On July 25, when Droupadi Murmu took the oath of office as India’s 15th president, not only did she become the first Adivasi and the youngest person to hold this office, but she also introduced India to the Adivasi greeting “Johar”.
In the run-up to Murmu’s election and after, we have read reams about her life as a Santhal in Odisha, that she is a graduate who worked in the irrigation department of the Odisha government, that she was also a teacher. We also know her name was “Puti Tudu” but later changed after several iterations to Droupadi. And now, thanks to her, more people are aware that the traditional greeting amongst India’s estimated 104 million Adivasis is “Johar”, which means “salutation and welcome”.
Yet, even as there was celebration at her election, how many people in this country really know about the lives of different Adivasi tribes? Or whether they have seen any significant change in their lives in the last decades, or the challenges they face to survive as the lands they called their own are being snatched away for so-called “development”?
A few days before Murmu’s election, we read about in Chhattisgarh being released after five years in prison. They had been implicated in an exchange between security forces and Maoists in Burkapal on April 24, 2017 in which 25 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed and seven injured. Subsequently, the police rounded up men from Burkapal and surrounding villages and charged them with the crime. After waiting five years in jail, a court ruled that there was no evidence to prove their involvement.
The media has reported the acquittal as well as some reports about the individual men, what they face, their anxieties about the future, and what they want to . But it is not enough. A story like this ought to have been on the front page. It also deserves detailed follow-up. Readers need to get a sense of the area where these men lived, and if and how they can reconstruct their lives.
Every now and then, similar stories are reported – of people incarcerated for years without trial and eventually acquitted. But rarely is there any outrage in the mainstream media, or demands for accountability from the police and the system that allows this to happen, especially when poor people are involved.
Sudha Bharadwaj, the lawyer who has worked in Chhattisgarh for decades and is currently out on bail after being implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case, is “more the norm than the exception”. She quotes from a study by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, or JagLAG, of cases between 2005 and 2012 in the Dantewada sessions court. The average rate of acquittal was 95.7 percent.
The group also found that while undertrials in other states spend, on average, around one year in jail, in Jagdalpur, it was one to five years. One of the reasons for this was the inability of jailed Adivasis to get adequate legal support. JagLAG, a group that did provide such support, was hounded out of Bastar.
Apart from Bastar, which comes into view whenever there is a so-called “encounter” between security forces and Maoists, there are struggles being waged by Adivasi groups in many other parts of the country, including Murmu’s home state of Odisha. Remember the extraordinary campaign by the Dongria Kondh tribe in against the bauxite mine of the powerful business house Vedanta? Despite their success, their problems have . Similar struggles continue in where local communities are challenging either infrastructure or the release of their lands for mining. Yet there is little written about these struggles except in alternative or non-mainstream media.
Murmu’s election provides an opportunity, and a challenge, for the media to dig deeper into the environment from which she emerged. The average Indian reader/viewer has little to no knowledge about Adivasis, their varied cultures, religions and beliefs, and how far development programmes have made a difference to their lives.
Interestingly, some platforms are using this “news peg”, so to speak, of an Adivasi woman becoming president of India, to probe some of these questions.
One of the more interesting pieces was this one in . It recounts the experiences of Adivasi women who come to Mumbai looking for work. They end up working as domestic help in middle class homes where they are paid next to nothing, much less than the minimum wage. They sleep in kitchens. Sometimes they are given no choice but to share the same space as male employees. They often go to bed hungry because of how little they are given to eat. And, of course, there is no concept of time off.
These women are hired because they are willing to work for wages much lower than what locals accept. In many parts of Mumbai, for instance, domestic workers are organised. Even where they are not formally organised, they have informal systems where they decide the minimum they are prepared to accept to do certain jobs. These Adivasi women are outside such arrangements and, therefore, open to the worst forms of exploitation.
The story is wrenching. It speaks, above all, to the callousness of India’s middle class that, even today, in this 21st century, can treat human beings as nothing more than slaves. Domestic labour remains one of those dark, and not hidden, realities of India’s cities.
Perhaps it is wishful thinking to hope that these subjects will be covered, given that the mainstream media caters only to its “market”. Thus, stories about poverty, deprivation or even the environment can only find space if they are linked to a disaster or, if momentarily, the poor speak up for their rights and the very size of their protests cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, even the presence of an Adivasi woman in Rashtrapati Bhavan is unlikely to change this.
So, can we describe India’s media as “free" if it is the market that governs content? We must ask this given how often there are either boasts about press freedom in India, or promises made internationally about respecting it, or reflections about the need for “independent journalism”.
The latest to publicly reflect on this is the Chief Justice of India, . Speaking in New Delhi recently, he was reported as saying:
“Independent journalism is the backbone of democracy. Journalists are the eyes and the ears of people. It is the responsibility of media to present facts. Media must confine itself to honest journalism without using it as a tool to expand its influence and business interests.”
He also added: “When a media house has other business interests, it becomes vulnerable to external pressures. Often, the business interests prevail over the spirit of independent journalism. As a result, democracy gets compromised.”
No one will argue with Justice Ramana that journalists must present facts, or that the media should “confine itself to honest journalism”.
The question today is, how?
How can any media do this given the ownership structure of the media?
How can any media do this given the power the State has to intimidate media houses through their business interests?
How, given the latest on the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and the enhanced powers of the Enforcement Directorate, can any media house attempting to be “independent” or even “honest” survive in a regime where such laws and the ED have been weaponised to deal with all kinds of dissidence?
And finally how, when even those “independent” journalists who are doing their jobs of gathering facts and reporting them are either arrested, as in the recent case of Mohammed Zubair and earlier Siddique Kappan or Kashmiri journalists Asif Sultan, Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul? Or they are stopped from pursuing their professional commitments, as in the recent case of , a Kashmiri journalist stopped from going on a reporting assignment to Sri Lanka, and earlier the Pulitzer prize winning Kashmiri photographer , who was not permitted to board a flight to Paris without being given any reason.
These are questions that perhaps the Chief Justice should address, given his concern of an independent media and its importance as the “backbone of democracy”.
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