Caste Stereotypes in Media

Sourced from "Nosing Around A look at a pseudoscience that hinged on the shnozz" By Eddy Portnoy

The post below was not originally intended to be an open letter. I wrote it close to three years ago in response the Article, “The peculiar pedigree of the business class” authored by Aakar Patel in MINT. I first posted it as a comment on the article and then emailed it to the author and the editor. I have not got any response till date. The comment was deleted and I reposted it about eleven months ago. The comment was deleted with many other comments which were abusive not only towards the author but also my community and me (“the banias”).

In between these three years, the author continued to write articles making broad sweeping statements on individuals based on caste stereotypes . What was surprising that, even if his statements were banal, they perpetuated social orders we are eager to shed. Even if the articles were intended to provoke, each article deserves the criticism it receives as it is spinning a grammar of its own. There is an increased legitimacy the author is now receiving in mainstream media. Take for instance the article titled as, “Bold banias conquer nayi duniya” in the Times of India published only last week.

So for a wider circulation and criticism, I am posting the comment on Aakar’s article, “The peculiar pedigree of the business class”. I would be greatful if he or the editor from MINT takes out some time to respond.

Dear Aakar,

Having read your article in this weekend’s Mint I have some comments and suggestions you may consider.

Firstly is an invitation to the gates-buffet event the gilt standard for philanthropy? Just run a google search on each of these “wealthy banias” and I am sure you will come up with some examples on their charitable activities. Using this set of data I can also a write an article (albeit less polemically) and reach a conclusion that Banias are large hearted charitable people. But that would be as disingenuous as the conclusion reached by you.

Since I am a part of the community, I know Banias are not as homogenous as you make them out to be. You give Banias too much credit. Banias do not have a standard text or even a strong unipolar set of social practices. Many are convent educated, work in civil services as opposed to businesses, eat non-vegetarian food as opposed to a jain diet and marry outside our sub-class as well as caste… all these practices depart from the supposed Bania stereotype. I also know some people in my community are extremely charitable while others would put the scrooge to shame. Hence, while writing an article if you do a caste analysis of Banias you may legitimately point out that as a caste it is upper-class, wealthy, mobile but saying we hoard the wealth is disguising a prejudice in the absence of wider data (as well as a sound method of collecting and analyzing it).

I would propose that before writing, you could preface the article with the empirical models and the scope of your study. Even the most casual economic and sociological studies when utilizing statistics mention the method of the study and the limitations of the data. Hence, when you conclude with something as dramatic as, “The Baniya’s culture of focused wealth creation is very good in many ways, but not all of this culture is good”, it would be appropriate to back it up firmly. Now the standard defenses, that, “its only an article not a scholarly study”; “its merely an opinion” does not work in your case. You use anecdotal data and present them as facts. They are not on the basis of reference to prior studies or data (atleast you don’t refer to them in the article). The data is your own. Knowing fully that this self gathered data will impression the reader, and make your argument more convincing, you proceed to use it. An article such as this is clearly not an opinion or an analysis, and it needs some standards of data gathering applied to it.

Now what’s the effect of such writings? Its all harmless right? Certainly not, it tends to reinforce stereotypes and grants latent prejudices prevailing in Indian society a sense of legitimacy.

The writing focuses on a powerful and wealthy numerical minority, but they are numerical minorities nonetheless. Their wealth may shelter them from immediate persecution but their numbers make them susceptible as well. Even if we do not take these slippery slope arguments, a person with a Bania caste will be immediately identified by these negative stereotypes.

If you sociologically view the vast array of Bania jokes they reveal a disquieting social undercurrent against the caste. Though Russel Peters once joked, “terrorists hate america and indians hate each other” and in this vein there may be jokes on most castes, the Bania jokes focus in on the communities supposed frugality and a insatiable thirst for wealth. Writings such as yours, when carried by a premier and respect paper such as Mint only make these undercurrents and prejudices valid and visible. They do not hide in the message inboxes of cellphones, forwarded from friend to friend and enjoyed in the privacy of a 5 inch screen but transcend to valid drawing room talk. In this respect the data that you peddle and the analysis that you offer, works as a long white pointy hat on a prejudice.

While I agree that the wealthy need to give back more to Indian society, to paint it as a product of Bania culture is an incorrect attribution. I believe there are several factors including that the wealth (at-least in copious amounts) is new found and the culture of charity is developing with time. I hope you take time to read the comments and realize the effect of your columns is not to spur debate but is to anger the members of a caste and enable others to vilify it. If you don’t think that’s empirically demonstrated, please count the number of negative comments on your columns. I am sure it will satisfy your standards of dispositive proof.


Apar Gupta

Comments are closed.


More from the blog


  • No posts found.

More news