Delhi: Hours after India lost to Argentina at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021, upper caste men began circling the home of hockey player Vandana Katariya in a village in Haridwar, hurling casteist abuses at her family, and saying that Dalits should be kept out of sports. The caste-based hate crime triggered outrage and the Uttarakhand police arrested and booked three men in their early twenties under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, in a matter of days.
After India lost to Pakistan in the T20 World Cup in October, and the right-wing ecosystem unleashed the widely criticised online attack on the only Muslim in the Indian cricket team, Mohammed Shami, Dalit journalist Meena Kotwal tweeted that if people had raised their voices with similar vigour when Katariya was attacked then Shami may have been spared, but it was sad, she wrote, that people thought of caste and religion before raising their voices.
In a quote tweet, a person with a now defunct handle suchita_1998 and the name “Suchitra Tiwari” posted a casteist message targeting Kotwal, calling her “chamar”—a banned word still used for the community tied to manual scavenging—and saying that she was forgetting that her mother and grandmother carried shit.
In a recent conversation with Article 14, Kotwal, who runs The Mooknayak, an independent news outlet that focuses on marginalised communities, said that vile and casteist messages were part of her life, but she felt compelled to report this one because it referred to her mother in a deeply degrading way.
In a first information report (FIR), registered on 28 October 2021 under the SCs/STs Act, Kotwal said that she belonged to the “dhobi” community of the scheduled castes, but she is often called “chamar” in public fora and that people also search for her caste on Google.
“This person (suchita_1998) has insulted me in a public platform with caste-based abuse because this person knows my caste and background, and she also knows that there is not a lot of difference between dhobi and chamar, and calling a person from a scheduled caste chamar is an insult and hurts their feelings," said Kotwal. "This person also called me chamar to insult people of the scheduled caste communities. People who discriminate based on caste often abuse like this.”
Three months later, on 25 December 2021, she posted a tweet with a video of her burning a page of the Manusmriti, marking 94 years since the Dalit icon Bhim Rao (B R) Ambedkar set fire to the ancient Hindu text that relegates women and Dalits to the lowest rungs of society, saying, “Let's destroy the authority of ancient Hindu scriptures that are borne in inequality. Religion and slavery are not compatible.”
The Manusmriti, a code for the Hindu way of life so revered that Indian judges cite it, is disavowed by anti-caste activists and feminists for its observations and laws against Dalits and women, regarded as antithetical to the Indian Constitution. Symbolic burnings and criticism of the text routinely trigger outrage and police complaints, including against Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan for asking a question about it on Kaun Banega Crorepati, a game show, and explaining why it was condemned by Ambedkar for ideologically justifying caste discrimination and untouchability.
Kotwal said that while many people have symbolically burnt the Manusmriti, she faced a deluge of casteist and obscene calls and messages from members of right-wing groups, such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—calling her a prostitute, asking her to drink the urine of Brahmins, saying that her number had been shared in many groups so that more people could call her. There was also a video of a man showing his penis and death threats, referring to Gauri Lankesh, the journalist who was shot dead on 5 September 2017 outside her home in Bengaluru, allegedly by Hindu extremists.
An FIR was registered on 5 January under the SC/ST Act, where penalties extend from six months to five years, and for insulting the modesty of a woman and making a person believe that they will incur divine displeasure, under the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
“I am suffering in many ways because of this. Depression is growing. People were calling me all night which is an invasion of my privacy. These people are continuously harassing me and abusing me on social media. I also feel these people are trying to hack my phone with the intention of harming me and my property — I’m getting messages for OTP verification from different places… These threats have made me feel like my life is in danger. I’m a journalist who constantly has to be in the field. I have a one-and-a-half year old daughter who is with me most of the time…” Kotwal said in the FIR.
For both FIRs, Kotwal, mother to a toddler, said that she felt the Delhi police personnel discouraged her and were reluctant to register them and she had to push them to do it, in addition to raising the issue on social media and tagging police officers on Twitter.
In March 2018, to prevent misuse of the SC/ST Act , the Supreme Court diluted the law by ruling that FIRs do not have to be immediately registered, arrests can only be made after a preliminary inquiry, and allowing for anticipatory bail, triggering massive protests by Dalits, killing at least ten people. Following a review petition by the Narendra Modi government, the three-judge bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Vineet Saran and S Ravindra Bhat in October 2019 rescinded the 2018 ruling by Justices A K Goel and U U Lalit, upholding the centre’s amendments that followed, restoring the automatic registration of FIRs and arrests without inquiry, and no anticipatory bail.
Five months after the first FIR was registered in October 2021 and three months after the second one in January 2022, the investigation is ongoing in both cases, and no arrests have been made, additional commissioner of police (ACP) Ram Sundar told Article 14.
In the first case from October 2021, Sundar said the police were yet to establish the identity of the Twitter user, and they had contacted Twitter for details about the account and Twitter had asked for a “letter of rogatory”—a request for a court in a foreign country to sanction a judicial act—for which an application was sent 10-15 days ago to the police headquarters from where it would go to the ministry of home affairs.
In the second case from January 2022, Sundar said an application for a letter rogatory for Instagram was sent to the police headquarters at the same time. From the 14 mobile numbers provided by Kotwal, he said a man from Kota and a student from Delhi had been examined, and the search was on for more who were in other states.
Sundar said permission for more time to investigate these cases was sought after 60 days and granted by a Delhi court. “I’m personally working very hard on these cases,” he said.
Recalling that it didn’t take long (two weeks) for the Mumbai police to arrest the man who allegedly tweeted the online rape threat targeting then test cricket captain Virat Kohli’s then nine-month-old daughter after Kohli defended his teammate Shami, Kotwal said the police were not as quick when the complainants were from marginalised communities.
In this conversation, Kotwal spoke of systemic casteism and waiting for justice, being a Dalit woman in the media, and running an outlet inspired by the newspaper published by Ambedkar in 1920, Mooknayak, meaning leader of the voiceless.
What made you burn a page of the Manusmriti and post it on Twitter?
I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but that day is marked as the Manusmriti Dahan Divas. Other people were posting, and so I also posted, but I posted it as a video performance. Babasaheb did this almost 100 years ago. There are a lot of terrible things in the Manusmriti about women and Dalits. Women and Dalits are not given any rights. Dalits are equated to animals. People who follow Manu, the manuvaadis (those who admire the Manusmriti) did not like my video. If you believe in these things even one percent, if you look at women as less than men even a little bit, it is because of Manu.
What happened after you posted the tweet?
The calls started coming non stop from morning to late in the night—‘why have you done this, you have burnt our religious book, something bad will happen to you.’ There were a lot of calls from extremist Hindu groups like the Karni Sena and the Bajrang Dal. You know what kind of threats a woman gets— ‘we will find out where you live in ten minutes and reach there, if you leave the house, what happened to Gauri Lankesh will happen to you.’ They would give a lot of filthy abuses. If you see on social media, you will see so many abuses that smoke will come out of your ears. There was one WhatsApp call where a man showed his penis. He didn’t say anything, just showed his penis. There were death threats, rape threats. It got to the point where as soon as someone said Manusmriti, I would cut the call. I was feeling scared to go out, which I have to because I'm a journalist.
How are the police cases progressing?
They have still not caught any culprit. There is no update. Neither in the first FIR nor in the second one, even though they are under the SCs/STs Act. I tried finding out. I was calling the police , but they kept saying we are investigating. They even took a while to register an FIR, saying that we have to investigate. I said, ‘It is under the SCs/STs Act, you have to register an FIR and you can investigate later.’
Why was it important for you to register an FIR?
I wanted to get an FIR done because if something happens to me tomorrow, then they cannot say that you did not tell us. Being involved in this means a lot of stress and wasting your time in running around. I did the FIR and then I left it to the police to do what they have to. I had one hearing in the Saket court with regards to the second FIR, but I don’t know what is going on in the case, and they do not give any updates. I can’t keep calling them because I have a lot of work, I have a daughter to take care of. You can either work or get pushed around by the police. I have chosen my work.
When Virat Kohli’s daughter was threatened, they arrested the man, but no one has been arrested in my case. They know who they have to catch and who they don’t have to catch. I had even asked for security, but I did not get it. I have to think of everything myself. I’m the one who has to protect myself and my daughter. Now, the UN is demanding an answer from the government.
I don’t know when and how it went to the UN, but when it went, the FIR may not have been registered because there was a delay in registering it since the incident was from 25 December. I think I went to the station on 27 December. They don’t register. I followed up with many calls to the SHO (station house officer), DCP (deputy commissioner of police), even the SI (sub inspector).
You are the receiving end of a lot of casteist and obscene messages, how was what followed the Manusmriti burning different?
I was scared. We know what happened to Gauri Lankesh. We also know the kind of atmosphere that is prevailing and the kind of people who are roaming around. There is no control over a crowd and if the crowd kills someone, no one is held responsible. If they were abusing me on social media, I would have tolerated it because we have been abused for centuries, but the way they were calling, I was afraid they would physically harm me. I thought that if I’m not alive anymore, what will happen to all my plans? I want to stay alive and do my work and fight people like them. I want to stay alive and raise social issues. And I have a child. What if something were to happen to her because of me, I will never be able to forgive myself. This kind of fear is always with you.
You have said that it was not easy to get the police to register an FIR?
It is all because of caste. Why wasn’t my FIR immediately registered? Why did I have to take the help of social media and tag police officers? The second time, the sub-inspector himself was telling me ‘why are you writing this complaint when the environment is not good.’ Why? Am I doing something wrong? I’m a Dalit woman so it is easy to abuse me. The abuses are made in the name of Dalits and women. Tell me one abuse made in the name of the savarnas or men. They should find all the culprits and they should be punished as per the law. If you punish them, then next time maybe they won’t abuse and threaten women. If you don’t punish, how will it be stopped?
Was there any political backing of Dalit leaders that came your way?
Dalits in political parties are elected but they are not free to work. We have a president who is Dalit but what does he do for us. There were some Dalit politicians who came. Some from the Congress party, Bhim Army, Azad Samaj party. They stood with me.
Is the Dalit political movement fractured?
Absolutely it is. The RSS agenda of Hindu-Muslim has become an international issue, but there is no attention given to Dalits who have been suffering atrocities for centuries. As journalists, we see the environment in the newsroom. Political parties cannot ignore Dalits but not enough work is done on their issues. Are Dalit politicians given the power to really work? If I become a minister tomorrow, my community will benefit only if I'm able to work for my community. If I ignore those issues, what is the point if I become a minister?
There have been some efforts to get Dalits and Muslims on the same political platform, but it hasn’t really worked, has it?
Yes, it hasn’t been successful. They don’t come together on many issues. Atrocities against Dalits have been going on for a really long time, now Muslims are really feeling it very intensely. Everyone’s turn will come. They don’t come together on many platforms, even inside political parties, but the Muslim-Dalit votebank goes to the same place. The savarnas could vote differently, but the Muslim-Dalit votebank goes to the same place.
Have Dalits been caught in anti-Muslim radicalisation?
The RSS says that Dalits are Hindus to get votes—Ram Sita har ghar mein phauchayenge—but when it comes to atrocities , they are Dalits, not Hindus. In the smallest matters, things like marriage, they are Dalits. But a lot of Dalits see themselves as Hindus and they are following these kinds of parties and vote for them. They have been successful. The RSS has taken Ram Sita into Dalit homes, not Babasaheb Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule or Dalit icons. There is a good percentage that consider themselves Hindu.
The anti-Muslim sentiment has increased?
It has increased. If you think of yourself as a hardline Hindu, this kind of political party has made Muslims into the enemy . You can see what is happening in the nation. I can’t say Dalits are not involved in this kind of movement, but the next generation of youth that is coming, they are more aware.
How did The Mooknayak come to be?
Mooknayak was started by Babasaheb Ambedkar (in 1920). I have made it for the digital era. Babasaheb felt the media was not showing the issues faced by the community, and the media today is also showing those issues. I saw casteism in the mainstream media and even in the international media. The Bahujan media has become active in the past 10 or 12 years, but did not have women. Babasaheb worked the most for women, he put them in front. I felt there were not enough women in the Bahujan media and that is why I wanted to raise a platform.
What are some of the challenges in running it?
There are a lot of difficulties, funding one of the biggest. How much can you do on your own? Now, slowly I have made a team and one has to see about their salaries. There is a lot of management work, editorial work, what kind of stories to be published, and what kind of issues should be raised? How to compete with the others? How to be different from other media? There are many challenges.
Do you see the media landscape becoming more inclusive?
Where are the Dalit editors in the mainstream media or even in the alternative media in decision making roles? Adivasis you won’t find even if you search for them. Bahujan media is challenging that by making its own mic and platform. Take the Hathras matter (rape case), which became a national and then an international issue. When the Bahujan media raises such issues, the mainstream media is compelled to raise them. They were not covering the Hathras matter but later they were compelled to do it. I covered the Nangal (rape case) matter from the first day and put it on social media. This compelled the mainstream media to reach there. The Bahujan media has forced other media to cover our issue because now if they don’t, how will they call themselves liberal.
What are your plans for The Mooknayak?
People do not want to depend on a media that is lying and where their issues are not being shown. I want my Mooknayak to reach every house and to every person, and when they read it, they should feel this is the real story.
Is it hard to run the news outlet while taking care of a small child?
Both are my children.
(Betwa Sharma is the managing editor of Article 14.)