Popular Culture and Caste: The Three Indias

Mainstream media content in India tends to reflect the dominant character of the people who own, work in and consume it, and either by default or design tend to invisiblise the sizeable number of Dalit, minority, Other backward castes and indigenous population who together make the overwhelming numerical majority in the country. These sections do figure in the media but are stereotypically depicted as poor, as victims, villains, ugly, etc. However, the marginalised sections constitute a large and diverse group which in recent years has found its voice in the aftermath of traumatic experiences like the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. The advent of social media, falling prices of smartphones and data also disrupted the gatekeeping of content by traditional media houses and enabled the Dalits and OBC young people to access technology and access audiences which consumed content – music, news, entertainment – to which mainstream media did not cater, thus democratising access to media and lowering thresholds and bringing fresh talent to create content and give voice to a large but invisiblised marginalised audience.


Social media platforms in India are buzzing with the impact of the six-minute performance of Vir Das, an Indian stand-up comic in the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC. He read out a prose poem about two “Indias,” basically contrasting the present India, in which the saffronised imaginations are being given actuality vis-à-vis the India of the urban middle class, which has been the preserve of the privileged sections till recent years. Das sets up this binary in a context where there has been increasing national and international focus on Indian societal practices that display so much of double standards as to be practically schizophrenic: the treatment of women and girls, the excessive reaction to losses and wins in cricket matches against Pakistan, and so forth.

Predictably, the response has been out of proportion too: the paying audience packing the hall, probably a high proportion of non-resident Indians, gave the performance a huge standing ovation. In India, he has been threatened with lawsuits for defaming the motherland by people interested in protecting the national honour, even as a tsunami of support to Das rose in social media. The liberals are all about protecting his freedom of speech, despite his track record of misogynistic, casteist, and basically politically incorrect jokes. Others, however, admire his courage for speaking up about the present-day saffronised society in India—mob lynching-prone, minority-hating, “non-veg” averse, high levels of street and especially gender and caste-based violence. This section is also nostalgic about the recent less violent and more harmonious society they no longer enjoy.

But there are also a growing number of voices who are alienated from both these Indias, because they essentially do not inhabit the same geographical and metaphorical space that Das, his detractors, and his supporters inhabit. They are the large number of marginalized sections—the Dalits, the indigenous or Adivasis, the denotified tribes (who were earlier classified as criminal tribes), who constitute almost 30% of the country’s population. Add to this the approximately 55% who constitute the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), who do not really speak English, who live in small towns and villages or far-flung, rural hamlets or in crowded urban poor settlements, and who often do not even own a small feature phone, let alone know how to use it.

The Third India

However, people from these sections who have managed to straddle both worlds—get some education, have a job that enables them to buy and use a smartphone, have access to internet, Twitter, and know what popular culture has been producing—were quick to point out that they did not belong in this India of Das’ binary; they belonged to a third India, which these two Indias do not really engage with in popular discourse, unless it is to appropriate their stories and songs for research articles and popular films and who only figure in the mass media as victims of atrocities such as rape, honour killing, displacement for “development” projects like dams, airports, roads, and temple complexes, or as the butt of jokes that focus on religion, body shape, gender of the “other.”

These children of this third India also figure in popular culture as a two-dimensional counterpoint to the mainstream: dark- versus white-skinned, poor versus rich or middle class, rural versus urban, simple versus sophisticated, hero versus villain, anti-national and rebellious versus patriotic and law-abiding. This may be manifested in the names of the villains and vamps in B-grade Hindi films of yesteryear, wherein the villains wore crucifixes round their necks and were named Rocky or Johnny (or Ahmed or Husain) and the Vamps were named Julie or Rosy or Anjum and wore frocks or salwars rather than ulta-pallu sarees. The language they spoke was rough and their dialects were of the working class they represented. They were depicted as living in the fringes of society—urban slums or remote villages. Their occupations were either as servants or employees of the protagonist(s) or the villain.

In the Telugu film industry, for instance, the producers, actors, directors, and most technicians were from the coastal part of undivided Andhra Pradesh, and the language the characters spoke was the sanskritised Telugu favoured in coastal Andhra, which is considered the cultural capital of the Telugus. But what of the Telugu spoken in Telangana? That was in the mouths of characters who played either villains or comedians’ sidekicks. This linguistic apartheid in Telugu cinema started being called out only after the Telugu states were divided and Telangana got its own territory and got to reclaim its history and its older and more diverse linguistic dialect.

But why talk only about films? What about real life? There are regular reports every few days about Dalit youths being beaten up for wearing jeans or shades or even a new set of clothes; for growing a moustache or keeping a horse![i] Wedding processions (barats) of Dalits in villages are often targeted by the dominant castes when the groom rides a white mare to the wedding ceremony venue. This is mostly in North India as such practices abound there, but there are variations in the rest of India as well.

Just a few days ago, we learnt of a young Dalit man who was fined ₹25,000/- by the trustees of a temple in a Karnataka village because his two-year old son, who he had taken to the temple because it was the child’s birthday, ran into the temple.[ii] The money was to be used for rituals to “cleanse” the temple from the taint of the Dalit toddler’s entry. It is a routine for entire Dalit colonies in towns and villages to be hounded out of their homes as a punishment if any Dalit is found to have violated some caste norm or the other; the entire community in the village is punished for the “infraction” of one of them.

The Dalit Cultural Movement: A Case Study of Karnataka

The powerful Dalit movement in Karnataka (1970–90s) was triggered by Prasanna Kumar Basavalingappa, a minister in the then government, who said “all the literature hitherto produced in Kannada is bhoosa” (or chaff, meaning worthless). The resultant furore across the state forced the minister to resign but generated a powerful counter-movement by Dalits who came together under the banner of the Dalit Sangharsha Samiti and who rallied students, workers, and common people into a strong counter-cultural assertion, with an amazing array of songs, plays, poems, and writings being produced. A new strand of cultural expression entered into the field of Kannada literature in which the people’s lives and experiences were depicted in their own languages and dialect. The still-marginalised North Karnataka dialect, heavily influenced by both Marathi (North-west) and Urdu (North-east) came to be used in the literary outpourings of the writers from the marginalised sections, including Dalits, Adivasis, and women from these sections.

Many are aware that the largest number of the Jnanpith (national literary) Awards by the Sahitya Akademi have gone to writers in Kannada—eight in total. The most recent was to Chandrashekhar Kambar in 2010 for “A Comprehensive Contribution to Kannada Literature.” Kambar employs the people’s dialect for his works and is a powerful writer and documenter of folklore, apart from being an eminent academic and founder and two-term vice chancellor of the Kannada University, Hampi, and an innovative theatre person. He has directed films that have won state and national awards. His plays are a blend of folk and modern forms. But when the award was announced, there was widespread dissatisfaction and even public statements by public figures like Patil Puttappa, a veteran journalist who said he was “pained over the selection” because there were several other eminent and able litterateurs in Kannada, and it was given to a person “with no ability” (“Kambar doesn’t deserve Jnanpith, says Pa Pu,” Indian Express, 21 September 2011). More to the point, Kambar belongs to a marginalised working-class OBC community (blacksmith, Kammar), whereas most of the other seven winners were Brahmin except for KuVemPu, who belonged to the landed and politically powerful Vokkaliga-Gowda caste. Such is the caste arrogance of the establishment that they find it possible to publicly air derogatory comments about a highly regarded litterateur and cultural icon for having been given the award, all because he is from outside the elite sections.

Locating the “Other”

What role did caste location of the “other” play in popular culture in India? We need not look further than the same Das who has spoken extremely disparagingly of Mayawati, the four-time Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), a Dalit woman, and a political leader of national standing—one could say she is an icon for Indian women in general and Dalit women in particular. In one short archival clip that went viral after the Two Indias video, Das specifies why he “hates” Mayawati—not because she looks like a man, not because …. But because he saw a picture of her with a garland of currency notes and the sight of her cleavage with the garland spoilt every man’s fantasy about wearing garlands made of currency notes (it’s a common way to honour bridegrooms in some parts of India).

The systematic humiliation of Dalit women, whether a four-time chief minister or a humble, rural homemaker, is routine in small towns and rural India, when they go to collect water from the public water outlets to dominant-caste areas or work in the fields or in people’s homes. Dalit bastis are often denied their own sources of water just to keep the women, in particular, dependent on the mercy of the local power/caste elites for this basic human need. These could range from verbal to physical abuse, stripping them in public, sexual harassment, rape, and/or murder. There is almost no redress for such crimes as the police, the politicians, including from Dalit communities, and the dominant groups all come together to prevent access to justice. Police refuse to accept complaints or record fake details in the complaint, making it impossible to defend in court. Often some mediators will arrive to intimidate the family of the woman/girl into withdrawing the complaint and accept a “compromise,” which will usually let the perpetrators off the hook from any legal issue/liability. Civil society groups often take to media to highlight these issues, but media coverage could be a two-edged sword, harming the survivors further by invading their privacy, exposing their location, and/or identifying them, thus making them vulnerable to attacks from the aggressors.

Even if Dalits, especially women, get elected to public office, such as the panchayat, and sometimes even become the sarpanch (head of the village) due to constitutional reservations, they are frequently not allowed to lead, attend the official meetings, or even hoist the national flag on national holidays as is their right. The media do highlight these issues, but there is little follow-up on the outcomes of the complaints that are taken up by the district administration, which is duty-bound to file cases against the perpetrators and ensure that they are punished.

Caste and the Role of Media: Enabling Impunity?

This brings us to the media. It took something as dramatic as the death of Rohith Vemula by “institutional murder” in the University of Hyderabad to garner attention to the systematic discrimination against Dalits in the academic structures, especially in the sciences, to bring national attention to these practices. While the media did highlight these issues, the defendants also got a fair amount of publicity even as the media blacked out the serious human rights violations by various state institutions. The legal proceedings to bring justice to Vemula have been stalled by raising questions about whether he was indeed a Dalit since his non-Dalit father abandoned the family after the birth of three children while he was very young because his mother was a Dalit. This is an epic injustice at many levels, including by a large section of the local media, but civil society and public opinion have not been able to sustain the pressure against the administration and the judiciary to get justice for the family. It’s another matter that this case was able to galvanise a country-wide uprising of the marginalised sections against institutional discrimination, which is all-pervasive in academic, administrative, mainstream and social media, educational institutions, even common social interactions among people.

However, the real touchstone of the extent of the othering of Dalits and the reason for the continued atrocities against them is the impunity that accompanies the perpetration of the most heinous crimes against them. The Hathras incidents, where the powerful Bharatiya Janata Party member of legislative assembly was able to get away for months and years after targeting a minor Dalit girl and her family for repeated abuse and violence are a recent case in point. In the second case, also in Hathras, the administration was able to perpetrate the most monstrous violation by taking away the body of the young victim and burning it. Further, they permitted the intimidation of the family by allowing a caste panchayat in the village in support of the Thakur men who are accused of the crimes of gang rape, torture, and murder of their daughter. The state of UP is ruled by Ajay Bisht, who belongs to the Thakur caste, which gives this section a feeling of invincibility.  Only one television reporter has shown the persistence and professionalism to continuously follow up on the case, while the rest of the media has (conveniently) moved on to the next item of breaking news.

History of Media Complicity in the Impunity of Perpetrators


But the most egregious of all was the mob lynching of four members of a Dalit family in Khairlanji village in Maharashtra in 2006. The police and the media tried their best to suppress the registering and reporting of the crime. As the days passed, only the Dalit youth were agitating on this, and they had to resort to setting fire to some bogies of the iconic Deccan Queen train to bring attention to the issue. The first report to be published was by a young woman, Sabrina Buckwalter, who was a student from abroad and interning at a national newspaper. Buckwalter was later asked to leave the country and her visa was not renewed for unexplained reasons. It was only after her report was published in an English newspaper that the local language news media were finally forced to carry the story. 

The powerful sections in caste establishment find many ways to assert their authority on discourse relating to their caste. They engineer huge protests against the producers and actors, claiming that they are deeply offended by the content which they find derogatory to their identity or “self-respect.” This is greatly helped by the fact that news media houses are often owned by and staffed by people from their own circles. The controversies around films like Jodha Akbar, Padmaavat, and several others faced huge challenges and disturbances of public peace, threats of violence, and putting a price on the heads of actors and producers before being released because their content was deemed derogatory by one section of castes or other in Rajasthan, Gujarat, etc.

In the latest report, Suriya, the star of the newly released film Jai Bhim, was attacked by the members of the Vanniyar caste as the film depicts a Vanniyar as the policeman who tortures and is responsible for the custodial death of an Adivasi man and whose wife’s legal battle forms its storyline. Suriya and his home were consequently been provided armed police protection. The Vanniyars were up in arms about a shot only a few seconds long, which shows a calendar that has a visual of a symbol associated with their caste, used to establish the date of the events depicted. The shot has been edited out of the film. The director, T J Gnanavel, has apologised and said it was unfair to target Suriya for this. 

Media: Diversity and Representation

Hardly ever do we find people from any marginalised sections at any level and certainly not at decision-making levels in any media houses. If at all there are any marginalised voices in the media spaces, it is because of the modern tools of digital technology that have made access to a large audience possible for the articulate and talented Dalit and Adivasi youth to make their voices heard through social media. For instance, Sumeet Samos, a rapper in several languages including English, Hindi, and his native Dom language (Doms are from the caste that tend to crematoriums, hence highly ostracized) would never have been known but for the use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

The exclusion of Arivu, the lyricist and performer of the super-hit “Enjoy Enjaami” from the cover of the Rolling Stone India magazine, featuring the piece—the other two non-Dalits who performed the song were featured on the cover—is a recent case in point. Pa Ranjit—the young film director who has given a number of offbeat themes, with caste as a major factor—was the first to point out this exclusion. Rolling Stone India, after some days of stonewalling, capitulated and included his name and said they would do a feature on him soon; the issue trended on social media for days, forcing the offending media house to relent.   

Young people from marginalised groups have become more active and vocal on such issues after the Vemula incident, and now there are several small media houses led by them, with most, if not all, of the staff from these sections, thereby providing a significant and effective counter to mainstream media discourses. Of late, some of these marginalised voices are being included by the mainstream media in their panels. One hopes that in the coming years, these voices will be included in the mainstream media, thus hopefully restoring media’s lost credibility, which is now seriously eroded by the one-sided discourses that they have been peddling.



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