On the cloudy, monsoon day of 9th August, over one lakh Adivasis—many dressed in their traditional indigenous attire and carrying musical instruments- gathered together in the city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh to celebrate World Indigenous day. Meanwhile, in the nation’s capital Delhi, a three day event was hosted by over fifty indigenous organisations, in which Adivasi-Tribal delegates participated from across the country.In other tribal dominated states of mainland India—Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Odisha, Gujarat, Rajasthan etc—people numbering in thousands occupied the streets and public spaces and marched in rallies. The crowds danced to the tune of popular songs in their native indigenous languages—Bhilli, Nimadi, Gondi, Santhali, Mundari and so on—as a mark of assertion of their language and culture.
As the day passed, these celebrations by millions of people across India, did not make the news headlines, nor did they trend on social media.They continued to remain invisible in the upper caste dominated Indian newsrooms. “There is nothing new in this, we have been invisible to them in the past and even now they continue to invisibilise us by ignoring our issues, our icons and events” argued Rozy Gawde, a bank officer and native of Bastar. “There is hardly any diversity in media houses so naturally there is no one to pitch these stories and they accordingly fail to see us.” It is indeed deplorable, yet not surprising that the media—considered the fourth pillar of democracy—chose to ignore such a large-scale assertion of identity, language and culture by Adivasis—which was unimaginable until a few years ago.
(Indore, Madhya Pradesh)
Earlier this month, a report published by Oxfam India highlighted that among the leadership editorial positions in 121 newsrooms—106 of them were occupied by upper castes while there were no Dalits or Adivasis among them. A number that is clearly indicative of newsroom biases in the coverage of Adivasis. “National media provides huge space for trivial things like religious festivals, Valentine’s Day, World Photography Day and so on. They run the same footage for days when a politician dies. But since Adivasi news is not “profitable” their stories are not valued. Some media houses took up to four days to report the Sonbhadra incident, such delays don’t occur in the case of stories about other communities.” argues Shatali Shedmake, a journalist with ETV.
On 23rd December 1994, the United Nations General Assembly had passed a resolution stating that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous people shall be observed on the 9th of August each year to encourage the protection and promotion of the rights of Indigenous people worldwide.The year 2019, has been proclaimed by the United Nations as the International Year for Indigenous Languages, for the promotion and protection of Indigenous languages. There are an estimated 370 million Indigenous people in the world, living across ninety countries. In India, however, the communities identified as the scheduled tribes— about 8.6 percent of the total population—who are Indigenous or aboriginal to the land, have been denied this identity as the Indian state argues that all its citizens are Indigenous.
Over the past decade, this day has slowly become perhaps the biggest occasion in the year for Adivasis, wherein a diverse group of tribal communities—setting aside their social, political and cultural differences—come together and celebrate their “oneness.” Such a significant day for over 700 indigenous tribes of India should have ideally made news headlines. However, the national media or “mainstream media”—which often gives prime time coverage for weeks to fringe groups opposing films, books or historical figures—barring some regional media houses, turned a complete blind eye to it. Santoshi Markam, a journalist with The Wire who hosts the Gondi bulletin, argues that the national media has always been indifferent towards Adivasis and never considered them important enough to cover this celebration of millions of people. “It has invisibilized the violence on them and their exploitation through various policies. It is only when a bigger incident like Sonbhadra happens, that it makes the news” she told me.
While national media has pressing current issues to cover like the the scrapping of article 370 and 35 (a) in Kashmir, and floods in Kerala and Maharashtra, there has never been a time when mass violence on Adivasis or their rallies and celebrations have been present in the national media’s conscience. It is because of the Brahmanical nature of media houses that protests led by a handful of upper castes in Delhi have found more coverage on media, while the wide scale assertion and resistance of Adivasi-Tribal communities, such as Indigenous day, has remained invisible. Even media houses lauded as progressive or liberal with their celebrated anchors who receive awards for being the voice of the voiceless in the nation failed to give any airtime to such a significant event thereby indicating the arrow constraints of their liberalism and progressiveness.
Since colonial times, the Adivasi-Tribal communities have hardly received any space in national media.The little coverage that does exist is largely limited to victim narratives. In many news channel debates, remarks about Adivasis have been limited to discussion about reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. Also “liberal or woke” newsrooms often remind us, how schedule tribe leaders in state assemblies and the parliament are uniquely responsible for their community’s plight. Untill a few years ago, newsrooms fervently covered large traffic jams and the resultant suffering of urban citizens on Ambedkar Jayanti which falls on 14 April. It was only after receiving heavy criticism by Dalit activists and the slow mainstreaming of Dalit-Bahujan issues that such narratives have started to change and the focus has relatively shifted towards covering Ambedkar’s life, intellectual works, teachings and message to society.
Recognising the power of media, Babasaheb Ambedkar had started various weekly and fortnighly newspapers and magazines in his time. He wrote,”It is depressing that we don’t have enough resources with us. We don’t have money; don’t have newspapers…throughout India, each day, our people are suffering under authoritarianism with no consideration, and discrimination; those are not covered in the newspapers. By a planned conspiracy the newspapers are involved full-fledged in silencing our views on socio-political problems.”
Even though Adivasis are not part of the Hindu caste system, the mindset of upper caste dominated media continues to practice discrimination against Adivasi communities. It is unfortunate that Adivasis, who don’t have the political leverage similar to Dalit and Muslim communities, have been rendered voiceless from the public discourse. In a political scenario where it increasingly seems like there is only one, singular way to be Indian, this invisiblisation and erasure of Adivasis in national media markedly adds to their marginalisation from the national discourse.