Taken over a period of five years, Sundance award-winning documentary 2021, ‘Writing with Fire’, portrays the powerful women of Khabar Lahariya, the first newspaper completely run by Dalit women.
After screening ‘Writing with fire’, in a hall packed with the Khabar Lahariya journalists and documentary directors, the directors say, “there was clapping, hugging and some tears”.
For five years, director, editor cum producers, Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, traveled with them and documented how they report each issue with their own presence of mind.
The rural revolution
Commenced in 2002, Khabar Lahariya, meaning News Waves, is India’s first newspaper run by Dalit women. And Lahariya is not just any other newspaper. It strives to bring attention to deprived people’s causes.
Began from the rural villages of Uttar Pradesh, Lahariya profoundly voiced out the issues of their community through a feminist perspective irrespective of class, caste, or religion and emerged as the newspaper of Bundeli, a district of Uttar Pradesh.
The newspaper is written, revised, illustrated, and designed by women themselves. The eight-page magazine is published twice a week, by a group of 40 rural women journalists, and is distributed in 600 villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Started with three women, Meera, Shyamkali, Kavitha, and Sunita, Lahariya was funded by Delhi-based NGO Nirantar (Centre for Gender and Education).
The initial support for Khabar Lahariya came from Doorabjee Tata Trust (DTT) and United Nations Democracy and Equity Fund (UNDEF). The former supported the paper for over ten years and later helped to expand their digital edition.
Being ‘Devi’ to battle patriarchy and casteism
Systematically denied opportunities from public sectors and ignored by the ‘fourth estate, Khabar Lahariya speaks for themselves, from the first-hand experience of being the victims of the structural violence of both patriarchy and the caste system.
Refusing to be put down by caste oppressions, journalists of Lahariya, who are women from Muslim, tribal and Dalit communities have changed their surnames. They keep Devi (goddess) as their name, which supersedes their caste name and is a caste-neutral name, which alone comes as a loud strong political statement.
Acting as a watchdog of the local body, Lahariya sets the perfect example of a well-functioning media with ethical engagement with society. Khabar Lahariya has exposed local corruption and other issues in a language that the common people of the land understand.
Stories unbottled after long waits for literacy
Many of the readers as well as reporters are semi-literates. Interestingly, Khabar Lahariya’s origin and history are closely associated with the literacy movement. The newspaper came following an initiative to increase female literacy.
When strengthened with the know-how to read and write, the neo-literate journalists of Khabar Lahariya were overwhelmed with stories that needed to be badly told.
And for this reason, it is the local language that is the medium of journalism. Not to be missed, the role of Khabar Lahariya is immense in helping women and the illiterate to improve their literacy skills. “Several neo-literate people in the region read Khabar Lahariya,” says Rohini Lakshane, Bob’s jury member.
We are our torch-bearers
Kavitha, the co-founder of Khabar Lahariya has reported news from the nooks and corners of the nation, where reporters have not stepped in since independence in 1947, says Thomas and Ghosh.
With their journey spanning over two decades, Khabar Lahariya has evolved as a media and also witnessed individual’s growth among themselves. Finding the confidence among themselves to speak out about the violence and having access to the media has tremendously changed the women of these small villages.
Initially started with only three women working with a print edition, Khabar Lahariya now surpasses 40 journalists and reaches a larger audience of around three lakh regular readers. Resourced with 18 reporters in 12 districts of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh, Lahariya is spreading to the neighboring states of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.
Entering digital world
Meanwhile, the younger generation has entered the field with smartphones, says
Kavitha, a reporter of Khabar Lahariya.
They now carry smartphones everywhere so they also could be a part of Lahariya. They have begun to record short video clips and report them.
Further, the younger ones’ presence in social media has increased since 2013. And with the connections and cooperation from other reporters, Lahariya was convinced to go digital.
However, Lahariya declares digital media is not a replacement but an addition to the newspaper. In areas where there is an absence of electricity and technologies, print media plays an essential role.
Moreover, digital revolutions take another turn, where people from multiple layers of society are coming forward to demand their rights instead of being obedient to the long-held power hierarchies.
Delightfully, Khabar Lahariya has brought a humongous difference in approach from that of the male reporters of mainstream media, says directors of ‘Writing with Fire’.
While exposing casteism and smashing patriarchy from the under-reported rural villages of India, Khabar Lahariya challenges the stereotyped narration of helpless women, which correctly Lahariya points out is a trap. And Khabar Lahariya initiates to change this perception, by showing us a new perspective to look at the centuries-old Indian society with a better and real lens.
Recognising the path-breakers
The documentary makers elaborate that they (Khabar Lahariya) need no empowerment from the filmmakers, since not only are they already empowered but also brave path breakers.
The crew of Khabar Lahariya says as rural Dalit women, they are aware of their position as path-breakers and conscious of the ever-growing challenges in the industry.
Excited and humbled by the international recognition, they are anticipating global acceptance and promotion of works that can only be done by women who’ve been pushed against the wall for a long time.
Several awards are coming in search of the rural newspaper revolution, Khabar Lahariya. They won an award for the ‘Best of Online Activism’ special award at Deutsche Welle’s Global Media Forum.
Held as ‘an exemplary model for transformative rural media’ by the Wharton Business School and the CII/KPMG report on ICT in India, Lahariya also won literary prizes awarded by UNESCO.
In short, Khabar Lahariya is path-breaking journalism with its grass-root works in foundational areas where media and political bodies have cared not to hear.