Social Justice Matters | Dalit women reporters and their lessons on merit

Feb 15, 2022 08:55 PM IST

Khabar Lahariya's uncompromising quality holds lessons for the arguments around merit, which denies Dalits their rightful place in educational institutions and organisations.

In the bowels of Bundelkhand in the summer of 2002, a quiet revolution began when a group of Dalit women started reporting on the life and society around them, and compiling their reports, in Hindi and other local dialects, into an eight-page broadsheet. Started by the non-governmental organisation Nirantar, Khabar Lahariya (News Wave) quickly grew in size and importance, bagging several national and international awards, and in 2016, became one of the few grassroots organisations to successfully pivot to a digital-first, online approach.

A still from Writing With Fire. PREMIUM
A still from Writing With Fire.

Last week, the story of their extraordinary courage, perseverance and professionalism got another global platform as a documentary made on the newspaper garnered a nomination for the best documentary feature at the 94th Academy Awards. The film, Writing With Fire, had bagged 28 previous international honours – at each venue, inspiring people with the stories of Meera Devi, Shyamkali Devi and Suneeta Prajapati as they jumped into buses, bullock carts and cramped autos, walked for miles to nondescript villages, took on local authorities, strongmen and the mafia, and challenged caste biases and patriarchal girdles.

Khabar Lahariya turns 20 this May, underlining that passion projects steeled by community resolve can be long lasting and make a difference. In the film, made by directors, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, people come up to the reporters and say how they only trusted the organisation due to its intrepid groundwork and local connect.

Plenty has been written about Khabar Lahariya, and its journalism. But its longevity and uncompromising quality holds lessons – not only for reporting but also for the oft-repeated arguments around merit, which is weaponised to deny Dalit people their rightful place in educational institutions and organisations.

Plenty has also been written about diversity and its importance, especially with specialists pushing diversity and inclusion as essential practices in the corporate, media, and social sectors. As a framework, diversity focuses on getting more people from myriad backgrounds at the table, and ensuring that a variety of voices are heard. This is laudable by itself, as it ensures a bouquet of views, standpoints and arguments, and usually ensures greater productivity and more deliberative decision-making. But it has little to say by way of structural challenges that bars people from taking their seat at the table in the first place. It is focused on the individual, not the community.

In recent years, diversity has been offered as a catch-all remedy to social problems of exclusion, including that of caste, gender and sexual orientations – especially in the media. And while it is very good in effecting short-term change by catapulting individuals into positions of prominence, it is less helpful in supporting those same individuals once they’re under the spotlight, or in addressing their vulnerabilities that arise from their marginalised caste, gender, orientation or ability. Moreover, due to its individual-centric approach, it has no motivation in pushing for community-wide change, or in removing structural barriers.

Take the case of the media. For about three decades now, researchers and activists have pointed to the unrepresentative nature of the Indian media when it comes to caste. In the early 2010s, with the entry of digital outlets, it was posited that structural barriers to entry in the media would come crashing down, and the new media will be far more representative of the country it reported from. However, 10 years of experience has belied that hope, as legacy media’s problems of talent acquisition have crept in, and even been magnified, in digital outlet hirings.

Diversity can help ameliorate some of this. But its focus on individuals from marginalised backgrounds means that very little attention is focused on the root causes of the problem – and also means that those individuals are essentialised to the accident of their birth, and not the worth of their full potential. For example, in the media, the problem of exclusion is intricately tied to caste biases pervasive in society that hurts Dalit people in the classroom and the boardroom. There can’t be any remedy for the problems of an unrepresentative media unless we grapple with the poor education and employment standards of caste-marginalised communities, or with the power of dominant communities that control access to resources and ladders of social mobility. As many anti-caste scholars have said, caste is not a problem created by Dalits, it is done by the communities that use caste for oppressive purposes.

Khabar Lahariya offers an alternative, focusing on communities and everyday problems that impact local residents. Dalit women, who make up a majority of the reporters and the decision-making processes, come from the communities they report on, and bring sincerity, authenticity and professionalism to their work. They show that the inclusion of Dalit people in the media need not be tokenistic, that empowerment of communities can lead to better journalism, and that thinking about structural issues can bring about lasting change. With the Oscar nod, more people around the world will be able to follow this grassroots revolution.

India is unequal, and inequality cuts across the axis of caste, class, region, gender and more. Dhrubo Jyoti brings his keen observational skills, immersion in social movements and reportage to show a mirror to society — in all its manifestations.

The views expressed are personal

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    Dhrubo works as an edit resource and writes at the intersection of caste, gender, sexuality and politics. Formerly trained in Physics, abandoned a study of the stars for the glitter of journalism. Fish out of digital water.

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