When do religious & caste identities matter in a news headline?

Context is king.

WrittenBy:Abhinandan Sekhri
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This piece by my brilliant and soft-spoken colleague Anand Vardhan took me back to a discussion on the Hafta several months ago on whether caste or religious identities matter while reporting on and writing about violent incidents. In case you are wondering what Hafta is, check it out now. You have to be a subscriber to listen to our lively and stimulating podcasts, so don’t be cheap and subscribe by clicking here.


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But I digress. The other wonderful Anand that Newslaundry calls its own (Ranganathan, who is not soft-spoken at all) had pointed out a headline that needlessly underlined the caste identity in an incident that was a regular crime — killing, maiming or some such act that we Indians stoically take in our stride. That sparked off a discussion on whether it is appropriate to mention identities, religious or caste, in news items. The thing is, there is no yes or no answer to that. Like I said then, I repeat here – context is everything. Stripped off context nothing matters and nothing will make sense. We take context so much for granted that often we find it intertwined in the actual facts of the case until someone separates the incident from the context and background.

The exact example I gave during the Hafta discussion was, if there were a plane crash and 20 people lost their lives it would be ridiculous for a report to say “Twenty dead – among them 5 dalits and two OBCs, in aircraft hit by bird”.

Sounds silly, right? The accident has no caste context. So clearly, needless to mention it.

Also when there is an accident, the one group mentioned almost always are “XX Dead. Among them YY children”. Why? Does the fact that they are children have anything to do with the accident? No. It’s because it’s always more tragic when children die. There is an innocence associated with childhood and a violent end of a child gets special mention. Here the context is our social set-up and community that gives children a special place. The context is universal, except maybe with ISIS that trains kids to blow themselves up. But since it is unlikely that will be the default universal value system, kids get mentioned specifically. Sinking ships and aircrafts have kids deboarding or getting lifeboats first.

Countering the Black Lives Matter slogan with All Lives Matter was a pushback against what we in India call “minority appeasement”. This line of argument can be and was easily exposed for being blind to context. Yes, all lives do matter, but when “there is demonstrable evidence that black lives matter less than white lives to the criminal justice system (and the American government as a whole)” then the position is naïve at best and racist at worst.

Context is everything.

What one can attempt to argue for in the current Indian context is that the kind of meat in a refrigerator matters more than justice for the man beaten to death for his dietary preference. Filing an FIR against the victims of a lynching gets precedence over taking action against the attackers. Regrettably there is evidence to prove that is the case in several instances.

Here is another scenario, fictitious but based on real events.

  1. “Five artists gunned down by 2 men driving blue Ford truck”
  2. “Five Cartoonists assassinated at Muhammad cartoon contest by Islamic extremists”

Two headlines, both accurate but only one acknowledges context. In fact even if I drop the “Islamic extremists” in the second headline, the context is so much part of the social ether we exist in that we know what ideology and faith the attackers would be from.

Also in headline two there is an assumption that the cartoonists belonged to a religion other than Islam. It may not be true but that will be a reasonable assumption. But if the artists too were Muslim, I would expect that to be part of the headline. It matters even more then. If the artists were Muslims who read namaz five times a day and had just returned from the Haj, it would merit mention even more so. If the cartoon contest was being organised by a Muslim body – page one stuff.  Context is everything.

Let me set up another scenario closer home. Again fictitious but based on real events.

A group of men wave down a van, pull out its occupants and thrash them.  Could be road rage. Indicates no political or social context.

A group of men in saffron scarves wave down a van, pull out its occupants and thrash them for carrying buffalos.

Clearly not road rage. Has a social context but may not be political.

A group of men in saffron scarves from the Hindu Yuva Vahini wave down a van, pull out its occupants and thrash them for carrying buffalos while chanting ‘Yogi ji ki jai’.

Social context and political context.

A group of men in saffron scarves from the Hindu Yuva Vahini wave down a van, pull out its occupants and thrash them for carrying buffalos while chanting ‘Yogi ji ki jai’ in the presence of policemen on the day Yogi Adityanath is sworn in as CM.

Clear social context and political context and suggests state sanction.

All the above fictitious headlines are completely reasonable ways of describing the same event but – context is everything.

Coming back to Anand’s piece, there are a few specifics that need to be countered.

“Such indifference, however, to the religious profile of all the accused could be healthy only if it wasn’t selective,” he says. Sometimes it is selective for an easily defensible reason which I will just get to. Take the case of this piece that he has accused of a “selective approach” to writing the headline. While the piece clearly mentions the accused by name where their religion is easily identified, the piece also mentions the “Muslim cleric Syed Sha Atef Ali Al Quaderi” who announced a bounty on Sonu Nigam’s hair. In a nation of 80 per cent Hindus, I would prefer one errs on the side of caution — even if that means slipping into what some might call “minority appeasement” — which I would characterise as a basic practical consideration that acknowledges an unequal political and social representation at a time when Hindu majoritarianism has the legitimacy of the state, and bigotry has social sanction. Those of you on social media will see that among people you know. To top that, racist hatred spouting louts are followed by the PM on Twitter, a fact that they proudly put in their bios. In a complex world, to be able to see that kind of complexity is not only the duty of anyone in mass communication (reporters and opinion writers) but I will go so far as to say that it is so obvious, that it can not be missed or ignored unless one is deliberately attempting to look away.

“Having a default setting of batting for the perceived underdog, with indifference to disturbing facts, is a sure sign of lazy journalism. The obvious trap of political correctness could be seen in the cherry-picked debates the media chatterati indulge in,” says the piece as it winds up while doing exactly the same thing it is accusing some sections of the chatterati and media of. The difference being the “perceived underdog” is the Hindu community.

When to dwell on the community of a victim and perpetrator and when not to will always be a grey area. In case of the above mentioned air-crash it is clearly irrelevant and in the case of five artists killed for blasphemy it is clearly relevant. Between the two extremes are acres of possibilities, nuance and context. Which incident can be reasonably put in a social or political context of caste and community and which cannot will vary in degrees. It is not a mathematical theorem or a scientific experiment.  Which is why the piece written by Anand is incomplete and thus could be misleading since it suggests that the rational grey area does not exist where identifying religion or caste is not only justified but imperative. It is leaning on the All Lives Matter kind of logic, which is difficult to defend. It ignores the political environment one is reporting in and the religious demographic of India.

This is not to say that the selectivity Anand speaks of is not part of news reportage and opinion writing. However to suggest (as Anand’s piece does) that identification of community is hypocritical and “pseudo-secular” is misplaced. That the piece does not clearly distinguish between the two, even in passing is problematic. It ignores context completely. And context is everything.

Identifying ethnicity, religion, caste or gender will always be selective and it will always be a judgment call. That there is hypocrisy in the world is too obvious to spend time on articulating. To suggest that there are attempts to whitewash acts of bigotry as random violence (that has always existed) is equally obvious and a waste of time. What I hope we can do is specifically identify which is which, while not pretending that the other kind of convenient selectivity is non-existent.


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