Nagaraju Koppula was a journalist from a small village in Sarapaka, Telangana. He was probably the only Madiga Dalit journalist to work for The New Indian Express in Hyderabad. After battling illness since 2012, Nagaraju met an untimely death on 12 April 2015 from lung cancer at the age of 34, bringing an end to a career that was meant to change the perception of society towards Dalit in India. Even though he died of lung cancer, his friends and colleagues have come forward in unison to blame the inherent casteism in the society for his death.
Along with the Telangana Union of Working Journalists and the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), Nagaraju’s friends have started a campaign organizing protests across the country. Their contention is that Nagaraju’s employers practiced caste discrimination and didn’t support him financially or mentally to deal with the trauma of cancer. They underpaid him, denied him health benefits, provident fund and other such benefits- the lawful right of any employee working in an organisation. This unfair treatment and insensitivity shown by the organisation towards his illness is the reason for his untimely death.
At the condolence meeting in Delhi on April 23, the DUJ have resolved to “fight for justice against the casteist discrimination and contractual exploitation meted out to him by his employers”. Their belief is that Nagaraju had been discriminated on account of being a Madiga Dalit in what is a pre-dominantly upper caste media industry. His death brings to attention the lack of diversity that exists in workspaces, especially in the Indian media.
The number of Dalit journalists in mainstream media is dismal. Even more worrying is the differential treatment directed towards the marginalized section of the society. It can operate in multiple ways in the form of snide comments, ‘invisibalisation’ and a general lack of concern. So people from marginal sections will probably get paid less, be bullied by seniors, denied benefits- all of which contribute to demoralizing a whole section of society.
Dalits enter the field of media believing that they can empower their community, but many times their identity itself can become a source of derision. In such cases, the work place becomes a battle zone where the person section will work harder and exert himself more in order to undo centuries of discouragement.
Nagaraju’s friends vouch by his hardworking nature, “He had to struggle a lot in order to make it into the media, given his background. He worked day and night without any real remuneration,” said his friend Durgam Bhaskar- student leader of the campaign from Osmania University. His friends argue that he contributed a lot to the organisation, but the same organisation did not show any sympathy towards his ailment.
From what we gathered from his friends and the campaigners, Nagaraju’s measly income wasn’t enough to pay for his medical expenses. This led him to seek medical help under Andhra Pradesh government’s rural health care scheme which misdiagnosed him with Tuberculosis. As the illness persisted, he sought the help of a private hospital where he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer on 1st April.
At the offset, what became clear is that his treatment for cancer was delayed because he couldn’t afford to seek reliable medical help. Further, Nagaraju was on unpaid leave which added to his misery. Nagaraju, even in his condition, tried negotiating with the management for financial support, but to no avail.
Chittibabu Padavala, a close friend of Nagaraju and a journalist himself pointed out the inherent hypocrisy that is casteism- “He was denied the basic rights given to every employee, only because he was a Dalit.” The management did not even consider his background. There can be no denying the fact that the management could have given some consideration on humanitarian grounds, but their lack of concern makes their casteism clear.
Durgam Bhaskar compared this casteist attitude to a “psychological disorder”- Dalits are stigmatized in our society. These marginalized sections are harassed everyday- at least in spirit. We never talk about the mental trauma of being cornered and dejected because of a status that is socially ascribed by birth. A person is therefore judged not for their merit but their position in the caste system- a relic of a conservative past.
Through the campaign, Nagaraju’s friends and supporters want to raise the issue to a national level so that no one from any marginal community ever faces discrimination again. “What we see here is a clear- cut case of caste discrimination. We want the government to undertake an investigation to make sure the management is prosecuted for the unfair treatment of its employee. There should be some kind of mechanism to make sure that harassment against Dalits is documented so that action can be taken,” said Manisha Lath, a student of JNU and a campaigner. The campaign is called ‘Justice for Dalit Journalist Nagaraju Koppula Campaign’.
Whatever the reason for Nagaraju’s death- terminal disease or caste discrimination, what is clear is the humanitarian failure right from the start. It might not overtly look like a case of discrimination but structural biases against a targeted section of a society is worth investigating.