January 31 will mark 100 years of Ambedkarite journalism—which continues to inspire young Dalit journalists, who are launching media outlets, carrying forward the leader’s legacy
Ashok Das talks about the life and times of BR Ambedkar with great admiration – and what inspires him is not just his role as the chief architect of the Indian constitution, but also as an editor and a journalist. “I feel his contribution to journalism has remained largely unknown,” says Das, 35, founder and editor of Dalit Dastak, a monthly magazine, sitting in his first- floor office in east Delhi’s Pandav Nagar. The office wall has a framed photograph of Ambedkar and a framed print of the first page of Mooknayak, a fortnightly newspaper, founded by Ambedkar. “While India is celebrating 70 years of the adoption of the constitution, it is also a good time to celebrate his (Ambedkar’s) journalism. We will celebrate this 31 January as the day Dalits got freedom of expression.”
The date will mark 100 years of Ambedkarite journalism—it was the day he had launched Mooknayak in 1920, and went on to launch three more publications in Marathi — Bahishkrit Bharat, Janata and Prabuddha Bharat.
“Ambedkar has not been evaluated in totality. He has either been reduced to a Dalit icon or the maker of the constitution,” says Prof Vivek Kumar, who teaches sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “He decided to have his own newspaper, because he felt that the mainstream media was biased; singularly focused on freedom struggle, and was not reporting atrocities on Dalits.”
Ambedkar was 29 when he launched Mooknayak, a Marathi fortnightly, from a small office in a working-class neighbourhood of Parel in Mumbai. “There is no better source than the newspaper to suggest the remedy against the injustice that is being done to our people in the present and will be done in the future, and also to discuss the ways and means for our progress in the future,” Ambedkar wrote in his first editorial in the Mooknayak.
He wrote dozens of editorials in his paper on the practise of untouchability, and raised a demand for a caste-wise representation of people if Swaraj (self-rule) was attained. “The leaders who were fighting for Swaraj felt that Ambedkar was delaying it; and did not favourably look at Mooknayak, ” says Prof Sheoraj Singh Bechain, who teaches Hindi at Delhi University. Himself a Dalit, Prof Bechain conducted his PhD research on ‘Journalist Ambedkar’s impact on Dalit journalism’.
Mooknayak, which was started with an initial funding of Rs 2,500 from Chhatrapati Shahu, the ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Kolhapur, found the going tough after the death of the Maharaja and shut down in 1922.
Ambedkar was 29 when he launched Mooknayak, a Marathi fortnightly, from a small office in a working-class neighbourhood of Parel in Mumbai. ( Sourced )
What’s in a name?
But that was not the end of Ambedkar’s foray into journalism. In April 1927, he bought a printing press through donations. He named it ‘Bharat Bhushan Printing press’ and launched ‘Bahishkrit Bharat (Ostracized India)’, another fortnightly newspaper. These were the times of post-Mahad agitation for the right of drinking water from a public source.
Mahad satyagraha was a movement led by Ambedkar on 20 March 1927 to allow untouchables to use water in a public tank in Mahad (currently in Raigad district), Maharashtra.
His writings in ‘Bahishkrit Bharat’ communicated his ideas on the challenge posed by the practise of untouchability and how the ‘untouchables’ could fight it. He used the paper to raise the demand for opening temples and public water sources to Dalits.
But Bahishkrit Bharat, too, faced financial difficulties, shutting down in November 1929. In 1930, Ambedkar started another a fortnightly called Janta, and later in 1954, he relaunched it as Prabuddha Bharat, a weekly in 1956, to coincide with his drive to mass conversion to Buddhism with his followers. All of its issues carried the line “Founded by Dr Ambedkar” below the masthead.
Bechain says Ambedkar kept relaunching his paper with new names that represented the condition of Dalits as he saw it during that particular period, and once that situation changed, he changed the name of the publication. “The names of Ambedkar’s publications captured the journey of Dalits from voiceless people to citizens to enlightened people,” adds Prof Kumar.
While he was directly involved in managing editorial affairs of Mooknayak and Bahishkrit Bharat, 1930 onwards, he delegated responsibilities to senior colleagues such as Devrao Vishnu Naik, BR Kadrekar, GN Sahastrabuddhe, RD Bhandare, and BC Kamble. Naik, Kadrekar and Sahastrabuddhe were not Dalits.
A new wave of Ambedkarite journalism
Back at Dalit Dastak’s office, Ashok Das is busy taking calls from the editors and publishers of Dalit publications that will be participating in an event he is organising at Dr Ambedkar International Centre in the capital. The event on January 31, he says, will showcase Ambedkarite newspapers, magazines, and journals, and host a seminar on 100 years of Ambedkar journalism.
“Ambedkar gave voice to the voiceless through Mooknayak. His journalism has inspired thousands of youngsters, who are setting up media enterprises in different languages all over the country,” says Das, who studied journalism at Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) and launched Dalit Dastak, a monthy magazine, seven years ago. He has a team of five that runs the magazine and its YouTube Channel, which has about nearly 6 lakh subscribers.
“I faced discrimination in several Hindi newsrooms where I worked for a few years before launching my own magazine,” says Das. Even a hundred years after Ambedkar launched his paper, the poor coverage of Dalit issues in the mainstream media has not changed , and that is what is prompting so many young educated Dalits to start their own media ventures. And the internet has made it easy to do so, adds Das
Currently, there are around 150 print and online platforms, including YouTube channels— Dalit Dastak, National Dastak, Fark India , Round Table India, Forward Press, Justice News, Velivada, Dalit Camera, Dalit News Network( DNN), among others. Most offer news and opinions and on issues relating to Scheduled Castes and other marginalised groups.
Vaibhav Kumar, founder of Dalit News Network, a YouTube channel, in south Delhi. ( Biplov Bhuyan/HT PHOTO )
While founders of most of these platforms are trained journalists, some like Vaibhav Kumar, 33, has no previous experience in journalism. He quit his job two years back as a development officer in LIC to start Dalit News Network ( DNN), a YouTube channel, with the objective of raising Dalit issues. “We do not indulge in upper caste bashing, because I believe it only deepens caste segregation. We do data stories, analysis, commentary, in-depth ground reports focused on Dalits. We tell the story as it is,” says Kumar.
There are many who have tread the same path as Ashok Das, setting up their own ventures. Ved Prakash, 32 , for example, studied Hindi journalism at IIMC and worked for several newspapers before launching ActivistVed , a YouTube Channel in December 2017 .
“I started out as a teacher. I decided to a become a journalist because I felt I would tell many important stories related to Dalits. But after joining a mainstream newspaper, I realized, to my utter dismay , that most of my stories were not carried,” says Prakash.
He quit the job in 2016 to start his YouTube channel, which has garnered over 6 lakh followers. Prakash is a one man team — he shoots all the videos himself on mobile phone, and most of his income comes from YouTube advertising. “I never thought the channel would be so successful. Ambedkar’s journalism has inspired me a lot. He was the first Dalit journalist,” says Prakash.
He, along with other journalists, will be celebrating 31 January as ‘Bahujan Patrakarita Diwas’ in Ambedkar Chhatravas in Nawada, where he is based, and in Patna. “I hope to expand my one-man team soon,” says Prakash.
Many feel that these ventures are carrying forward the legacy of Ambedkar’s journalism. “Ironically, the conditions and reasons that prompted Ambedkar to start his own newspapers are still relevant,” says Sanjay Kumar, who has written a book ‘Media Mein Dalit’(Dalits in media).
“The internet has ensured that the new generation of Dalit media entrepreneurs do not face the financial constraints that Ambedkar, their role model, faced as a journalist.”
Courtesy Hindustan Times