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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Tale of Two Deaths: Pratyusha Banerjee and Delta Meghwal

Over the last week there has been a lot of hullabaloo over the alleged suicide of former Balika Vadhu lead Pratyusha Benerjee. The 24 year old actress committed suicide in Mumbai over difficulties in her relationship with her boyfriend, depression and lack of work. Her boyfriend Rahul Raj Singh, was hospitalized after being described on the 'verge of madness' by his friends after two days of questioning by the police. 

On the other hand, there has been complete silence in the mainstream media about the rape and institutional murder of the 17 year old student Delta Meghwal in Rajasthan, which exposes deeply entrenched bias against students belonging to lower castes in the country's "cow belt" state as well as in the mainstream media. Delta Meghwal was allegedly raped by her Physical Training instructor and her dead body was found in the water tank of her college. She was studying in a training institute in Bikaner and her artwork had been acknowledged by the state's Chief Minister herself. According to the facts that have come to light so far, it is alleged that the institute that Delta was studying in actively conspired to cover up her rape and harassment by the PT instructor and forced an apology by both of them which stated that they were caught having sex by mutual consent. To rub salt on the wound, Delta's dead body was carried off from the institute in a municipal garbage carrying vehicle. 


The Ladies Finger, a prominent feminist website, has posed five questions to Delta's institute reproduced below:    
Questions activists are now asking, and we should all ask:
1. Why did the principal Eashwar Chand Vaid and the institution  not file a police case against Vijendra Kumar Singh, since Meghwal was a minor?
2. Why was the college’s knee-jerk reaction instead to force Meghwal to write a letter that she had been shamefully caught in consensual sex with her teacher?
3. Why was due process not followed by the police when Meghwal’s body was found? Reports say that even video evidence was not taken before Meghwal’s body was moved from the scene of the crime.
4. Why did the police use a garbage tractor to move her body?
5. What kind of institution was Vaid running where it would be considered ‘normal’ for a teenaged girl student to be sent to clean the room of a teacher?
Caste Consciousness in Mainstream Media

The case of Delta Meghwal comes close on the controversy involving the institutional murder of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad. While Rohith's suicide was taken up in a big manner by JNUSU as well as HCU before coming in the mainstream media, Delta's rape and murder has hardly attracted any mainstream media attention.

This is not to say that Pratyusha Banerjee's suicide was any less tragic. True, depression in young people is a serious issue that should be debated and for which the government should be pressurized to take remedial measures such as providing additional counselling and sensitizing the public about the measures to be taken in such a scenario. However, the complete blackout of the rape and murder of Delta points to the caste bias in the media which considers suicide and murders of upper castes worth its TRPs and those by lower castes as pass overs.

Numerous studies have shown that dalits have gone almost unrepresented in India's mainstream media leading to a very slanted view when it comes to caste. This opinion piece in The Hindu, for example, documented how the representation of dalits in the Indian media had remained static since 1992 and that such static-ness was a violation of the constitutional guarantees of equality and equal opportunity. This opinion piece in Firstpost, written by someone who carried out a three month study of the journalists who passed out of IIMC, country's premier journalism training institute, records the sting of caste discrimination faced by lower caste students even in the supposedly 'progressive' mainstream media. Finally, this opinion piece in the Hindustan Times wondered aloud whether the suicide of Rohith Vemula would alter the caste dynamic and sensitivity in the country's leading newsrooms. Going by the coverage given to Delta Meghwal's death, it clearly hasn't. 

The Absent Legacy

In an opinion piece written for Seminar, NDTV's Ravish Kumar ruminated on the caste relations that are forged between different politicians and journalists and the kind of gratitude he was flooded with after airing an episode on Ambedkar Jayanti. Dr. Ambedkar's seminal role in writing our egalitarian constitution, although applauded by many, has scarcely done much to alter the social attitude towards dalits in India, who continue to be discriminated against in many spheres. Reservations in government jobs and institutes of higher education, have done a lot to empower this downtrodden and exploited section of the Indian society, but at the same time it has fueled negative feelings verging on hateful feelings against the lower castes by the upper castes in the country, as witnessed by numerous caste atrocities still prevalent in the country today.

The coverage given to Pratyusha Banerjee's death, on the other hand, displays a deep sensitivity towards the urban problems faced by youngsters, namely depression, lack of work and difficulties in love life, which figure in the 'safety' and 'love' category of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is only when an individual reaches these advanced stages that these issues become important. However, if an individual hasn't even progressed or is progressing from the starting point, doesn't his/her struggle assume more importance than the one who has already crossed this level just by the reason of his/her birth?

 Conclusion

The stark contrast between the coverage and attention given to Delta Meghwal's death as compared to Pratyusha Banerjee's death is a timely reminder of the discrimination faced by the lower castes both in the employment and coverage of issues with regards to the mainstream media. Before we can move towards the goal of an egalitarian society where everyone is afforded the same level of justice - social, economic and political, we will have to deliberate upon these uncomfortable questions staring our society and polity today.