I remember my first glimpse of Dayamani Barla: there she was on the screen, fierce, stoic, talking about the ravages the Koel Karo dam and hydel power project would bring to the people of the region. I remember thinking of her as a charismatic-yet-grounded activist then, taking my cue from the images flickering on the screen. She was featured on a documentary on radical women writers, poets, and activists I think, but I may be wrong; I remember nothing of the documentary except that I encountered Dayamani Barla (and Putul Murmu) there for the first time.
Since that day in 2007, I encountered Barla on numerous occasions–in news reports on agitations against land acquisition, in meetings and agitations against excesses committed by the state, in newsletters of grassroots NGOs, and in her own writings on numerous issues.
And so, it wasn’t so much of a surprise when I came across this news report stating that she’d been sent to jail in a 2006 case. Of late, the convener of the Adivasi-Moolvasi Astitva Raksha Manch and one of the national conveners of National Alliance for People’s Movement had been camping with villagers in Nagri, who were protesting against the “acquisition” of fertile agricultural land for the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) and the NationalUniversity for Study and Research in Law (NUSRL). Barla’s activities as a journalist turned anti-displacement (tribal, woman) activist had been a sore point for the Jharkhand government, and her participation in the Nagri agitation perhaps tested the State’s patience, which sent the police to hound her. She evaded arrest and surrendered before the court on October 16 and was granted bail two days later.
The jail authorities, however, refused to release Barla on October 19, and instead said that she had been arrested in a fresh case. Among similar instances, my mind went back to the occasion when activist Arun Ferreira was re-arrested in front of the very jail he was released from this January. Like Barla, Ferreira had spent years exposing the excesses of the state, and it’s no secret that the state’s machinery tries to keep such elements behind bars.
Barla’s bail and her re-arrest, however, were hardly noticed by the mainstream media. None of the big three among the English papers—The Times of India, Hindustan Times, and Indian Express–carried a story on Barla’s bail and re-arrest. There was no story either on the two English television news networks–NDTV and CNN-IBN.
What was more surprising, however, was the fact that while Dainik Jagran, Hindustan andAmar Ujala had no story on her surrender, bail, or re-arrest, Dainik Bhaskar and Navbharat Times reported her surrender before the court, but had no story on her being granted bail, and her subsequent re-arrest. Only Prabhat Khabar, the paper Barla used to write for, carried ashort article on October 19 on her being granted bail. But even here, there was no report on her being re-arrested thereafter.
It has often been observed by media analysts that the regional media is more sensitive to local happenings, and the spurt in the regional media’s readership and circulation owes a lot to the localization of content. What might the exclusion of news about Barla’s re-arrest tell us about the regional media then?
For one, it might point to the fact that across the board, the media considers the IIMs and such educational institutions as holy cows; they are, like the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, a matter of prestige, and essential to the progress of the country. Anyone opposing these is viewed with deep suspicion therefore. So also Barla.
Another factor to keep in mind perhaps in the context of localization of the regional media’s content and the exclusion of Barla’s bail and re-arrest is numbers. Barla surrendered before the court against the backdrop of the Nagri agitation. Arguably, the 153 families that are the landowners–or project-affected in the land acquisition for IIM and NUSRL, on paper–do not constitute a large enough number for the regional media to take notice and tweak their content.
Also, when a paper carries an article on someone being sent to a 14-day judicial custody, mentioning the charges she is accused of, but chooses not to report on her being subsequently granted bail and then re-arrested–like in the case of Dainik Bhaskar and Navbharat Times–where does that leave the reader? Does such partial news serve to discredit/malign the activist in the eyes of the reader?
Since the IIM is a matter of prestige, it comes as no surprise that The Times of India did cover the Nagri protest. The article in the paper, however, does not mince words about which side it is on, when it states, “All the protesters, led by Barla, were carrying traditional weapons and attacked the policemen on duty”. With this one statement, an alleged act of attacking the policemen on duty, in a case for which the accused has not even appeared in court, is converted into an undisputed fact.
Still more curious is The Times of India’s attribution of a quote to Barla for a story datelined October 20. How did the paper manage to speak to Barla when she was supposedly in jail? Are we, as readers, to disregard the Asian Human Rights Committee report which states that Barla has been in jail since October 16? In the TOI’s scheme of things, Barla was clearly still leading the protesters!
Does the exclusion of Barla’s bail and re-arrest reflect the social hierarchies that the media is deeply entrenched in? Tehelka happens to be the only mainstream media outlet in English that has carried a story on Barla and the Nagri agitation. (Or is it Nargi? Why does Tehelka say it’s Nargi, when everyone else across the Hindi and English media calls it Nagri? Further, why doesTehelka state that Barla surrendered before the Jharkhand police when everyone else says she surrendered before the local court?).
In the media’s pecking order perhaps, Barla is not a credible activist; at least she’s not big enough for her case to be reported.
To be considered powerful/ credible in the mediascape, an activist has to be based in Delhi, and/or take potshots at big politicians (readers might recall how the national media “discovered” Anna once he shifted “base” to Delhi; we might recall Kejriwal too. And also think of how the media ignored P.V. Rajagopal and his march though the numbers he was commanding was more than Anna Hazare’ s).
It has often been said that non-violent agitation requires an audience to be effective, and in the context of agitations in rural areas, this audience is absent. And so is the media, which does not bother to report on an agitation unless the numbers are big enough for it not to ignore. The absence of media reports often becomes a credible ploy in the hands of the state in its efforts to criminalise dissent. No media coverage could very well feed into the theory that the dissenter was carrying out activities secretively and illegally.
Of course, agitators could resort to spectacles; they could work towards creating images that capture attention. Think of the jal satyagraha in Madhya Pradesh, and how the national media honed in on the story then, only to forget all about it once the spectacle was over.
Then again, even a spectacle offers no guarantee of coverage; the jal satyagraha in Kudankulam was hardly used by the media to raise questions it ought to have, as this recent Hoot storyshowed.
Barla’s exclusion from newspapers and newsreels also points to another factor: the thousands of activists and dissenters lodged in jails and the systemic ignoring of their cases by the media. Binayak Sen has often been at pains to explain that his case is just one among thousands in the country. Yet why is it that we never hear of Dayamani Barlas, Jeetan Marandis, Sudhir Dhawales, Anjali Sontakkes, or Sheetal Sathes in the same way as we heard of Sen?
Is it the media’s bias–against people from a lower caste-class background, against “people not like us”? For, the one thing common between all the names mentioned above is the fact that none of them comes from the middle class. They are from among the tribal or lower caste sections of society, and have/had been leading struggles against state excesses in various ways before being branded Maoists by the state and arrested.
Barla hasn’t been called a Maoist as yet–at least there’s no government propaganda in the media labeling her of leading a Maoist cell or indoctrinating the youth. But her case isn’t so different from the few mentioned above. And in ignoring her case, the media has once again shown itself to be part of the systematic disdain with which lower caste-class dissenters are treated.