What an All-Women News Network in India Shows Us About Democracy

It started out as a literacy project. Dalit women, formerly known as untouchables, hand-wrote a newsletter about issues that mattered to them: Broken water pumps. Unpaved roads. Known rapists walking free. In 2002 they started a newspaper that covered everything from illegal mining to murders. Perhaps because Dalits make up about 20 percent of the population of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, some government officials started paying attention. Roads got paved. Toilets got built. Hospitals got stocked with medicines.

“Almost every month, our reporting brings justice to people,” Kavita Devi, the paper’s editor in chief, told me in an email originally written in Hindi.

Today the paper, Khabar Lahariya,whose name in Hindi means “news waves,” is a digital-first rural news network with its own talk shows and nearly 550,000 subscribers on YouTube.

The publication ran up against the many familiar hurdles that can make news gathering as difficult as it is essential to the success of democracy. Reporters were intimidated and belittled. It was hard to get taken seriously in a country where media giants often hire high-caste men from big cities who kowtow to the party in office. The powerful don’t like pushback. And for a group of women who were viewed as powerless by virtue of their gender and caste, the power of the press was their only option. Democracy, their story shows us, requires not just 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 chronicled in a new documentary, “Writing With Fire,” which made the Academy Awards shortlist this year.

If it wins, it will make history as the first film about India directed by Indians to receive an Oscar. It will also give a boost to democracy’s unsung champions at a time when democratic norms are under threat around the world. The movie opens with Meera, the chief reporter, interviewing a woman who recounts being raped in her home on six separate occasions in a single month. The woman’s husband tried to file a complaint, but police officers refused to take it. In the film, Meera walks into the police station and demands an explanation.

“Journalism is the essence of democracy,” she says afterward. “When citizens demand their rights, it is us journalists who can take their demands to the government.”

The married team that made the film, Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas,who are not Dalit, began shooting footage in 2016, the year Khabar Lahariya’s reportersmade the leap to digital news. In the film, women, some of whom don’t have electricity in their homes, unwrap boxes of brand-new cellphones gingerly, like bricks of dynamite. By the end of the film, Meera and her colleagues are pushing through crowds at political rallies with their cellphone cameras rolling. Although the staff members are from marginalized groups — Dalits, tribal people and the so-called backward castes — they don’t see themselves as part of any political movement. First and foremost, they are reporters who claim objectivity and independence as core values.

“A lot of people say: ‘Where do you think they get this crazy courage from? Is it that they have nothing to lose?’” Ms. Thomas told me. “I don’t see it like that. Each one of them is so aware of how rare it was to have had access to education and how much it means to people whose voice they have become. They know that if they don’t show up reporting that story, nobody else will.”

“Writing With Fire” is a road map of sorts for how to stand up for democracy even in the face of great danger. In 2017, Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk who once announced that 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’s reporters created a game plan for how to cover the rise of Hindu nationalism. They tread carefully, assigning only the most experienced reporters. In the film, Meera interviews a leader of the Hindu Youth Brigade and gets him to explain his vision for the country.

“My absolute priority is to protect our holy cows,” he tells her.

Meera doesn’t have to add commentary to display the truth: In a place where women must beg for protection from rape, aspiring politicians were making a name for themselves by pledging to protect cows.

Some high-caste journalists expressed shock at how quickly the political culture in India turned. In a matter of just a few years, people once considered extremists were suddenly running large swaths of the country. But reporters at Khabar Lahariya saw it coming.

“They seem to know how to respond to the times we are in,” Mr. Ghosh said.

Maybe that’s because Khabar Lahariya journalists were already deeply familiar with living under threat, as were the people they write about.

I asked Meera what advice she had for American journalists who are concerned about the erosion of democratic norms in the United States. She advised me to make sure to tell the stories of ordinary people.

“If you wish to run an objective magazine about stories that matter,” she said a voice message in Hindi, “you have to get down to the ground level.”

The documentary celebrating Khabar Lahariya’s courageous coverage comes at a time when many mainstream news organizations in India that once spoke up for the principles of secularism and pluralism have largely fallen silent in the face of assassinations and threats.

In a country where, to this day in rural areas, Dalits are often forbidden to drink from higher-caste wells or eat from the same dishes, Dalits have a history of standing up for democratic norms. A Dalit legal scholar, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, was the main author of India’s Constitution, which offers protection to religious minorities and equal citizenship to 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 only natural that those who have endured thousands of years of humiliation under the Hindu caste system would be more skeptical of Hindu nationalism. If liberal democracy is going to be saved in India, it will be saved by the Dalits.

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