Students want sensitisation of caste issues not hostility.
The afternoon of February 4 appears to be like any other day on the campus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. The campus corridors are peppered with groups, busy discussing the arrangements that need to be made for a “Sadbhavana March”. When asked if they had heard about the recent caste controversy brewing in their campus, they eagerly agree to explain the exact scheme of events that had taken place.
A student from the Hindi Journalism department, Abhishek Mishra, stated that the episode started out with a series of Facebook posts between two students from IIMC on January 18. In the backdrop of Rohith Vemula’s suicide, Utkarsh and Manshesh were debating affirmative action, Dalit identity and politics around caste amongst other things. What began as a difference in opinion between two students took an unpalatable turn when Utkarsh resorted to the use of derogatory words while referring to the Dalit community.
One of Abhishek’s classmates showed me a screenshot of the original post made by Utkarsh Singh, dated January 18. The post mainly criticised the Dalit community for unduly reaping the benefits of reservations and continuing to politicise the caste divide. A week later, objections were raised against the post and a group of students filed a complaint with the college administration. Abhishek added that Utkarsh later edited the post to remove the offensive words, however screenshots of the original have been saved by some students.
On 29 January, 17 Schedule Caste and Tribes students filed a complaint with the college authorities against the post for being casteist and anti-Dalit. Prashant Kanojia, one of the main complainants, handed over the letter that was submitted to the IIMC authorities. The letter held the post responsible for “promoting ill will and hurting sentiments” of the community and went on to ask for initiating sensitization classes for the entire college. The letter specifically mentioned that they did not seek punitive action. Prashant went on to state that the group was surprised to find out that the college did not possess any redressal mechanism to deal with a case like this. Following this, he approached the National Commission for Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes with a formal petition. The authorities acted immediately and quickly responded by contacting the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.
Prashant reiterated the point that the complaint wasn’t made to seek punitive retribution. The step was taken because of the larger need for sensitisation towards the SC/ST community and to initiate setting up cells that deal with matters pertaining to Dalit and Adivasis.
The administration in turn took action by setting up a 5-member committee comprising of both faculty and students that will be responsible for examining the complaint. Upon being asked about the administration’s response, Prashant said, “If such a committee isn’t there on campus that doesn’t mean the institution is casteist. We don’t want to accuse our institution of casteism or discrimination since everyone- the admin and the faculty- are very helpful.”
Utkarsh himself was very willing to talk and wanted that world to hear his side of the story as well. He submitted a written apology to the college administration on February 2, for using objectionable words in his post. He gave me a copy of the letter and tried to defend himself by reiterating that his intention was not to appear as anti-dalit or be abusive towards anyone. “My intentions were not to hurt anyone but I apologise for the same. However I also want to clarify that these words are used commonly in the place and community I belong to… they aren’t considered abusive there,” his letter of apology read. Utkarsh maintained that this entire incident was nothing but “personal vendetta” and claimed that Prashant was trying to politicise the matter for personal gain. He feels targeted since the incident has led to him being labelled Anti-Dalit. Prashant on the other hand is emphatic while maintaining that his complaint did not arise out of personal reasons or for political gains.
Prashant mentions that some of the Dalit students were alarmed by the support that the Facebook post was gaining on social media and hence felt the need to approach the IB ministry as well. A few signatories to the complaint felt that one should not forget the seriousness of such a matter since it involves the mind-set of our future journalists. “Being a journalism student one needs to be sensitive regarding such matters and I feel the problem lies there. But opinions of one or two elements does not mean that the campus is casteist. This is still an individual opinion,” Prashant adds. It seems that Prashant also seeks to see a sense of regret from the accused, acknowledging that his views were problematic.
Thursday, February 4, saw a majority of students from the Hindi and English journalism departments irked by the media’s portrayal of the “controversy”. A considerable number of students came together to organize a Sadhbhavana March; a march for solidarity and communal harmony. Students were circulating pamphlets all around the campus that called all students to come together to reject the media’s alleged depiction of a “poisonous atmosphere” in IIMC.
“Our only aim is to highlight the harmony with which we co-exist, and to display our willingness to look beyond classification,” the invite for the March sated. A few students said that the media was dramatizing and politicising the incident and creating “hype” that was unjustified. Abhishek, one of the students who felt the need to speak out said, “This incident is a one off incident that represents an individual point of view but because of serious misrepresentation by the media, the entire student body and institute is being viewed as casteist. We do not support either party but want to clarify that caste division does not take place on campus or in the hostel.” His main objection was against news reports by Hindustan Times and The Indian Express, which according to him, were heavily editorialized and biased.
In the aftermath of Rohit Vemula’s suicide, a nationwide debate over entrenched caste divisions within educational institutions has sparked off. Students, including Abhishek, felt that IIMC was being dragged into a debate where it did not belong. They reiterated that while individual remarks betray the caste bias amongst people, it did not have institutional backing in this case.
They raised an objection to the nature of reporting carried out by the media. “Not one of the reporters from the newspapers who published reports came to visit our campus to check the reality on ground. If they had come they would have seen that all students live in harmony on campus and that caste based discrimination did not take place in any form within the campus or the hostel,” a group of students from the Hindi and English Journalism departments said. “Even the TV news channels came here only for bites. No one took full stock of the situation or tried to understand all sides of the story,” they added.
At that point, a reporter from ABP News rushed towards the group, looking for Utkarsh. ABP’s van stood outside the gates of IIMC, their reporters and camera crew waited to interview Utkarsh and Prashant. The interview was to be aired live along with a panel discussion on “Who is spreading the caste virus?” Utkarsh could be overheard attempting to defend himself, claiming that he was not an “agent promoting Hindutva” or a “Dalit virodhi”.
If there is anything that Rohith’s death has raised it is that there is definitely a need for a well-balanced, informed and civil conversation around caste. In the politically charged environment the danger of conflagrating tensions run high. Sensitivity towards language and portrayal in this case is a responsibility that journalists must bear. The question therefore arises whether it is fair to label institutions as “casteist” or undergoing a “caste war” based on a particular incident of differing opinions. Is it not a better strategy for the media to facilitate mature debates around caste in campus that invite students as primary panellists rather than political parties and experts?
This article was republished from Newslaundry.com.