Buddha needs TV

Feb 20, 2011, 06:50 IST | Dhamini Ratnam

A new channel that unites Dalits via a remote, and new chapters of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry talk of how young Ambedkarities are using media, publishing and online portals to tweek our social mindset

A new channel that unites Dalits via a remote, and new chapters of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry talk of how young Ambedkarities are using media, publishing and online portals to tweek our social mindset

Vanshobha Ramteke's morning routine hasn't changed in the last 15 years. After a quick cup of tea at 5.30 am, the 60 year-old whips up a breakfast for her family, and packs her son's office lunch before she gets busy with housework.

Sometimes, but not as often as she would like, Ramteke heads to the neighbouring Buddha Vihara to offer the Trisharana and listen to the Buddha Vandana with fellow Ambedkarites.


Bhaiyyaji Khairkar, Raju Moon, Aman Kamble and Sachin Moon at Dadar's
Chaityabhoomi. The young Dalit entrepreneurs behind Lord Buddha
TV were in the city to meet with cable operators. Starting today, the
channel will be available in Thane and Kalyan. PIC/ Atul Kamble


Two months ago, the Nagpur resident found a channel that brought these discourses to her doorstep. Lord Buddha TV went on air on November 26, 2010, offering a bouquet of programmes including shows centred around Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar among other bahujan icons, quizzes on the Indian Constitution, and debates on government policies for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and OBCs.

"Now, the television is on throughout the day," says Ramteke, who was in Mumbai this week to visit the Chaityabhoomi in Dadar that houses a memorial of Dr BR Ambedkar, philosopher, Dalit revolutionary and chief architect of the Indian Constitution.

Ramateke's only grouse is that the channel, which is available through the local cable network in 15 districts in the Marathwada and Vidarbha belt, including Nagpur and Amravati, isn't available in Mumbai.

But yesterday, that changed. Lord Buddha TV whose November launch at Diksha Bhoomi in Nagpur was witnessed by over 1 lakh people, kicked off its satellite Free to Air version yesterday by Ambedkarites Sachin Moon, Aman Kamble, Pritam Bulkunde, Rajesh Moon (all in their early 30s) and 55 year-old Bhaiyyaji Khairkar.

The entrepreneurs were in talks with cable operators in New Delhi and Mumbai to air the channel in metros.
With a viewership that currently stands at 2.5 crore, the channel has religious and social leanings. For the team behind it, Buddhism offers a means to change India's social mindset.

"Our channel will go to every household. Everyone will learn about Buddha's teachings on equality and love, and Ambedkar's discourses on non-discrimination. The power of television can alter the way we think," believes Khairkar, spokesperson for the channel.

With headquarters in Nagpur, Lord Buddha TV is run by a staff of nearly 40 and is broadcast through cable networks like UCN and BCN.

"We are not a Dalit channel, we are a Buddhist channel. It's a channel that showcases the changing face of the Dalit movement," clarifies content head Kamble.

A skewed representation

But for S Anand, co-author of the just-launched Bhimayana, a one-of-a-kind graphic novel created by Gond artists on the life of Dr BR Ambedkar, a Dalit-owned channel like Lord Buddha TV is significant because it helps right the skewed representation of Dalit issues in mainstream media.

"Something like a Lord Buddha TV is important so that we don't depend on mainstream channels to bring up Dalit issues. At the same time, it also points to the sorry state of India's media and its complete lack of Dalit representation," says the man who has been in the news for an initiative that presents a Dalit icon in unique comic book form.

Bhimayana traces Ambedkar's struggle with untouchability and the 3,000 year-old Hindu caste system, through painful anecdotes like the time the little boy yearned for water in a segregated school.

As a mainstream journalist prior to founding Navayana, Anand found it impossible to take the caste issue forward. And it's this glaring void that prompted Delhi-based Anand to co-found Navayana in 2003.

It is India's only publishing house that promotes authors and books that deal with caste issues from an anti-caste perspective. Inspired by Ambedkar's interpretation of Buddhism, Navayana publishes the best of socially-engaged writing from India including Namdeo Dhasal, Kancha Ilaiah, Gail Omvedt, Meera Nanda, Dilip Menon, Anand Teltumbde.

Dalit bahujan prose on Facebook

With the increasing popularity of social networking sites among the youth, other online initiatives have taken root. For instance, Round Table India, an information portal that aggregates news to highlight the Dalit-Bahujan perspective, started a Facebook page called The Shared Mirror, which invites Dalit bahujan writers and poets to send in poetry and prose.

"There is a lot of talk about non-issues in newspapers and news channels, such as who carried Mayawati's shoes or how Varun Gandhi visited Sonia Gandhi to give her his wedding card. We want to talk about the real issues," says Kamble.

While other portals offer Dalit community-related news and anti-caste perspectives, the launch of a television channel is an indication of the improving economic conditions among members of the Dalit community -- most of the initial investment of Rs 1.5 crore and Rs 5 lakh needed to launch its satellite version, was obtained through donations from privileged members of the community.

A clearer picture of the changing economic scene emerges when one marks the rise in number of Dalit entrepreneurs. The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a body that was established six years ago to provide support to upcoming entrepreneurs, now has over 1,000 members including Kalpana Saroj, chairperson of Kamani Tubes  Ltd. The daughter of a Dalit police havaldar in Vidarbha's Akola district is now chairperson of the Rs 68 crore company that she acquired in 2002 with accumulated debts of Rs 160 crore, including unpaid wages amounting to Rs 50 crore.

Any Dalit entrepreneur with a minimum annual turnover of Rs 25 lakh can join DICCI. 
"In business, everyone competes in the open market. Customers look for quality. Caste is not such a big concern," says chairman Milind Kamble. 

The organisation, headquartered in Pune, will open chapters in Uttar Pradesh, NCR and Punjab in March, and plans to target Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in the coming months.

The industry body even met the Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia in December to stress the need for policies that encourage young Dalit entrepreneurs.

"As more Dalit entrepreneurs enter the mainstream and achieve a certain economic status, there will be a gradual end to discrimination, we hope," says the chairman.

In May 2010, Insight Foundation, a non-profit trust created by Dalit and Adivasi students of Jawahar Lal Nehru University in Delhi, started a national telephone helpline and an e-resource portal, SCSTstudents.org, to help students make informed choices. The website provides information about admissions, scholarships and career opportunities and offers a mentorship programme that allows them to contact professionals and academicians.

One of the main reasons for this venture, say the founders on a blog, is to make India's educational system more inclusive. For the Lord Buddha TV team, the quiet revolution they hope to bring about is through Buddhist teaching. And the nature of the medium will ensure that non-Dalit viewers adopt a non-discriminatory and anti-caste perspective.

"Everyone can raise the issue of farmers' suicides, women's rights or a separate budget designed to cater to the needs of the poor. The teachings of Buddha are above regional and national politics," says Khairkar. At the same time, they are keen to inculcate a sense of pride in Dalit identity among primary viewers.

Programmes like a quiz show, where an anchor visits viewers' homes to test their knowledge on Dalit history, is one such way to do it, they feel. "They will realise that Savitribai Phule, who opened a school for untouchable girls was the first woman educationist in India, not Saraswati," smiles Kamble.

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