S. Anand wants to change the way India’s mainstream media portray caste, a fundamental social institution, but one whose inherent injustice is seldom challenged or even discussed in public. His goal is to build consensus that caste must be abolished.
The New Idea
Anand believes that India is plagued by a pervasive conscious and unconscious racism which thwarts democracy, development, and social justice. His view is not simply that caste can lead to abuse, or that oppressed caste people are “disadvantaged,” but that the very existence of caste harms society. It constantly interferes with the modern notion of individual worth and merit, imposing the belief that some people are, by birth and lineage, entitled to privilege and success in life, while others are born to be servile. Anand, of course, is not the first or the only Indian to diagnose caste as a social ill and devote himself to curing it. But he has chosen a fresh approach: The media industry. Anand is working to not only to insert caste issues into popular and institutional media, but also to make sure that dalits and adivasis are represented within the industry itself. By making caste visible in the popular media and the world of publishing, and by supporting dalits and adivasis within the industry as well-informed and well-trained editors and journalists, Anand believes Indians can change the way they think about caste conflicts and issues on a daily basis.
Caste bias persists in all areas of public life: Housing, education, work, access to justice, marriage, and family. Discrimination and privilege on the basis of caste place unwarranted limits on the potential of those at the bottom of the social hierarchy, while offering undeserved favor to those at the top. Abolishing such a patently unfair institution—steeped as it is in religion, tradition, politics, and self-interest—is no simple undertaking. In one sector, despite great potential, there has been a lack of progress in advancing caste issues, is in the media. Mainstream newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses have not, as a rule, taken responsibility to form or lead public opinion on caste. Anand finds that overtly their reasons are seemingly practical: There is no market for such material; it’s explicitly political; caste is largely a rural problem that doesn’t enter into the lives of urban readers; caste injustice is thought to be a minor, waning problem that the state deals with through existing law; and that the market economy is naturally doing away with caste in a bustling, globalized India. Anand notes though, that below the surface the media and publishing industry is owned and operated almost exclusively by the upper castes and they are quite comfortable with these advantages. There is little incentive to accept that caste is a pervasive problem in and of itself, or to question or challenge it. Nevertheless, abolishing caste requires building public consensus, and doing that means reforming the media.Latent caste biases pervade Indian society. There is pervasive institutional resistance to redressing the injustices of caste through the reservation system outside of the government sector. Textbooks carry biased information and it is also very difficult to obtain caste-related literature. Only select citizen organization’s (COs) publish rights-based material, which have a short shelf life. Elite industries such as journalism and publishing are not accessible to subaltern castes and hence, there is hardly any representation of dalits among the media and even less so in the reportage. Coverage of caste violence or atrocities on dalits is few and far between. Justification for such neglect comes in the form of the faulty assumption that there is no “market demand” for caste related literature. Additionally, there are few writers, publishers or journalists from subaltern castes to press the issue internally.
Anand’s vision for reform has two main elements. First he wants to prepare more people from subaltern castes to work in mainstream media, reasoning that journalists, editors, and publishers with a greater sensitivity to the problem can help to change the sector from within. To this end, he works with one of India’s leading journalism schools to seek out and enroll such students as well as to find them jobs on graduation.Second, he founded a publishing company, Navayana (meaning ‘New Vehicle’), dedicated exclusively to producing and inserting books and films on caste into the mainstream media market, where there has been a serious lack of professional literature available. This venture is already showing that such books can sell in popular bookstores, and that Indian readers want access to critical materials of many kinds—from historical studies to fiction to journalism and even poetry—exploring the under-represented issue of the effects of caste on Indian life. He has created an effective distribution channel through international book fairs and mainstream distribution networks.The Navayana Book Club reaches out to potential stakeholders in his mission by offering free books for a one time lump-sum contribution, which funds new books on the one hand and serves to keep prices low on the other. These members bring new ones. UNICEF has picked up 14,000 copies of one of Navayana’s titles for distribution in schools and he is lobbying the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for the same. Anand is also preparing the groundwork for employment strategies in existing media. He has successfully, though informally, influenced the Asian College of Journalism to introduce a quasi-reservation system whereby a certain number of fellowships are awarded to Dalit students. All thee efforts to ensure dalit/adivasi participation in sectors from which they had been hitherto excluded has been branded ‘Avarna’ (meaning anti-caste). In 2008, Anand launched Navayana’s Avarna program with Jadavpur University’s four-month PG Diploma in Editing and Publishing course, whereby five dalit and adivasis students have been sponsored by Navayana to attend the intensive publishing course. Some of the students are already interning with major publishing houses. The long-term objective is to create Dalit journalists, authors, publishers, and commissioning editors.Anand is working towards creating a virtual museum on the internet, a written and recorded repository of all the oral history that exists on the caste system, atrocities and conflicts, so that they are not forgotten over time. These e-museums will also host small budget films that will facilitate discussion and lobbying on caste issues.
Anand’s own life serves as an example. Born into a traditional Brahmin family in Tamil Nadu, at the top of the hierarchy, he confesses to being a student of only average effort and capability. Yet his teachers—many of them Brahmins—always gave him good marks accompanied by the encouraging words that he was destined for success. Meanwhile his lower-caste classmates, some obviously more talented than he, struggled to earn inferior scores on tests and papers.His marriage to a fellow student outside his caste further brought home to him the tyranny of the system. Now largely alienated from his family, Anand narrates an interesting story from his university days. His girlfriend, a non-Brahmin, once told him that he scored higher marks more easily only because he was Brahmin. Proof of this came through an unintended experiment. Anand had once written a term paper for his MA English course on behalf of his girlfriend (whom he later married). He also wrote another paper, a poorer one, in his own name. However, when the assessments came in, he had scored higher than her. This reinforced the social truth that Anand’s caste mattered more than the merit of his non-Brahmin girlfriend’s efforts.One of the things that Anand did to “de-caste” himself was to reject the elite language spoken by the Tamil Brahmins and speak in the tongue of the common person and also secularized his food preferences. He then joined the media hoping to change it from within. Finding it difficult to change the mindsets in some of India’s top media houses, Anand quit his job as a journalist and founded Navayana along with his friend Ravikumar, a dalit writer and activist from Tamil Nadu.