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Media Modernity and Minorities: The Subtleties of Exclusion in the Public Discourse

Media Modernity and Minorities: The Subtleties of Exclusion in the Public Discourse

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Published by: Sukumar Muralidharan on Jul 07, 2012
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12/29/2012

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 Media, Modernity and Minorities
The Subtleties of Exclusion in the “PublicDiscourse”
Some of India’s most significant early reflections on theminority predicament within a democracy came from B.R.Ambedkar, leader of what were called the “untouchable”castes within Hinduism. Ambedkar faced a situation in whichthe ritually ostracised communities outside the caste-Hindufold, enjoyed the right to vote and were assured of formalequality under the law. Yet for all that, they remainedoppressed in the real world.The “untouchables” as he unflinchingly called them, or theHarijans, as Gandhi in his paternalism named them, havetoday assumed an identity of their own choice: plainlystated, that of the
dalit
, or the oppressed.
Bahujan samaj,
which translates as something equivalent to the “communityof the many”,
 
has since come into being as a politicalconstruct, which speaks of the state of oppression being anaffliction of the majority rather than the numericallydisadvantaged.
Dalits
face oppression despite their strength in numbersand the assurances of equality they have been given,underpinned both by the unrestricted right to vote andaffirmative action. These were the promises they were givenas part of the social compact that brought India itsindependence from colonialism. Yet as Ambedkar sought tochart the future course of democratic India, all this justdid not seem enough to ensure that the basic norms of ademocracy would be met.“One man, one votewas not a sufficient assurance ofdemocracy. True democracy for Ambedkar meant “one man, onevalue”.
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And in the six decades since this prophecy wasoffered, it has been underlined with brutal clarity thatthe formal assurance under the law does not yet meansubstantive equality. The universal franchise andaffirmative action remain imperfect instruments of anegalitarian social order.“One man, one value” would have an intuitive appeal to all,as a definition of democracy in terms of its fundamentalpremises. Yet individuals are known by their antecedents
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and broader social origins. There is no way that theindividual can be separated from her social group. And thisis where Ambedkar’s proposition has always posed enormouscomplexities in the transition from a conception ofindividual rights to a construct of group rights.The year before his death, with public agitation and debateraging over redrawing the Indian political map inaccordance with linguistic identities, Ambedkar intervenedwith a forceful plea that culture be recognised as thebasis of political organisation. States based on culturaluniformity, he argued, were the only assurance ofstability. As he wrote then, a “State is built on fellow-feeling, (which is) a feeling of a corporate sentiment oroneness which makes those who are charged with it feel thatthey are kith and kin”. “This feeling”, he continued, is“double-edged” since it is “at once a feeling of fellowshipfor one’s own … and anti-fellowship for those who are notones own kith and kin. There was, in Ambedkarsassessment, no intrinsic propensity for enmity between twolinguistic or cultural groups, except when they werecompelled by circumstances to live in close proximity andalso share among themselves the cycle of governmentalactivities.
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Separation on the basis of language was one way out, butwithin clearly defined limits. None of the autonomouslinguistic units within the Indian polity could be allowedto have its choice of official language, since that wouldbe the surest path to the vivisection of the nation.
3
Withall his concern for minority welfare, Ambedkar effectivelyconceded that the unity of the whole is often a requirementfor the welfare of the part. To preserve the unity of thewhole, every constituent unit – conceived here in terms ofterritoriality had to be compelled to work with theofficial language stipulated by the political centre.Even within this arrangement, there was the danger that onecultural region of India (the geographical north) woulddominate over others (most notably, the geographicalsouth). And this was a situation rich with potential fordamage, since the north in Ambedkar’s reading was still avast expanse of obscurantism and blind faith, where themost perverse elements of Hindu tradition held sway. Forall the enlightenment that had dawned in the south, thecircumstances of India’s political organisation, he feared,would enshrine the dominance of the north.
4
2
 
Ambedkar was aware that other identities could emerge withfresh energy, once the bonds of language were recognisedwithin the nation-state and consolidated within theprovince-state. Every linguistic zone, he pointed out, wasunder the effective control of a particular caste.
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APunjabi linguistic province could well fall under thedominance of the Jat caste, as Telugu and Marathilinguistic zones could slip into being fiefs of the Reddyand Maratha castes. This did not mean that the case forlinguistic states stood dismissed -- only that “definitechecks and balances” should be instituted, to ensure that“a communal majority does not abuse its power under thegarb of a linguistic State”.
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 No matter of numbers, but of social power
Evidently, the “communal majority” that worried Ambedkar,was not one in a numerical sense. Its hegemonic power wasbuilt on intangibles, not on the brute force of numbers. Inthe years immediately after independence, Ambedkar frettedabout the opportunities that universal franchise wouldafford for a “social majority” to consolidate itself as a“political majority”. As India’s constitution was beingdrafted, he proposed wide-ranging safeguards forminorities, including most implausibly by today’sstandards of political organisation - a non-parliamentaryexecutive, which would have a life independent of theelected legislature.
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Popular accountability would be safeguarded within thesystem through the appointment of the executive by anelected legislature. But the entire process would beconducted under electoral rules that assured every socialgroup of adequate representation. Minorities would beempowered to choose their representatives in the executiveand would have a voice in the choice of majorityrepresentatives. Once in authority, the executive wouldhave authority untrammelled by votes in the legislature,which were in Ambedkar’s perception, most likely to followparty lines and conform to narrow sectarian loyalties.Ambedkar wrote these lines when the Indian NationalCongress, illumined by Gandhi’s personality and spearheadedby Nehru’s dynamism, could with some credibility, claim torepresent an Indian nation that was a coherent whole,though imagined variously. The Congress was a politicalvehicle which held numerous tendencies within its capacious
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