Tuesday, 25 September 2012

When Statements Go Unchallenged

Incidents of atrocities against Dalits in Haryana are increasing, says Prakash Javdekar, Rajya Sabha MP and spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party on a television show to discuss the issue in the light of the horrible incident in Hissar, Haryana, where a Dalit girl was gangraped and her father committed suicide because of the humiliation.
He is from the BJP and there is a Congress government in Haryana, so political grandstanding is inevitable.
“Crime being committed per lakh [population of scheduled caste] is the highest in Haryana,” asserts P. L . Punia, Congress MP and head of the National Commission of Scheduled Castes on the same show. Grandstanding on his part is also inevitable, given his official position.
“Why is it that only Dalits get raped by upper castes, whether it is Khairlanji [the 2006 carnage in Mahrashtra] or Haryana?” asks activist Kancha Ilaiah, another participant in the show. He too can be forgiven for being dramatic – he has made a name as a Dalit scholar and activist and is expected to take a certain position.
But is it the job of the media to let all these statements go unchallenged?
NDTV anchor Vishnu Som did not ask any of these worthy gentlemen to substantiate their statements with figures.
Does Javdekar have any firm numbers on the rise in atrocities in Haryana?
We don’t know.
Is Punia basing his statement on some study? Can he give any numbers on how many crimes per lakh of population, which is the state with second highest crimes per lakh population? We don’t know.
Can Ilaiah back his startling claim with data? Are upper caste men really raping only Dalit women? Are they not raping upper caste women? Then what about the cases of rape of upper caste women? Who are the perpetrators?
We don’t know.
Okay, so let us concede that Som, in his hurry to wrap up the programme, forgot to ask follow up questions to the panelists. Here's the link to the show.
But does a newspaper have that same excuse?
Punia repeats the same statement in an interview to Economic Times published the following day (Tuesday) and that is taken as the heading of a five-column anchor on page 2: Maximum Anti-Dalit Crimes in Haryana: Punia. Once again, there is no attempt to ask him to elaborate or any attempt to double check on one’s own. The newspaper adds to the whole campaign by saying “several cases of atrocities on Dalits have taken place in the state,” mentioning the Mirchpur incident as the most serious. The only other anecdotal example it gives (again no numbers) is of a wall being constructed around a Dalit village in Hissar last year.
Som does fall back on one report. He mentions a 2010 report of the ministry of social justice and empowerment (the report is not named), which apparently mentions that there is an increase in crimes against Dalits between 2009 and 2010 in Kerala, Haryana, Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. But there is no mention of what is the percentage increase or disaggregated figures on the states, which could, perhaps, show that the increase in Haryana is more alarming than in the rest. In fact, the other figures in the report contradict the thesis that Haryana tops in atrocities. In that report, quoted by Som, Rajasthan tops the list of states with registered crimes against Dalits and five states – Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh – account for 70 per cent of registered crimes.
When my boss got excited by Punia’s statement and wanted me to do a story on this, I took the trouble of checking things out. I downloaded the 2011 statistic of the National Crime Records Bureau. Here’s what I found. In 2011 Uttar Pradesh topped the list of registered crimes against Dalits  with 22 per cent of cases, followed by Rajasthan with 15.4 per cent, Andhra Pradesh 11 per cent, Bihar 10.7 per cent and Karnataka 7.4 per cent. Haryana is only 1.2 per cent.
The only report of the ministry of social justice and empowerment report I could find online was the annual report of 2009-10, which takes figures from the NCRB and that report too showed Haryana was way below several states in terms of Dalit atrocities.
I couldn’t find any report on the website of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
Maybe Javdekar and Punia were basing their statements on some other data or reports, which they were privy to. Maybe Som had access to a ministry report which is not online or I couldn’t find it because I didn’t have the name.
Maybe Haryana does, in fact, top in atrocities.
For me, which state tops in atrocities is irrelevant. Would it be better if some other state topped?
What is relevant for me is that people on television discussions and newspaper articles, whom people will believe because they are experts (as my boss did) are allowed to go unchallenged on facts and figures they dish out. By journalists, whose job is to challenge people.
What is also relevant for me is that television and print journalists are not checking facts properly and are satisfied with vague numbers and generalized statements.