Dalit journalist takes aim at changing history with stories of India’s marginalized
NEW DELHI: For decades, stories from India’s Dalit community have remained largely untold even as millions of its people suffered widespread mistreatment and violence.
Previously known as “untouchable,” Dalits are the lowest stratum of India’s Hindu caste system. The group accounts for 300 million people, or about 20 percent of the Indian population.
Although some members of the community have managed to reach high ranks, most remain marginalized and are unable to escape the cycle of poverty they have been trapped in for centuries.
Hoping that telling their stories would help improve their lives made Meena Kotwal, a 33-year-old journalist brought up in the slums of New Delhi, start a news platform focused on the group.
The Mooknayak, or “leader of the voiceless,” was launched online two years ago.
“I started the paper in anger and launched the online edition in 2021…After working at the BBC for two years, from 2017 to 2019, I started looking for jobs in the Indian media, but I could not get any good offers. I tried some freelancing, but most of the stories I would pitch would get rejected,” Kotwal told Arab News.
“Being a woman and a Dalit with her own voice would not be appreciated by those places where I applied for jobs. Then I thought of The Mooknayak to tell not only my story but also stories that the mainstream media would not run.”
The publication is named after a biweekly newspaper founded over a century ago by Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, a social reformer who championed Dalit rights and was one of the main architects of the Indian Constitution, which enshrined a formal ban on caste discrimination.
Kotwal’s publication is not only an online newspaper but also a YouTube channel, with 50,000 subscribers.
“The idea behind starting The Mooknayak was to pay back to society whatever I have learned,” she said.
The platform is run through crowdfunding and employs Dalits and members of other marginalized groups. Even though it faces financial challenges, Kotwal vows to keep it going.
“I will not allow this website to close in my lifetime, no matter how much financial stress I have to go through. I have to keep the movement going that Ambedkar started,” she said.
“I want my little daughter to grow in a better environment and in a better society.”
The Mooknayak tells underreported stories, which eventually lead officials to intervene — to connect a Dalit village to the power grid, to address cases of violence, and so on.
Such stories are usually missed by the mainstream media.
“Mainstream media largely ignores Dalit concerns,” Rajat Kumar, a Dalit lawyer from the northern state of Haryana, told Arab News.
“Even after seven decades since India became a republic, discrimination against Dalits is rampant. The situation in some villages is as bad as it was 200 years ago.”
This is what The Mooknayak is trying to change, and its founder believes that will happen as stories of the marginalized are finally being told.
“History will change,” Kotwal said. “So far, history was written by only one kind of people, and now it is being written by those who themselves suffered in history.”