National

Keeping Ambedkar’s Legacy Alive, One Story At A Time

Mooknayak, meaning hero or spokesperson of the mute, was the first newspaper launched by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. Today, its heir apparent, The Mooknayak, carries on his legacy by reporting stories that mainstream media avoids.

Keeping Ambedkar’s Legacy Alive, One Story At A Time
info_icon

The 2022 Uttar Pradesh assembly electi­ons was the first time The Mooknayak reported an election from the ground. Over the past two months, our team had spread out across UP to live and report from among the people, even though lack of finances prevented them from carrying out more extensive coverage.  

Quite a few of the stories we did remain outside the spotlight of mainstream media till today. Among them was a report on an area in Ballia district that lacks electricity till today, 75 years after Independence. Within a few hours of the story being released, the Ballia electricity department took cognisance of it and promised to ensure power supply to the area within three months.

True to our ethos, our team reached many UP districts to discuss issues related to Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, women, poverty, unemployment and education. We passed the microphone to those who had never been offered one, reached out to those places where mainstream media had either not reached or chosen to overlook. At times, The Mooknayak contingent had to witness scenes that brought a sharp realisation of how backward our country continues to be, stuck as it is in the muck of caste and religion.   

When our outlet reached Dalit settlements to try and find out issues concerning them, many of the respondents were surprised to see us, since even political leaders do not come asking for their votes. I remember being told by a woman in a Dalit colony that “not even you want to touch us, you are practicing untouchability”, simply bec­ause I was wearing gloves and masks as part of Covid-19 precautions. They were talking to us from a distance, fearing a negative reaction if we touched each other. When I told them I was one of them, they freely shared their pain on camera.   

While reporting on the UP elections, The Mook­nayak found how untouchability continues in a village in Varanasi district, three-quarters of a century after we gained Independence. Similarly, an area in Bareilly has people reduced to living in the middle of a garbage dump, risking their lives. We were able to cover many such stories on our YouTube channel and website, aspects that have been ignored by the country/society/media for centuries. Although we did not have swanky cars, the Mooknayak team used whatever transport they could—hitchhiking on motorbikes, using autorickshaws and public transport—to reach tiny villages and mofussil towns. Often, people suspected our journalistic credentials, since they believe “journalists only travel in big cars, carrying huge cameras”.  

***

One of the things I often get to hear to my disgust is that “main ladkon se bhi achcha kaam kar rahi hoon (I am doing better work than the boys)”. Often, praise for women is channelled through comparing them with male figures. We were five siblings, four sisters and the youngest brother. Our father treated us equally, but mother sometimes prioritised the son over the daughters. I often felt bad about this.

That is why women are always required to prove themselves in every endeavour. Women themsel­ves are a marginalised group, across castes, religi­ons and classes.  

However, the challenges multiply when you come from marginalised communities such as Dalits, Adivasis and backward castes, because they also lack education and resources. When a marginalised woman makes progress, society att­empts to push her back.  

I may have been born in Delhi, but it was a part of the city mostly inhabited by Dalits. Even there, a chasm of caste differences existed between the myriad sub-castes within Dalits. I overcame these hurdles and went on to complete higher education. Till then, I had been largely protected from caste discrimination. Neither did I have any idea about the term, nor about the process through which it works. In school, I had a friend from the Dhobi caste (a Dalit community), whose parents washed and ironed clothes for a living. I observed how she was always hesitant to reveal this fact, and hid her identity among friends. Today, she is married in a Savarna family, but as far as I know, she has not told her in-laws that her parents were clothes washers. Two of my other friends, almost all of whom were Dalits, were from the Chamar caste. I can’t remember having a Savarna friend in school. Almost all the friends were hesitant and uncomfortable about their caste identity.  

info_icon
The Inspiration Facsimile of the first edition of Ambedkar’s Mooknayak.

I started getting fully exposed to caste and its implications only when I began studying in Jamia Millia Islamia and later joined the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. I started my career as a journalist with National Dastak, which covered news of marginalised communities. One started feeling disheartened writing day in and day out about how widespread casteism still is across the country, with people being killed or beaten senseless for actions such as keeping a moustache, riding a horse, sitting on a chair or touching someone. On the other hand, Dalit-Adivasi friends working in mainstream media would describe how they were not allowed to speak up or had to hide their identities. A number of research projects have highlighted the persistent lack of Dalit and Adivasi representation in media, especially in positions of power.  

In this bleak scenario, I started wondering if it had been a mistake to join the media. That is why I headed back to academics and moved to Lucknow to pursue an MPhil. I had decided to not return to media, but while studying there, I came across an advertisement for positions in a leading media organisation, and on my partner’s suggestion, shifted back to journalism.  

It is hard to find Dalit women journalists. If men don’t find a job, they can change careers or experiment, but women have few opportunities and Dalit women face an even bigger struggle.

Advertisement

However, in most national media, Savarnas dominate the spaces. Dalit-Adivasis are not given due respect and opportunities, no matter how hardworking and honest they are. In short, the entire culture is against Dalits and Adivasis. You have to hide your identity and work in a suffocating atmosphere in order to survive, because displays of caste pride and misogyny are the reality of every newsroom.

In the last 10 years, Bahujan media has carved out a space for itself in the saturated media market. One of the reasons behind establishing The Mooknayak was that every year, Dalit and Adiv­asi youths pass out of mass communication institutes and universities as young journalists, but lose hope after failing to secure jobs. They end up preparing for competitive exams or finding jobs in other sectors, while those who want to continue as journalists open their own ventures.  

Advertisement

I faced a similar fate. After I left my job with a media organisation, landing another became tougher. For a while, I survived on assignments for “alternative” media. I got the opportunity to work freelance for all major “alter­native” media outlets, but this was not enough for me. Another disappointing aspect about Bahujan media was that even here, there was a dearth of women. How could a media outlet that sought to represent marginalised communities overlook this dou­bly marginalised group? The hie­rarchy of men over women exists across classes, religions and castes, so how could Bahujan media escape it?  

Advertisement

It is hard to find Dalit women journalists in the industry. If men do not find a job they can afford to change careers or experiment, but women have very limited opportunities available to them. Dalit women face a bigger struggle, and therefore it is nearly impossible to locate a female Dalit journalist, even in a metro city like Delhi.  

This became the biggest reason that drove me to launch my own media venture. I remembered Babasaheb’s insistence that the oppressed and marginalised should have their own media. In that context, women are on the last echelon of power, with hardly anyone letting their voice be heard. After witnessing the discrimination meted out in mainstream media, Dr Ambedkar had launched his own outlet in 1920. This inspired me to launch a digital media venture named The Mooknayak, named after his newspaper Mookna­yak. It has made significant progress now. Within a year, The Mooknayak has gained recognition among nearly all media establishments in the country, and is also being accessed overseas.  

Advertisement

However, the journey has not been easy. Some male journalists were unable to digest the success of a Dalit woman. I have consistently faced abuse and trolling. While others have told me that “it’s good you did not remain confined to, it would have been impossible to do such good work had you remained there”. It feels good to hear this praise, but I have a question for them—is this the only alternative? How many people can take the risk I took? How many are able to establish their own platforms and make a name for themselves? How many survive the risks? Can everyone overcome moments like the one when I felt like ending myself?

Advertisement

(This appeared in the print edition as "Dalit Sonar")

(Views expressed are personal)

ALSO READ

Meena Kotwal is the founder-editor of the Mooknayak

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement