Giving a voice to the voiceless

Photo: Anshika Verma
Photo: Anshika Verma

Last year, Edward Snowden became the champion of Internet freedom for exposing the US government’s pervasive Internet surveillance and privacy invading programmes. With adulation came accusations. As Internet activists rallied behind the former CIA contractor, the US government charged him with espionage, sparking off a global debate on the protection of whistleblowers. Snowden put Internet activism in the spotlight and was nominated for the 2014 Digital Activism Award.

He won the online battle. In January, he said, “For me, in terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished. I already won.” Digital corporations and governments across the world came under fire for colluding on sharing personal data of Internet users.

However, he lost the Digital Activism Award race to a little-known Indian journalist, who works with tribals in India’s hinterlands. The year’s award was given to Bhopal-based Shubhranshu Choudhary for his initiative called: CGNet Swara, which seeks to empower the most marginalised of the Indian population. Tribals from hard-to-reach areas in central India dial in with local news stories and they are then podcast through CGNet Swara. In fact, it doesn’t even require a call. A missed call ensures that an automated service dials you back and helps record your message into the server.

Considering the four heavyweight contenders — Edward Snowden, for his exposé of US surveillance; Free Weibo, touted as the Facebook of China, for providing information that has been censored or deleted by the country’s oppressive regime; and TAILS (The Amnesiac Incognito Live System), for developing an encryption system that seeks to protect online sharing of information; and Choudhary’s CGNet Swara — the award is a matter of great prestige.

Although, regulations in Chhattisgarh do not allow community radio, it’s surprising what CGNet has achieved since its inception.

For example, when State-sponsored armed militia, Salwa Judum, started fighting the Maoists, national newspapers ignored the atrocities committed on civilians. International media that were tracking CGNet’s podcasts first broke the news globally. The Indian media later picked up the story to produce some stellar reporting on Salwa Judum, which finally led to the Supreme Court banning the outfit.

“Advertisement-based revenue generation system of the Indian media doesn’t allow journalists to cover many things. The reasons for the rise of Maoism is one such phenomenon,” says Choudhary. He set up CGnet as a mailer group on Yahoo! to report from the interiors of Chhattisgarh and within a year, there were 2,500 people on the list.

There were bigger issues like conflict in mineral-rich areas, which the national media kept well away from. CGNet had to evolve into a platform where the tribals themselves could report.

In February 2010, CGNet Swara was launched as an ‘experiment’ to connect tribal people with the Internet using mobile phones, which had started permeating into the central Indian tribal territory. Choudhary picked up funding from the International Centre for Journalists (ICFJ) under the Knight International Journalism Fellowship for his project. And since 2013, the UN is funding the project.

Accustoming the tribals to technology was difficult. Choudhary started with the basics of traditional news reporting, right out of a journalism school. Needless to say, it didn’t work. The new CGNet Swara training module employs trainers like Bhanu Sahu and Choran Parte to use song, dance, puppetry and traditional forms of storytelling to train the tribals. They are also taught to attribute, and check and verify facts.

The reports range from health issues, social welfare payments, education, midday meals, PDS leakage to corruption.

Villagers drop a missed call on CGNet’s server, which then calls them back, and records their reports. Moderators later edit and put up the audio files on CGNet Swara’s website.

It is not just a source for information but an arterial network that gives the pulse of the tribal heartland, and can be used to understand what absorbs tribal people into the Maoist struggle.

“There are a number of tribals who are pulled into the Maoist struggle. Most are pushed into it because of the negligence of the government; alienation and neglect of local language is one of the great contributors,” explains Choudhary.

Politics of language has an important role in the growth of the left wing extremism (LWE). One of the most common languages among the tribals in central India — across Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra — is Gondi. Hindi loses its significance in the interiors, where it is associated with affluence.

The Maoists monopolised on this divide and used the politics of language to their advantage by publishing nearly 10 revolutionary magazines in Gondi. They gained futher popularity as Telugu and Bangla leaders spoke to the tribals, suffering neglect and oppression, in Gondi.

Knight exemplar Shubhranshu Choudhary
Knight exemplar Shubhranshu Choudhary

When CGNet Swara began, its founders realised the importance of Gondi and reporting in Gondi enabled more citizen journalists to report from this part of the world.

“The idea for using radio came while interacting with the Maoists. They said we can only use ‘hawa (air)’ — a resource that everyone has access to,” says Choudhary.

In the tribal hinterland, especially places such as south Chhattisgarh, the Maoist diktat regulates daily living. However, Choudhary never faced opposition from the Red Brigade, as platforms such as CGNet and CGNet Swara helped report the neglect of the tribals. Choudhary claims that his training sessions were never disturbed. Moreover, staff and volunteers of CGNet Swara were given deep access to areas where the State is yet to make its presence felt and are Maoist fiefdoms known as “liberated zones”.

Working for CGNet Swara, Choudhary came face-to-face with tribal issues and the nuances of Maoist politics. A little over a year ago, he wrote Let’s Call Him Vasu, a book that he claimed was from the Maoist perspective. The book and an article condemning the bloodied Darbha Valley Massacre (in which several Congress leaders, including Salwa Judum founder Mahendra Karma, were killed) drew sharp flak from the Maoists. Though CGNet Swara continues its work, Choudhary now avoids venturing into Maoist territory.

A trained radio journalist who worked with the BBC in the past, Choudhary believes that radio still has the deepest reach when it comes to disseminating information, in the country. He plans to exploit this potential to broadcast news in Gondi in the forests of Chhattisgarh.

Developing a self-sufficient community platform also means making it cheap. And Choudhary has also been at the forefront of adopting open and sustainable technology to drive his project. Although, CGNet Swara starting with complex machines and depended on subsidised calls rates, the project now uses Raspberry Pi, a programmable credit-card-sized single-board computer. Add to it a solar battery and a modem and each unit in a remote village costs about Rs 15,000.

Choudhary began CGNet with the intention of containing Maoism by giving a voice to the voiceless. “Policing cannot curb Maoism, it is initiatives like CGNet Swara that can eventually end tribal support to Maoism,” he says. With millions of tribals stuck in the quicksand of the Maoist insurgency, the government could take a page or two out of such initiatives.


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