The Third Eye brings to you Part I of a landmark conversation between Pooja Pande and Suneeta Prajapati of Khabar Lahariya, on what it means to be a rural journalist, what it means to be online as a rural journalist, the difference (or not) between trolls and fans, the spectrum of violence, and the remarkable negotiations that emerge as the online world starts mirroring the real one.
First published by Point of View and the Internet Democracy Project in Imagine a Feminist Internet in 2019.
My Troll & I
‘Kill your own father, only then will you be happy, you feminist’.
With their necessary familiarity with mobile technologies and digital networks, the Khabar Lahariya reporter negotiates new spaces and new relationships in her work, cultivating sources and colleagues at odd hours, on WhatsApp and Facebook, bending notions of sexual convention – based on age, caste, class, geography – out of shape. There is a pleasure in this, and an agency, as much as there is the danger inherent in testing the elasticity of social norms, and it is one that deeply affects both her public and private lives.
The troll that we encounter on our social media is not the average urban Indian’s nightmare – he is also our audience. In fact, at a ten million YouTube reach last count, a highly engaged audience. In fact, when he jumps across to click a selfie with us on a bus ride across the hinterland, we might even venture to call him a fan.
We would venture to say that this slippery new relationship that digital technology in the hinterland affords, has the potential to reset social and sexual norms in even deeply feudal parts of rural India. This conversation, brings to light a more nuanced experience of rural women using technology, to splinter the binary between the abuse or empowerment debate.
As Suneeta, at the centre of this, a young reporter working in Mahoba, Bundelkhand, Uttar Pradesh, a state that ranks in the top three on the gender gap list vis-a-vis mobile phone usage, puts it, “The first time I heard the word ‘troll’ was in Delhi, at one of these panels.”
In the hinterland, the troll is very likely familiar to the woman. A far cry from the unsolicited dismembered dick pics women are having to block, which are often the subject of much consternation and conversation in mainstream urban media, Suneeta’s troll might be wishing her Good Morning and Happy Diwali on WhatsApp. He might be drinking tea with her at a press conference, shooting the breeze with a gaggle of other young tech-savvy practitioners.
United in their common ambition for world domination, he would still turn around and ask her (what to him is) a genuine question: ‘If women start stepping out and earning, what good are we anymore?’
How do we speak to this man? And, more importantly, how do we make him listen?
Presented as a dialogue between Khabar Lahariya Senior Reporter Suneeta and her Delhi-based colleague Pooja, this piece attempts to grapple with the various aspects of this very complex phenomenon, even as smartphones become handier, and with 75% of mobile internet users in India aged between 20 to 30, tech becomes that much more accessible to the young citizens of our nation.
What does it mean, we wonder out aloud, when the troll also identifies as your die-hard fan?
How then, do you respond? Is engagement key? And if so, what are the nuanced contours of this engagement?
I. Being Suneeta: Bending the Digital Native Trope
“The more online you are, the better for you.”
PP: How is the internet being used in Mahoba, amongst the 20-somethings and those younger?
SP: So, only those of us who do have an understanding of what the online world is, what internet is, what social media even is, in the first place, are the ones here doing something. Most have very little use for it, even those who do. The max usage of internet even here is streaming songs, downloading movies, a little WhatsApp, a little Facebook (FB). That’s about it. After that, I would say there are a handful of people who are on Twitter and then, Instagram.
In fact, even I didn’t know about Insta until very recently! I got to learn about it and how to run it in Delhi, and I have now made my account and everything. That’s how I am discovering a handful of local people on Insta. It’s fun, it’s new.
PP: I’m still not on that, you know! I keep thinking of getting onto it though.
SP: You totally should! The more online you are, the better for you.
PP: So the ones you’re discovering on Insta, are all men?
SP: Of course, only men!
Locally, first of all, people only have those call-only phones, jis mein sirf phone call kar sakte ho ya receive kar sakte ho, especially girls, and that too not too many – only a rare few lucky ones who’ve perhaps stepped out to study or something, and are given them. Or when they get married, they’re given these phones so they can stay in touch with their maternal families. Otherwise, who has smart phones? And smart phones are important, right? We’re only talking about smartphones here, kyonki online toh wahin hai.
So, the few girls who do have smartphones also are basically using WhatsApp. Because WhatsApp is the only thing that stays on your phone only. It has nothing to do with the outside world as such. Nobody in the world outside knows of what you’re sharing, what you’re saying, what you’re putting up. Nobody is free to comment on it. It’s between you and the person you’ve chosen to communicate with. So, even if you share a picture, it stays only there. On FB, whatever you post, the whole world can see. So, the few young girls with smartphones are also not on FB. Anyway, no girl gets a smart phone until Inter, that’s for sure.
From my gang, there’s not a single soul other than me. Most are married, they have kids, they don’t even have the usual phones. In cities, I know that all women are on it.
PP: That’s not true, actually.
SP: Really? How so? But yeah, I guess you’re right. Like my friend Tina*. She lives in Delhi, but she posts on FB with a lot of fear and if someone comments on it galti se bhi, she’ll quickly delete it. If she gets too many friend requests on one account, she gets very frightened and immediately shuts it down. But then she creates another account the next day. She’s very drawn to it, and is dying to use it, be on social media, but then she’s scared that too many will get to know her, her identity, she’ll make too many friends, logon ko pata chal jayega ki main internet par hoon, FB par hoon.
PP: But you’d like for that identity to be clear?
SP: There’s no point otherwise.
PP: So, tell me about you and FB & you on FB.
SP: I’ve been on FB for very long. I joined Khabar Lahariya (KL) in 2012 and I was on FB in 2013-14. I remember our accounts were created at this KL workshop in Lucknow – FB & email IDs. I was fascinated by it, I was hooked. In the early days, I wasn’t a regular. See, I didn’t have much internet access then. When there was some production work to be done, usually at the editorial office, then I would check my FB there. Log in and see kiski request aayi hai, kiska kya photo hai. Thoda bahut dekhte hain, par interest bahut tha (Not much, but I’d be very keen). Sometimes, I would post something, or maybe put a picture or something. I didn’t really know back then that if I put up a picture, thousands of people can view it, even download it. I mean, there was no comprehension of this concept.
In fact, I’ve now got to know that so many of my friends who were on FB then, had downloaded my photos and stored them on their phones. Jo jisko pasand aayi…it keeps happening. Just a few months ago, when I went to my village, I met this friend who lived maybe 15-20 kms away from me. I had gone to Allahabad to give an exam and I’d met him there also, toh friend-type ban gaya tha. He had so many of pictures of me – so many! – that he had downloaded and stored on his phone! I was shocked! And dating back from 2015. I knew they were all from FB because I recognize them all, and I told him that he’d obviously downloaded them off my FB, because I’ve never spent all these moments with you for sure!
These are all on somebody’s phone, without my consent, without my knowledge even. Na permission hai, na kuch. I don’t know if they stay on your phone and only you look at them for whatever reason, or do you share them ahead, or show them to others? I don’t even know. I don’t even want to know, actually.
Watch Suneeta at work in Mahoba
II. Disrupting Online Hate & the Alleged Dangers of Being Online
“There is no concept of online violence. There is barely a concept of online, right?”
PP: You said you’d heard the word ‘troll’ very recently. Where was it?
SP: At a press conference in Delhi, I came across it properly, when there were entire sessions around it! Locally, my boss Kavita (KL’s Digital Head) had told me the meaning from her time in Delhi, that trolling means those who abuse you online. She’d just shot a show for the channel on the topic of Sati I think, and when it was published, she had been abused a lot – comments like feminist woh aurat hoti hai jo shauhar badalti hai har raat (a feminist is someone who takes a new husband every night) and all that – so then, she’d told me this was a troll. That’s how I began to recognise what it means.
PP: Does anybody use the word locally? And if not the word, is there a general understanding of it?
SP: Nobody uses the word, nobody knows that a word exists for something like this. Locally, people will call it ‘pareshaan karna’. The word ‘hinsa’ is not something people use for anything happening online.
Dahej ki maang bhi pareshan karna hai. Maar-peet isliye hoti hai ki usne khaana nahi banaya aaj (it’s more like they’re harassing her for dowry, or she got beaten up because she didn’t cook dinner today). The word ‘hinsa’ is a very strong one, it’s used in extreme situations only. And the fact of there being many kinds of violence that can be perpetuated against you, kya kya hinsayein ho sakti hai ya ho rahi hain, there is simply no understanding of that. I should say, no imagining of that.
… That forcing me into a relationship is also violence.
Touching me or trying to touch me without my consent is also violence.
Not allowing me my basic personal freedoms – like the freedom to move around, step out of the house – is also violence. Mental and emotional torture is also violence.
So, in this world, online mein hinsaki kalpana kaise ho sakti hai?
PP: Since you have an understanding of it, what are the dangers of being online for you, you’d say? The possibility of violence, in the way you understand the different kinds of violence?
SP: I’ve never felt a danger or threat as such being online. Perhaps it’s because my presence is new and fresh here, and I don’t have as many followers yet, or that much traction, pahuncha bhi utni nahi hai that some big deal happens.
PP: The threat is proportional to your reach, you think?
SP: Isn’t it? What do you think?
PP: Maybe it has a role to play. Several women we know of, who are or were trolled online, in the space of media, were well known in their fields.
SP: Yes. So, sometimes I think about how and if things will change over time, for me personally. Today, this is my reach and it is not much, meri pahunch, and tomorrow, this will increase – I’m a media person and for me, this space is a lot about raising my voice against the system, right? I might have to write against a political leader, or someone else powerful – so when my reach increases, am I exposing myself to dangers? Am I making myself vulnerable? If powerful people, with such large reach/traction online, are being targeted for raising their voices, then what about me? A girl from a village? Perhaps anything could happen to me. Will anyone want to stand with me then? Support me? Sometimes, I think about things like these. But I’ve never faced it so far as such, personally.
There are two episodes that come to mind. They are sort of in this space, though the threats or dangers weren’t so big, I would say.
There was this daroga in Mahoba who had sanctioned a raid on a local leader’s home – it was a case of illegal liquor selling/bootlegging. He was abused across WhatsApp groups by supporters of the leader. The neta had also abused him, using caste slurs etc. The daroga was Dalit and the neta was upper caste. I got screenshots of this furore and I made it into a post and shared it on FB. I got many calls after that, to the effect of ‘You’re our area’s local girl. Hamaari beti hai. Hamaari sister hai. Why don’t you delete this? It’s better if you delete this.’ At first, I didn’t think much about it. Then I started having second thoughts, out of fear, you could say. But I rationalised it to myself that I’ve already made my point, and now it won’t be repeated, because they get it etc. And I deleted it. …I regret that episode – because it was such a caste issue, I should’ve taken a stand, and somehow, I didn’t think that much of it at that point. I should’ve seen that it was only a caste issue and it’s important to not take this post down. At that point, I was the only one who had put it on FB and I had garnered a lot of support for the daroga, for the cause. So many people lauded my bravery. The daroga had decided to take the matter to court also, I remember, urged by all the comment baazi on my FB. He didn’t eventually lodge the FIR also. Back then, I thought, ‘Haan banake rakhna chahiye. Isi area mein rehna hai humein, sahi baat hai. Delete kar dete hain.’ All this happened overnight. I had posted it around 10 pm and by 11 am the next morning, I had deleted it. Can you imagine the number of phone calls I got in that interim?
After I had deleted it, I heard from a few people that ‘Falaane keh rahe the, agar delete na karti, toh use dekh lete’. But maybe it was talk. Kehne aur karne mein bahut fark hota hai na. I could’ve examined that gap, I had a chance to do so. I regret it today, and I know I’ll regret it forever.
Read for Part II of this conversation.
Of the 26% of the population in India with access to the internet, 89% of the users are male, and only 27% live in smaller cities. Approximately 20% of girls use mobile phones at age 10, compared to 27% of boys, as adolescents enter puberty, a dramatic widening of the gender gap begins. By age 18, the gap has widened to 21 percentage points – a gap that remains in place for the rest of a woman’s life.
Working women often use mobile phones that belong to male family members, so they can be used to monitor their movements.
Women’s relative invisibility in traditional news media has crossed over into digital news delivery platforms: Only 26% of the people in internet news stories and media news Tweets combined are women. Only 4% of news media tweets clearly challenge gender stereotypes, exactly similar to the overall percentage of television, radio and print news stories.
Suneeta Prajapati, 24, is a reporter at Khabar Lahariya. Suneeta is from Mahoba district, around 100 kilometres from where Khabar Lahariya first put down its roots. Suneeta’s family lives at the edge of a stone quarry, her village is coated with a thin white dust that comes from the continual ‘blasting’ and from ‘crusher’ machines. Her sister, like many others in the region, died of tuberculosis when she was young. Suneeta herself worked in the quarry as a young girl, putting herself through school with the money she was able to earn. She joined Khabar Lahariya in 2012, as an 18-year-old. Over the years, Suneeta has taken on the nexus between politicians, media and mining contractors, and tracked the debilitating violence against women in UP, amongst various political stories and reports.
Pooja Pande is a writer and editor with an experience spanning 17+ years of leading various media outlets, including the eclectic and acclaimed art and culture magazine First City through the 2000’s where she was Editor. Her books include Red Lipstick (Penguin Randomhouse, 2016), a literary-styled memoir of celebrity transgender rights activist Laxmi, and Momspeak (Penguin Randomhouse, 2020), a first-of-its-kinds feminist exploration of the institution and experience of motherhood in India. Her passion for intersectional feminist revolutions led her to Khabar Lahariya in 2017, where she worked in editorial, outreach, partnerships, and is today Head of Strategy at KL’s mothership, Chambal Media.