TOI, your joke on ‘Reserve’ Bank of India was not funny

Should a newspaper be a bully and use humour as an excuse?

ByTejas Harad
TOI, your joke on ‘Reserve’ Bank of India was not funny
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Raghuram Rajan’s announcement that he will not continue as Reserve Bank of India governor for a second term received wide media coverage. News media termed it as “Rexit” (a play on another coined term, Brexit); social media has been fervently discussing the story for more than three days now. To cash in on this Rajan frenzy, The Times of India on Monday posted a humorous take on this issue on its website titled “Facebook Wall of Arun Jaitely inviting applications for next RBI governor.”

This piece was published under a section called Mocktale that presents  “works of fiction intended to bring a smile to your face”. Evidently, the popularity of websites like Buzzfeed and ScoopWhoop has inspired legacy media to produce content with the potential to go “viral”. But you would expect The Times of India, one of the oldest and most popular news publishers in the country, to be more careful while churning out such ‘light-hearted’ pieces.

The piece in question presents a mock post by Arun Jaitley — rather, his alter ego who goes by the surname Jaitely — on his Facebook wall that reads, “We are hiring RBI governor. Send in your applications to Candidates who are qualified for the job please excuse.” There are a number of comments below the post by public figures such as Shobhaa De, Arvind Kejriwal, Rahul Gandhi, Salman Khan, Sreesanth, etc. Incidentally, the only two names that undergo some amount of attempted camouflage are Jaitley’s and that of Pahlaj Nihalani, who is called “Pankaj” for some reason.

This article concerns the comment by fake Rahul Gandhi and the exchange between him and Jaitely in the said mock Facebook thread. I will reproduce the conversation here.

Rahul Gandhi: Jaiteley ji, next governor should be a dalit [sic].

Arun Jaitely: Why so Rahul Baba?

Rahul Gandhi: Don’t you know it is ‘Reserve’ Bank of India.

Now, this joke is supposed to make fun of Gandhi for his apparent lack of intelligence. In the process, it also intentionally or unintentionally ends up mocking India’s affirmative action programme — reservations. A joke does not exist in a vacuum. A joke is not “objectively” funny. This particular joke will sound funny only to those who look down upon reservations.

There are hundreds of jokes on the Internet mocking reservations that are routinely circulated on social media. For example, here’s an entire article titled, “Nine ‘Indian Reservation System’ Jokes That Will Make You Cry With Laughter”. Most of them are in the same vein — that reserved category students have it much easier; that general category students lose out on the opportunities owing to ‘quotas’; that reservations are the biggest obstacle in India’s progress. Even public figures like Harsha Bhogle have peddled the same narrative.

Indeed, for the past few decades, there has been a vicious discourse in the country opposing reservations and when a newspaper like The Times of India participates in the same, it gives legitimacy to this discourse and makes it socially acceptable.

This is dangerous for multiple reasons. The foremost argument that is put forward against reservation policy is that it dilutes “merit”. This leads to the assumption that those who benefit from reservations are by default “unmeritorious”. Students are routinely mocked as “quota students” or, even more derogatorily, as “sarkari daamads” (sons-in-law of the government). This verbal violence is coupled with various other forms of caste violence that students especially from Dalit communities face in Indian colleges. This casteism on the campuses has led many students to commit suicide; Rohith Vemula is only the latest victim.

A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MLA from Maharashtra recently used pigs as an analogy for Dalits. Union Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh has in the past made callous remarks equating the Faridabad Dalit killing to pelting stones at a dog. Such derogatory remarks against former untouchable castes in public as well as private spaces are not uncommon. Last year, in a satire on Headlines Today, which is now India Today TV, former Bihar chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi was depicted as a rat in a Tom and Jerry-style cartoon. Manjhi belongs to Musahar caste, a caste often ridiculed for being rat eaters. The cartoon furthered this caste stereotype and it also proves that Dalits cannot escape casteism even when they reach positions of power.

It is no surprise that the savarna insensitivity towards the most oppressed groups goes on with impunity in the media. Indian media is highly dominated by the so-called upper castes, especially Brahmins, with minimal or no representation from Dalit, Adivasi and Bahujan groups in the workplaces. This is also why Havells Fans can come up with an ad portraying reservations and those who take benefit from it in bad light. (The ad was pulled off after protests.)

The Times of India joke seems particularly nasty when you take into consideration the fact that RBI has not had a Dalit governor in its history of 79 years. Dalits make up 15-16 per cent of India’s population, but since they have been historically kept at the lowest rung of Hindu society for centuries and continue to face caste discrimination and violence even now, they occupy very few positions of power — in bureaucracy, judiciary, academia or media. The Times of India is in operations since 1838, but I doubt if it ever had a Dalit editor-in-chief. It is the same story across all other English language publications, be it newspapers or magazines. Forget editorial positions, it is hard to find Dalits even at junior positions.

Reservations are supposed to be a corrective tool against this severe under-representation of oppressed castes. But since reservation threatens the system that disproportionately benefits the so-called upper castes, it receives massive backlash from them. This is understandable. But what is not understandable — or acceptable — is that the media, which is supposed to be society’s conscience keeper, participates in this same culture that derides its most oppressed.

This is not to say that one can’t make a joke on the reservation system, or, for that matter, the savarna sense of entitlement. But humour is supposed to punch up, not down. When you punch down, you are nothing but a bully maintaining status quo. The Times of India, you can do better.

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