It all started as a literacy project. Dalit women, formerly known as the Untouchables, hand-wrote a newsletter on issues that concerned them: Broken water pumps. Unpaved roads. Known rapists on the loose. In 2002, they started a newspaper that covered everything from illegal mining to murders. Perhaps because Dalits make up around 20% of the population of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, some government officials have started paying attention. The roads were paved. Toilets have been built. Hospitals stocked up on drugs.
“Almost every month, our stories do people justice,” Kavita Devi, the paper’s editor, told me in an email originally written in Hindi.
Today Khabar Lahariya newspaper, whose name in Hindi means “waves of information”, is a leading digital rural information network with its own talk shows and nearly 550,000 subscribers on YouTube.
The publication has come up against the many well-known obstacles that can make gathering information as difficult as it is essential to the success of democracy. Journalists were intimidated and belittled. It was hard to be taken seriously in a country where media giants often hire high-caste men from big cities who bow down to the ruling party. The powerful do not like repression. And for a group of women considered powerless because of their gender and caste, the power of the press was their only option. Democracy, their history shows us, requires not only courage and hard work, but also constant vigilance and ingenuity in the face of change.
The story of how newly literate rural women became investigative journalists is told in a new documentary, “Writing With Fire,” which made this year’s Oscar shortlist.
If it wins, it will go down in history as the first film about India directed by Indians to receive an Oscar. It will also give a boost to unsung champions of democracy at a time when democratic standards are under threat around the world. The film opens with Meera, the chief reporter, interviewing a woman who says she was raped in her home six times in a single month. The woman’s husband tried to file a complaint, but the police refused to take her. In the film, Meera walks into the police station and demands an explanation.
“Journalism is the essence of democracy,” she says afterwards. “When citizens claim their rights, it is us journalists who can press their claims to the government.”
The married team that made the film, Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, who are not Dalits, began shooting footage in 2016, the year Khabar Lahariya reporters makes the leap to digital information. In the film, women, some of whom have no electricity in their homes, carefully unpack boxes of brand new cell phones like bricks of dynamite. At the end of the film, Meera and her colleagues push through crowds at political rallies with their cellphone cameras running. Although staff members come from marginalized groups – Dalits, tribal peoples and the so-called backward castes – they do not consider themselves part of any political movement. Above all, they are reporters who claim objectivity and independence as fundamental values.
“A lot of people say, ‘Where do you think they get this crazy courage from? Have they got nothing to lose?’ Mrs. Thomas told me. “I don’t see it that way. Each of them is so aware of the scarcity of access to education and how important it is for the people they are become the voice. They know that if they don’t come forward to report this story, no one else will.
“Writing With Fire” is a roadmap of how to defend democracy even in the face of great danger. In 2017, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who once announced he was preparing for a religious war, took the helm as chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. Members of the Hindu Youth Brigade, an organization he founded, brandished swords in the streets, vowing to protect Hindus and punish Muslims. Khabar Lahariya journalists have devised a game plan to cover the rise of Hindu nationalism. They move cautiously, assigning only the most experienced reporters. In the film, Meera interviews a leader of the Hindu Youth Brigade and has him explain her vision for the country.
“My top priority is to protect our sacred cows,” he told her.
Meera doesn’t need to add commentary to show the truth: In a place where women have to beg for protection from rape, budding politicians were making a name for themselves by pledging to protect cows.
Some high-caste journalists have expressed shock at how quickly the political culture in India has changed. In just a few years, people once considered extremists have suddenly invaded large swaths of the country. But Khabar Lahariya journalists saw it coming.
“They seem to know how to react to the times we find ourselves in,” Ghosh said.
This may be because the Khabar Lahariya journalists were already familiar with life under threat, as were the people they were writing about.
I asked Meera what advice she had for American journalists who worry about the erosion of democratic standards in the United States. She advised me to be careful to tell stories of ordinary people.
“If you want to run an objective magazine on important stories,” she said in a Hindi voicemail, “you have to get down to ground level.”
The documentary celebrating Khabar Lahariya’s courageous coverage comes at a time when many mainstream news outlets in India that once championed the principles of secularism and pluralism have largely gone silent in the face of killings and threats.
In a country where, to this day in rural areas, Dalits are often forbidden to drink from upper caste wells or eat from the same dishes, Dalits are used to upholding democratic norms. A Dalit jurist, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, was the main author of India’s Constitution, which provides protection for religious minorities and equal citizenship for all. Today, while some Dalit politicians have joined the ruling party, hoping to finally be embraced by high-caste Hindus, others are among the most vocal voices pushing back against attacks on Muslims and other minorities. It is natural that those who have endured thousands of years of humiliation under the Hindu caste system are more skeptical of Hindu nationalism. If liberal democracy is to be saved in India, it will be saved by the Dalits.