While the mainstream Indian media continues to ignore the issues concerning low-caste groups and other marginalized communities, some Dalit journalists are brining out their own magazines to highlight their problems.
On August 21, Mayawati, former Chief Minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), addressed a rally in the city of Agra. In her speech, the Dalit politician expressed a clear distrust of India's mainstream media. Towards the end, making a special mention of pre-election surveys conducted by national media houses declaring BSP to be the frontrunner for the 2017 UP state assembly elections, Mayawati cautioned her followers to be alert to the "conspiracy" of the "rich capitalists."
"This is to make you complacent, which will help the prospects of other parties," she told her supporters.
For Ashok Das, the 33-year-old editor of the Dalit Dastak magazine, Mayawati's criticism of the Indian media was valid. "You can't trust them," Das told DW.
Das launched Dalit Dastak in 2012 to cover issues relevant to Dalits, considered to be the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy. They are often tormented by the upper castes, despite this being a punishable offence in the Indian constitution. Things are changing, however, and Das is just one example of the community raising its voice.
Dalit Dastak is one of the several dedicated publications that have come up in recent years, raising issues that concern Dalits and other lower castes. Many are exclusively online and carry mainly opinion pieces. As a commercially oriented, vernacular print magazine disseminating news and reportage, Dalit Dastak has a unique position, Das contends. "It was intentional to put the word Dalit in the title. It catches the eye and differentiates us from other publications."
After graduating from a journalism college in Delhi in 2006, Das worked for several Hindi newspapers but felt discriminated as one of very few Dalit journalists in their newsrooms. He decided to break away and start a website catering to Dalits.
Das now runs his own magazine from a small one-room office in the east of Delhi, together with a staff member in charge of distribution and a new hire who handles the website and social media pages.
The circulation has grown from 2,000 copies in the first year to 25,000 copies in 2016. Its Facebook page gains several thousand "likes" each month, albeit a significant proportion of the readership remains offline, evident from the pile of hand-written letters on Das' desk.
"We take up issues concerning Dalits that mainstream Indian media either ignores or does not present in the proper context," explained Das, noting further that Dalits were usually presented as victims, not newsmakers. To remedy this, for example, the magazine carried stories about the participation of Dalits in last month's Rio Olympics.
Ignoring Dalit issues is proving to be difficult for the mainstream media now. Last month, Dalit Dastak carried a cover story about a major protest by Dalits in the western state of Gujarat. The demonstration was sparked by a video showing four local Dalits beaten up for skinning a dead cow.
The story was played up in the national media too, like student protests following the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula earlier this year.
Other major Dalit protests took place this summer in the South Asian country's financial hub, Mumbai. They, too, were widely covered.
Das believes the awareness created by magazines like his, in combination with the reach of social media, has forced the national media to take note of this recent wave of Dalit assertion.
Struggle starting to bear fruit
Above Das' desk hangs a picture of B.R. Ambedkar, a contemporary of M.K. Gandhi and the foremost leader of Dalits. Ambedkar also launched several publications during his lifetime, starting with the weekly newspaper Mooknayak (Hero of the Mute) in 1920. Kanshi Ram, the founder of Mayawati's BSP party, too started several magazines, but most of them couldn't survive after his death in 2003.
This created a "vacuum" for the new magazines to come up, said Vivek Kumar, professor of Sociology at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Das describes Kumar as his mentor, with whom he discusses the content of Dalit Dastak every month, especially its cover stories. "How do Dalits see India? Who are our icons? Which dates are important in our history?" are some of the guiding motives in selecting content, Kumar told DW.
Das does most of the reportage - one of the recent cover stories he did was about a recent temple-entry movement by Dalits in the state of Uttarakhand. It was scarcely reported in the mainstream press.
The monthly budget of about 3,000 euros allows Das to only print the cover and back page advertisement, whenever available, in color. He says upper-caste business houses keep clear of advertising in his magazine. Funding remains an issue, though the magazine has close to 80 lifetime subscribers already, charged approximately 70 euros annually. Around 20 percent of the budget comes from donations.
"The printer of the magazine trusts me enough to allow delayed payment, sometimes to the tune of three months," said Das.
Despite these hardships, both Das and Kumar are determined to continue publishing the magazine. "Our initial goal was to run it for five years," Kumar said.
Like Mayawati and Das, Kumar has no faith in mainstream media, although he sees some positive, incremental change in its Dalit coverage off late. "Editors continue to be largely indifferent, but some of the individual reporters have become sensitized to our concerns and viewpoints."
"But I think there will always be the need for a parallel media. We cannot merge with the mainstream press," he underlined.