Two decades before he upset Edward Snowden to win the Google Digital Activism Award last month, for launching the world’s first community radio service on mobile phone, Shubhranshu Chaudhary, now in his early 40s, started his career as a journalist with Hindi daily Deshbandhu in Raipur, part of undivided Madhya Pradesh then.
Son of a refugee from east Pakistan, he grew up in a small tribal town of north Chhattisgarh, and several years later, this is where he realised what he really wanted to do in life. “I knew many things I didn’t want to do, but I was not sure what I wanted to do,” says Chaudhary, recalling his journey from being a journalist to an activist working for the tribes of Chhattisgarh.
After quitting his job with the BBC in 2003, he tried starting a community radio service in 2004, but did not get a government licence. In February 2010, he launched the first Gondi news portal, http://www.cgnetswara.org, as part of the community radio service enabled through a mobile phone. Here, any person from the neighbouring tribal belt could dial a number, register his or her complaint, submit a news item or simply share experiences in his native Gondi language, spoken across the central Indian forests. Chaudhary’s team verified the submissions, translated them and posted them on the website in Hindi for the entire world to take note of. He conducted extensive workshops with tribals, and taught them how to use the model to register their complaints. A lot of the complaints were voluntarily taken up by citizens, who approached officials and got them resolved.
The project was initially funded by the Knighthood International Journalism Fellowship he got in 2009, before he received a UNDP grant for the project. Today, it has spread beyond Chhattisgarh and encompasses various tribal zones of central India, including Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.
“Our political democracy cannot mature, or function well unless we have a democratic, equitable communication. That is the experiment we are trying in India. Central India is in the middle of a bloody war between Maoist guerrillas and Indian security forces. Tribals are led by the Maoists. My tribal classmates once told me ‘our smaller problems can be solved if we have a democratic communication platform where each has an equal right to speak and be heard’. To create a democratic, more equitable media we are using mobile phones in this experiment,” he said, while accepting the award in London last month.
Between his first job and now, Chaudhary tried his hand at many things. Three years into Deshbandu, he left the Rs 800-a-month job to work with Medha Patkar in 1992. A year later, he came to Delhi, without an address and little money. After a long struggle, Chaudhary began assisting John Rettie, the South Asia correspondent of The Guardian through a common friend. It was more or less a clerical job, where he had to prepare background notes and do translations, but this association helped. Rettie was close friends with Mark Tully, then bureau chief, BBC India, and introduced him to Tully. Chaudhary cleared a test and became a production assistant for BBC’s radio programmes.
He knew little English and would listen to BBC news late into the night to grasp the language and the accent. “He is a rare Hindi journalist, who made his place in English journalism,” remembers an old friend, who did not want to be named. Soon Chaudhary rose to become the South Asia producer in BBC and worked in Kashmir and the Northeast. Soon there would be a time when he would be able to hire helicopters to do stories. “Once while covering the Gujarat earthquake in Bhuj, we flew down to Delhi just for a decent bath,” he says, with a laugh.
It was while working with the BBC that Chaudhary once visited Chhattisgarh to do a story on Maoists. “During this visit, I underwent a transformation. I saw violence at my doorstep,” he says. Moved by the deprivation and senseless violence in the area, he decided he wanted to work among the tribals. He left the BBC, and began visiting Maoist areas as a freelancer. The BBC tag enabled access to the Maoists, who are known to prefer the foreign media.
Having noticed that the conflict was fuelled by the neglect of the tribals, he launched an internet discussion forum on the police-Maoist war in 2003. The stories of violence and human rights violations in Bastar, which were often not reported by mainstream media, came to the fore. It galvanised activists, media and civil society, and played a significant role during the Salwa Judum years, marked by violence between the state-armed group and Maoists.
He courted several controversies along the way. In 2011, he filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, supporting IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt’s claim that he had met Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on February 27, 2002, a day before the Godhra riots began. Chaudhary was at Bhatt’s residence when the latter received a call for the meeting. It was at this meeting, Bhatt alleged, that Modi told his officers to let the Hindus take revenge. Soon, however, Bhatt’s email was hacked and Ram Jethmalani, citing his correspondence with Chaudhary, claimed that Bhatt had prompted Chaudhary to file the affidavit. “The charge is false. I filed (the affidavit) on my own,” says Chaudhary.
In his book on Maoists, Let’s Call Him Vasu, Chaudhary quoted an anonymous rebel linking activist Binayak Sen with the Maoists, saying Sen was to be paid Rs 50,000 to represent the case of a senior Maoist leader in Raipur jail, a claim subsequently refuted by Sen and the Maoists.
Chaudhary offered no other proof against Sen, and many questioned his journalistic ethics. “Some facts in his book are debatable. It’s up to him to prove these,” says Ruchir Garg, his former colleague at Deshbandhu, and now Chhattisgarh editor of the Hindi daily Nai Dunia. “I stand by every word in my book. I cross-checked the fact, and if I had not written it, I would have been doing injustice to my journalism. Many asked why I did not write (facts) for which I had proof. It’s because Sen was not the subject of my book. There was just a reference to him,” he says.
He also claims to have sent a detailed questionnaire to Sen before the book’s publication, to which Sen did not respond. Sen refutes this, “He never sent me anything.”
As Garg notes, for Chaudhary, activism and personal beliefs preceded journalism and, they, probably, fashioned his views on journalism. “Worldover, politics has got democratised, more or less. But media still remains aristocratic, top down. We journalists also need to be elected by the community and not selected by the powerful few. If we want a better democracy, we cannot leave journalism in the hands of few,” he says.