Members of a local advocacy grassroots group in Khunti, India, serve as a bridge between the poor and laborers in that community and its government administration. The group is comprised of local community members and student volunteers and its activities are focused on assisting the area’s population with bringing their concerns and grievances to the local government. Individuals, mostly of the Munda community with which I worked at the time, held a meeting with the national government’s Cabinet Minister for Rural Development, Jairam Ramesh Khunti, in Summer 2012, to discuss the grievances of the locals who were not receiving the food and minimum wages to which they were entitled from the local administration.
Many representatives of the national, regional and local media, and members of the community, including unarmed Maoists dressed as locals, and the District Magistrate (DM) responsible for the area, attended the gathering. The grassroots advocacy group’s members arranged the meeting to bring attention to an issue to which the DM of the area had proven unresponsive. As Magistrate, he was charged with ensuring dissemination of individual welfare benefits in the region. Nonetheless, the DM was not distributing those funds on time. Indeed, very often, the transfers were never completed and there was no information available concerning the whereabouts of the funds in the public domain. Eligible beneficiaries in Khunti had repeatedly requested their public entitlements for work on government-sponsored civil construction projects, but to no avail.
The grassroots advocacy group members convened the meeting to ensure that the responsible Cabinet Minister would question the DM with television staff and journalists present. The NGO’s leaders believed that simply sending the Minister the relevant data concerning alleged misappropriation of funds would not lead to timely and affirmative action without such overt public pressure.
There were two groups in the audience. One consisted of local villagers who had not received their allocated entitlements for several months. They participated in order to demand explanations and accountability from various government ministerial and bureaucratic officials, who made up the second group. Overall, approximately 150 people attended the event. Beyond those participating, several dozen members of the paramilitary forces, assigned to protect the ministers, stood nearby.
Overall, this experience taught me the critical role that news media can play in mobilizing wider support outside the affected community for the concerns of a group seeking change or support. It also taught me the processes through which discourses may shape whether such demands are legitimated or validated by the wider society. Finally, this episode suggested that it can sometimes be useful for groups to seek to broaden the scope of awareness of a conflict. In this case, that meant involving national officials in a local matter. This essay explores the relationship between social movements in India and the media in that nation by sketching the benefits and risks involved in seeking to involve news organizations in advocacy efforts. I also briefly address how media actors affect the character and direction of social movements in India.
How does the news media affect social movement goals in India?
The members of the local advocacy groups had invited a range of electronic and print media representatives to the Khunti gathering from local, regional and national outlets because they hoped to ensure transparency for the outcomes villagers desired by helping hold public officials accountable. This was a strategic move to ensure that the issue received attention. If such could occur, the members of the grassroots advocacy group hoped that it would build hope among the villagers that they enjoyed options when selecting tactics to employ when approaching/lobbying government officials and that those could reap tangible benefits. Journalists asked the political officials questions about the alleged misappropriation of funds and how much longer it would be before an investigation was undertaken concerning the entitlement payments that might hold any individuals found culpable accountable. The media representatives asked the members of the grassroots advocacy group how long the missing funds had been a problem; which specific populations had been affected and how; and, finally, they asked the villagers for details on the effects of not being able to access their food entitlements, as well as how the drought at the time had exacerbated their life situations.
As a general proposition, the targeted government officials, who travelled with security forces, appeared unapproachable to the villagers. As a result, many local residents were frightened to assert their democratic rights in public. After all the protests, strikes and marches and reports and inquiries shared with relevant Ministries, it was this meeting, with the presence of the media, that obtained effective government action. More specifically, this gathering resulted in the case being taken up by the Central Ministry of Rural Development, whose leaders in turn summoned the DM to New Delhi to answer for the holdup in paying entitlements. Thereafter, the long-delayed funds arrived within two weeks. Moreover, the government not only paid currently owed sums, but also cleared a backlog of non-payments owed to Khunti’s citizens.
The result of this action for the local advocacy group with which I volunteered was quite positive as it suggested to affected residents that collective mobilization involving the media could lead to successful advocacy on behalf of otherwise marginalized individuals and groups. Further, several of the communications outlets whose representatives had participated in the original briefing, continued to follow up with state officials in an effort to ensure their ongoing accountability to the citizens affected. In retrospect, it was clear to all concerned that the media’s presence had brought widespread attention to an issue that otherwise likely would not have gained political salience (Williams, 1995).
Nevertheless, the advocacy group privately received pushback from national government officials in Delhi, who accused its members of not working collaboratively with local government representatives to address the issue. The group’s leaders disagreed and concluded that the presence of journalists had made it clear to public sector leaders that while it was happy to work with them, it was not beholden to them. The group could (and had, in fact, already done so) pursue other strategies to hold government actors accountable if need be.
The Relationship between the Media and Social Movements
The relative autonomy of a movement in its relations with a media outlet depend in part on temporal and spatial factors, as well as on what territories and populations its efforts address. Long-lived and well institutionalized social movements tend not to challenge the status quo directly. In consequence, they are less dependent on journalistic coverage for their survival. However, media attention can be crucial for less well-known or established movements that may not yet have acquired strong public legitimacy. Their outsider status, their marginalization from central political decision-making processes and the fact that they are often resource-poor, may make it more difficult for such groups to garner publicity. The situation may also force them to rely on alternative methods to obtain popular support for their concerns.
Ultimately, this challenge translates in practice into social movement leaders identifying strategies to align their goals with public concerns in ways that capture media attention and thereby increase the likelihood of reaching larger groups of people and galvanizing action. Many social movement leaders have found this imperative easier to address during election campaigns. These provide moments for such entities to pressure government officials and candidates to include their concerns on their agendas. For instance, India’s Right to Food movement was successful in using media salience strategically to press elected officials to enact poverty alleviation acts in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. The type of advocacy used by a movement is also key. Certain spectacular strategies, such as hunger strikes, can quickly draw widespread public attention to an issue but, to succeed, all concerned must perceive that those employing this approach are completely serious concerning it. Further, where advocacy occurs may matter as much as how it is undertaken. Demonstrations and acts occurring in very visible, public areas, such as outside Parliament, government offices, etc. are much more likely to receive media attention than private meetings in offices or community/village gatherings.
Positives and Negatives
Broadly speaking, social movements gain in several ways from positive media treatment of their efforts. First, press, radio and television coverage can legitimize a movement’s claims and processes. Second, the media offers frames that the broader population can adopt to understand the causes and potential solutions for an issue. Third, journalistic coverage can bring a much broader audience’s attention to a local concern or specific community. Fourth, media salience provides social movements opportunities actively to shape public understanding of important issues. Fifth, strong sympathetic media coverage of a topic can serve to mobilize support among the larger public. Sixth, media may serve as an important resource for publicizing messages when social movements are cash-strapped. Finally, and as the example outlined above suggested, media coverage can serve to press State and corporate actors to behave in more transparent and accountable ways.
However, engaging with the news media can also result in adverse effects. Outlets may frame a social movement and its attendant issues negatively. This has occurred at times with several movements in India, including anti-nuclear activists, as well as Right to Food advocates. In one famous incident in 2012 in India, several media organizations depicted a member of a missionary group as part of an effort to obtain land illegally in Jharkhand. In fact, she was a part of a local advocacy group that was actually fighting corporate land grabbing efforts. Sadly, the erroneous coverage prompted some members of the affected community to murder her. In this case, corporate actors persuaded journalists of an untrue narrative in an effort to delegitimize resistance to their actions.
This example demonstrates how important the nexus of state, corporate and media can be to social movements. State and corporate actors often seek to frame social movements and issues for media representatives in a negative light so as to delegitimize them. Media actors can also adversely affect an issue by simply not publishing or publicizing it for any number of reasons. Reporters may also frame the strategies used by social movements in a negative light. For example, the media has often condemned the destruction of State property by members of the Maoist insurgency in one state in India, while not mentioning why the group is pursuing such measures. Also, owing to concerns with gaining the largest audience possible, media outlets are selective concerning the social movements and issues they cover. Overall, movements working in urban centers and affecting upper and middle-class individuals are more likely to be covered than, for example, those aimed at assisting rural villagers located in the middle of a jungle.
Media can strongly influence how movements are popularly perceived and thereby affect their possible direction and action strategies. The India Anti-Corruption Movement, for example, was based on Gandhian ideology in India, which gained high media coverage, that consistently discussed its non-violent strategies and in turn, implied a direct tie between the Movement and Gandhiji, a celebrated figure. In terms of actors and issues, while corruption in public offices is widespread and affects all communities, the Indian media focus primarily on issues affecting the middle and upper classes, such as delays in passport processing and receiving business permits. In contrast, the vast majority of people affected by corruption are poor. The Anti-Corruption movement received widespread attention because of the way the media elected to characterize it. Journalistic accounts concerning the movement suggested that all corruption could be eliminated, if the movement’s aims could be fully realized. Many media and political actors touted a “corruption-free India” as a way of achieving much higher economic growth, a goal desired by people of all classes. This, emphasis however, obscured how deeply corruption is enmeshed in the government’s bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the news media played an active role in “creating legitimacy and [a] favorable discourse” in support of the movement (McCarthy and Zald, 1977; Williams, 1995).
In short, the way that such activities are reported in the media is fundamental to the effectiveness of the feedback loop between the public and its government leaders, elected and appointed. Public officials are often openly critical of social movements that undermine their authority.
There is a paucity of scholarship that studies the relationship between the media and social movements in India, especially in a time when major communications outlets are generally held privately by for-profit firms in that country. I have sought to use Indian examples to illustrate the fact that social movements can be greatly benefited by their strategic use of media coverage. The scholarship concerning this topic is becoming ever more important, as social movements not only seek to influence public actors within states, but also transnationally.
McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (1977). “Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory,” American Journal of Sociology, 82(6), 1212–1241.
Williams, R. H. (1995). “Constructing the Public Good: Social Movements and Cultural Resources,” Social Problems, 42(1), 124–144. http://doi.org/10.2307/3097008 Accessed October 30, 2017.
Pallavi Raonka is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech. She received her BA- Psychology from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara, India, and her M.A. in Rural Development from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, India.
Her research interests include the political economy of globalization and development, social movement theory, and Indian politics.