How a section of Hindi TV news failed Sakshi and Ajitesh

Given the lack of diversity in Indian newsrooms—which is primarily Savarna dominated—this is no surprise.

ByRavikiran Shinde
How a section of Hindi TV news failed Sakshi and Ajitesh
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Sakshi Mishra (23) and Ajitesh (29) made headlines after the duo filed a plea before the Allahabad High Court on July 11 seeking protection. They alleged that they had received threats from Mishra’s father, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from UP Rajesh Mishra alias Pappu Bhartaul, who is opposed to their inter-caste marriage. Sakshi is a Brahmin, while Ajitesh is a Dalit. The MLA has denied these allegations. 

A day earlier, Sakshi had uploaded videos on social media asking her father to let her live peacefully. In one of the videos, she said, “…live peacefully and let me live (peacefully) because I have really gotten married … And Papa, the dogs that you have sent to chase me, like Rajeev Rana, tell him that if the water goes above my head, his entire family will be in jail … Our life is under threat.”

This is not the first instance of violence against inter-caste couples. In May, a 19-year-old woman, Mohini, was murdered and her husband, Ram Kishore Baretha, was seriously injured by Mohini’s brother, Gulsher, in a suspected case of “honour killing” in Uttar Pradesh’s Bareilly district.

Two days before Sakshi made headlines, Haresh Kumar Solanki, a Dalit, was allegedly murdered by his upper caste in-laws. While Solanki’s story did not make it to Hindi channels’ prime-time segments, Sakshi and Ajitesh’s did—after her videos went viral.

One would think a history of caste discrimination and earlier instances of violence against inter-caste couples would be discussed as Sakshi-Ajitesh’s case is presented to the nation. But that was not to be. Instead, a section of Hindi TV news chose to highlight Ajitesh’s “bad behaviour” in the past. Largely, none of these channels addressed the criminal cases pending against Sakshi’s father or her brother. In September last year, five cases related to rioting, disturbing peace and obstructing government officials were registered against Rajesh Mishra and his son, Vicky. The National Election Watch lists other cognizable cases against Rajesh Mishra. 

A look at media’s coverage

On July 12, Sakshi and Ajitesh appeared on Aaj Tak. Subsequently, they also appeared on NDTV, News18 India, ABP News, among others. While the couple thanked the media for making them feel safe, little did they realise that some channels’ handling of their story could backfire. 

A section of Hindi TV news pitted the couple against Sakshi’s family members and friends. Some channels also invited dharmagurus as panellists.

News18’s anchor Neha Pant invited Parashuram Das, a temple priest, who questioned Sakshi-Ajitesh’s marriage. Later, the Allahabad High Court validated their marriage. Over the hour-long programme, Pant did not mention any statistics about incidences of violence against inter-caste couples.

News18 Uttarakhand’s Executive Editor Amitabh Agnihotri went a step further. In a debate titled: “Kya Sakshi Ke Aasun Hai Saajish Ke (Are Sakshi’s tears that of conspiracy)?”, he claimed that discussing Ajitesh’s caste was irrelevant. This was despite the couple pointing out the Mishra family’s use of casteist slurs for Ajitesh in an earlier interview with the channel. There was no mention of earlier instances of “honour killings” from the recent past. The focus of the debate was to show how “characterless” Ajitesh was. Pictures of Ajitesh smoking a cigarette were published and his previous engagement was discussed. 

ABP News invited Hindu Mahasabha’s Swami Chakrapani and Acharya Pramod Krushnam as panellists. The former referred to the couple as someone resorting to “two days of fast food love, without considering moral and social boundaries”. 

On a separate ABP News debate, Hindu religious leader Ram Vilas Vendanti alleged that it was, in fact, Ajitesh who wanted to kill Sakshi as part of a conspiracy. He said, “Ajitesh swayam Sakshi ki hatya karakar uske mata-pita ko fasana chahata hai (Ajitesh wants to get Sakshi murdered and frame her parents).” Meanwhile, news anchor Romana Khan debated Ajitesh’s previous engagement and questioned Sakshi about her interactions with news channels. “Media-media, channel-channel kyun ghum rahi hai (Why are you moving from channel to channel, media to media)?” Khan said.

On July 12, Republic Bharat interviewed a sobbing Vicky Mishra, Sakshi’s brother. The super read: “Love story main lafda jaari (Conflict continues in love story).” As Vicky started crying, the reporter consoled him and said, “Yahi wajah hai ki hum apke saath hai, hum dikhana chahte hai us parivar par kya beet rahi hogi (This is the reason we are with you, we want to show what such a family has to go through).” The YouTube video was viewed over five million times and has hundreds of abusive comments targeting Sakshi.

News 24 held a debate titled: “Prem vivaah ke lie maata-pita ka apmaan kyu (Why insult parents for love marriage)?” The debate opened with the anchor showing clips of similar videos—allegations against parents, threats to the lives of couples in question—published by inter-caste couples in different states. It presented two big questions: “Why insult parents for love marriage?” and “Why do parents consider kids as their property?”.

Only NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar discussed the broader issue of caste-based violence targeting inter-caste couples, including Harish Solanki. 

Where the media failed

While many voices on TV news supported Sakshi and Ajitesh’s constitutional right to choose their partner, they also stated that parents should not be “insulted”. TV9 Bharatvarsh’s all-women panel debated the topic: “Sakshi Mishra ki mohabbat toh jayaj par maa baap ki lagaatar laanat-malaanat karna kitna sahi (Sakshi Mishra’s love is okay, but why insult the parents continuously)?”

Such debates show the media’s failure to understand that inter-caste couples have no option but to speak up about threats to their lives. Given earlier instances where inter-caste couples have been threatened and attacked by in-laws, the use of social media as a safety approach must be understood.

In September last year, Telangana-based Amruta’s Dalit husband, Pranay Perumalla, was killed. In March 2016, Kausalya’s Dalit husband, Sankar, was hacked to death in Tamil Nadu. Both Amruta and Kausalya later testified against their fathers. 

Thus, Sakshi’s videos must be seen as an attempt to safeguard their lives and not as a tool to defame her parents. And this, I reckon, is Hindi TV news’ failure—as such coverage can take away the limited options available to inter-caste couples to ensure their security. In their coverage of the issue, a majority of Hindi TV news channels failed to contextualise the issue and also highlight the perils of the caste system that continues to exist even today. 

But given the lack of diversity in Indian newsrooms—which is primarily Savarna dominated—this is no surprise.

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