Six years after it was set up to challenge mainstream media discourse, has not only provided an alternative space for critical writing, but also offered a radical model of editor-less, ad-free, voluntary journalism with a zero marketing budget

Aditya Nigam, an academic and activist on the left, had long been frustrated with the nature of the Indian media.

In 2002, soon after the Gujarat ‘massacres’, he was a part of the Aman Ekta Manch, a civil society initiative, which mobilised protestors, collected relief material, and organised volunteers. In one instance, 15,000 people marched on Delhi streets against the anti-Muslim violence, but the media – barring The Hindu, as he recalls – chose not to cover it. The ‘blocking of voices of dissent’ triggered off discussions between Nigam and others about the need to set up an ‘alternative media platform’.

But the idea did not take off.

Four years later, as debates around OBC reservations and land grab in Singur and Nandigram intensified, Nigam felt it was the ‘opportune time’ to think of an alternative. Blogs had emerged as a popular medium. He spoke to friends at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), scholar Ravi Sundaram and artist-writer Shuddhabrata Sengupta. Both were keen, but they needed someone who shared similar political convictions and understood technology.

The Inception

Nigam had not met Shivam Vij, a young journalist, till then. But Vij used to regularly come to CSDS and Sengupta knew him well. He had been a Sarai fellow, researching ragging issues, and was active on its mailing list (Sarai was a CSDS programme). Nigam recalls Vij had done some good reportage on the reservations issue.

They met and discussed how dissent was blacked out to the extent that even letters to the editor were not being published in mainstream papers, if it went against the established ‘consensus’. Vij was skeptical, for he had been a part of a team blog earlier. But he was also excited, and was quick to set up a platform. Others who shared similar political views were brought in, and in October 2006, was born.

Six years later, the site has 22 members; scores of guest contributors; thousands of daily visitors, 20,000 Facebook subscribers, 30,000 email subscribers, and 8000 Twitter followers; frequent mentions in the mainstream media it set out to challenge; and highlights stories missed by the ‘big media’. It offers not only a space for critical writing but also a unique model of voluntary, editor-less, advertisement-free, politically committed journalism with a zero marketing budget.

The editorial impact is most obvious.

On a show, NDTV’s Hindi anchor Ravish Kumar once asked Vij why stories about Maruti labour unrest were appearing on Kafila first, and not the mainstream media.

Vij laughed, and told him that was for him to answer.

Platform for Debate

He says, “We entered the debate in a big way in Singur-Nandigram and saw the beginning of the end of CPM much before others did. We have questioned the police narrative on Batla House encounter and other terror-related issues consistently. There were sustained, theoretical reflections, on the Anna Hazare moment and the Delhi gang-rape.”

The Anna agitation was important in ways more that one for Kafila. While members of the group may have certain very broad political principles in common, there are variations. On Anna, Sengupta was critical and sought to problematise the nature of the protest, while Nigam and political scientist, Nivedita Menon, saw in it a moment of important mass mobilisation which the conventional left had failed to read. Kafila now got unsolicited submissions from leading scholars like Partha Chatterjee and Arjun Appadurai who joined the debate.

Nigam explains how a group, with 22 people with strong opinions, has managed to stick together. “There are inter-personal issues. But one thing we have desisted from doing is having a Kafila line like a party line, or issuing statements as Kafila. There are variations in our positions, on Maoism, on Kashmir and so on. We engage with each other publicly. But there is a basic level of trust.”

Kafila has also become a site of documentation and archiving, hosting statements of select civil society outfits on important issues, which the press either ignore or report fleetingly. It takes the comments section very seriously – authors respond, and debates are ‘curated’ in order to ensure they do not become repetitive, juvenile or abusive. It publishes letters to the editor questioning stories in the mainstream press. Scholars from the rest of the region often send submissions, giving it a South Asian flavour. And it does not go after only the big issue of the day or week, allowing for a diverse range of themes to get sustained attention.

But now that the blog has surpassed its own expectations, has the success created its own complications? Both Nigam and Vij don’t think so. Seven members are designated as administrators, and on each day of the week, they are given the responsibility of uploading posts and editing guest submissions. The ad-free model continues, and no financial transaction takes place at all.

Others in the industry see value in kafila’s work.

Feeding Research

Aniket Alam, executive editor of Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), says the blog has managed to be ‘academically-informed without being inaccessible’. Its strength is being ‘non-sectarian’, and Alam says India could do with ’20 more kafilas’. Caravan’s executive editor, Vinod Jose suggests that kafila serves as a ‘quasi-think-tank’ for journalists, feeding research and presenting ‘the other side’ of the story. He suggests it has also created more manoeuvring space for reporters to bargain within their newsrooms to do stories on similar lines, by pointing to the work being done on kafila.

But perhaps most importantly, kafila’s popularity has shown there is a demand for serious writing, for reflections, for critical perspectives, for discussions on books and culture. As news media ‘dumbs down’, there is a lesson in there they may want to heed.

(The writer is a member of the Kafila collective.)

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