by a Dalit diaspora organisation, Ambedkar International Mission, included participants from 22 countries and comprised western scholars and experts apart from the monkhood from various countries.

In September 2006 the Western Buddhist Order, Birmingham, UK, held a Conference in London on "50 Years of Dhamma Revolution" and later organised an international meet at Nagpur as part of the weeklong celebrations in October.

One mammoth celebration was the "Dhamma Deeksha Suvarna Mahotsav" held by the Deeksha Bhoomi Committee of Nagpur at Deeksha Bhoomi, the site where Dr BR Ambedkar embraced Buddhism. The stupa at Deeksha Bhoomi, which was constructed as a memorial to the event, contains Dr Ambedkarís ashes. Lakhs of Dalit Buddhists who arrived from all over India visited the stupa for a glimpse of the casket in which his ashes lie.

As Dalit Buddhists arrived two days in advance, Nagpur city surged with a sea of humanity paying tribute and in reverence to both Ambedkar and Buddha.

Even as all this was happening in Nagpur, there was no trace or news of these events in the electronic media, which normally scours the streets for news. The only cameraman present at the site belonged to a local city cable network that was covering the October 2 evening Suvarna Mahotsav live. Why did the Indian electronic media ignore this event and reduce it to a local event fit only for a local cable network?

Interestingly, in an October 2005 issue of The Times of India with writer Vikram Seth as its special guest editor the paper had predicted in its headlines that the golden jubilee of Dr Ambedkarís Dhamma Deeksha would be celebrated as a big event in 2006. Unfortunately, the Indian media turned a blind eye to the celebrations in Nagpur, a central Indian city considered the second capital of Maharashtra. If such an event had taken place in Mumbai, would the media have covered it? Just as rainfall in Mumbai or Delhi or Kolkata makes news?

Although Dr BR Ambedkar finally decided to embrace Buddhism in 1956, he had in fact already made his famous announcement at the Yeola Conference as early as 1935: "Unfortunately for me I was born a Hindu Untouchable. It was beyond my power to prevent that but I declare that it is within my power to refuse to live under ignoble and humiliating conditions. I solemnly assure you that I will not die a Hindu."

Dr Ambedkar eventually embraced Buddhism in Nagpur on Dussehra day in 1956, which fell on October 14 that year, and kept his promise made at the Yeola Conference in 1935. An interesting and little known fact is that the place initially chosen for the ceremony of Ambedkarís conversion was Bombay (Mumbai). It was at the insistence of people from the Nagpur region that Dr Ambedkar shifted the venue of his deeksha to Nagpur. Later that year, on October 16 he converted another four lakh people to Buddhism at Chandrapur in Maharashtra. Even Chandrapur celebrated the event this year with a congregation of six lakhs gathering there on October 16. As usual the event went unreported. If Nagpur was too remote for the media gaze, Chandrapur was no doubt as remote as the Amazonian jungles!

Now, if Mumbai had been the venue for the conversion in 1956 and if the celebration were to be held in Mumbai, would the media have covered the event any more responsibly? This seems unlikely. About five lakh Dalits congregate at Chaitya Bhoomi, the site of Dr BR Ambedkarís cremation at Dadar in Mumbai on December 6 every year, in much the same way that lakhs throng Nagpur to commemorate the deeksha event. Mumbai roads get blocked in early December every year with Dalits arriving days in advance to catch a glimpse of Dr Ambedkarís ashes again at the city site. So far in all these years the lakhs of Dalits surging into Mumbai seem to have made no news. Since Dr Ambedkar attained mahaparinibban (death) in 1956, the year 2006 would mark 50 years of Dr Ambedkarís mahaparinibban i.e. it would be his 50th death anniversary. The crowds are likely to be several times larger than the normal five lakhs that gather in Mumbai on that day. One can only wait and see whether this Mumbai event makes it to the news channels or not.

In an age where multiple channels vie for news, Nagpur did not figure as a newsworthy event. Even the annual Mumbai event of December 6, Dr Ambedkarís Mahaparinibban day, has not been reported in all these years. What can one deduce from this? The media suffers from ignorance if not outright casteist sentiments.

Another event that also fell on October 2 this year was Dussehra, for which live television coverage of the Puja (read Pujo) pandals at Chittaranjan Park, in Delhi, in Kolkata, continued over days with glamorous anchor girls relaying events. News channels vied for live coverage from various pandals all over India. During all 10 days of Dussehra, viewers were also reminded, day-to-day, of the significance of each day of the festival. Media anchors, urban elite Oxbridge graduates oblivious to the happenings in the rest of the country among the masses of the Indian people, decided what to portray and how prominently and when to do so. Appropriating democratic terminology such as Ďwe the peopleí, the media in fact treats Dalits as Ďwho the people?í. Ignorance cannot be an acceptable excuse where such selective coverage of India and the Indian people is both misleading and dangerous.

October 2 is also the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. Even the birth anniversary of the Ďfather of the nationí ran into several pages of newsprint only because of the newly released film, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, which brought Gandhiism in contemporary packaging to film-goers. And yet Mahatma Gandhiís birthday must voluntarily have been celebrated by only a few thousand Indians while hundreds of thousands of Dalits do not stop thronging to Nagpur, Mumbai and Chandrapur in reverence to Ambedkar every year. What will it take for the television cameras to gradually open their apertures to the brilliance of Ambedkar and Buddha, and report fairly on these events?

(Raja Sekhar Vundru is an IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officer. The views expressed here are personal and independent of government.)

 

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