Protest: Message Evolving beyond the Medium

A conversation with Navkiran Natt and Mukesh Kulriya of Trolley Times on the way the farmers’ protests have led to new emergences in messaging and communication

LILA: Thank you for joining us for this interaction. With political sensations and the pandemic as the foci of most news channels, the farmers’ protest has unfortunately gotten buried. Let us begin this conversation by situating where the protest stands today? 

Trolley Times : We would like to start answering this question with the title of Gil Scott-Heron’s famous poem, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which was originally a popular slogan during the Black Power movement of 1960s in the United States, and seems as relevant even today in the context of the current Indian farmers’ movement. In the last seven months, the farmers’ protest has faced demonization, indifference, and applause from various fronts at different points in time, which led it to be popularly perceived as falling, stagnant, or rising. Actually, it was the gaze of the mainstream media that changed time and again, which, in fact, had very little to do with the ground reality of the protest. The protest has been going on, and has created history through its spread, mode, and persistence on the issue of the farm laws. Thousands of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and from several other states of the country, though may be less in numbers today, are still sitting on the borders of the national capital. They sat there through the scorching summer where temperature was close to 50 degrees. The protesting farmers have been resolute against the said laws, and they are prepared to stay put for as long as needed.

LILA: Any protest is strengthened via the support of the general public. How is a movement impacted by the weaning off of such support due to various reasons, like in the current circumstances?

TT: The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020 essentially jeopardizes the food security of the people by legalizing the stocking of essential items for corporates, and hence allowing them to control the prices of essential food items like wheat flour, cornflour, and pulses. Not in the distant past, we have seen people dying of hunger during the lockdown. So, these laws are of severe concern to everyone in India and abroad who believes in the foundational axiom that, as a human being, every citizen must be provided an access to food and a decent return for their labour as the bare minimum by every country.

So, essentially, the farmers are leading a mass movement for the livelihood and the food security of the majority of India, which happens to be home to one-sixth of the world’s population. Also, these laws are not specific only to India. They have been pushed by global monetary institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank upon most of the developing countries as a policy framework. And, even in the developed countries, the pandemic-led lockdowns have exposed the glaring inequality and hunger. So, it’s actually a global phenomenon. From this perspective, the whole world should stand up with this movement, and people are indeed doing so. If anything that the pandemic has taught us, it is this: “No one is safe, until each of us is safe.” The mere physical absence of a few people from the protest sites in these trying times doesn’t mean that the support of the general public is weaning off. Instead, they are able to sympathize with the protesters even more, we believe.

LILA: Since the beginning, the protesting farmers have been transparent and active in their communication with all stakeholders involved. The government, on the other hand, has not been as responsive. How does one navigate such an unwelcoming space in order to continue the dialogue?

TT: There has never been such a stark line between those in power and the citizens as it exists now. The government is scrambling to find ways to discredit the movement but, so far, has been unable to do so. This is the same government that did successfully manage to crush various resistance movements in the past by building false propaganda. Although the onus of engaging with the protesting farmers lies with the government, the farmers are witnessing a cruel, inhuman face of the State. Meanwhile the proposed farm laws have threatened whatever little semblance of survival agriculture has been providing them. The fear of losing everything is something that keeps the farmers going in this struggle. 

This movement started against the three farm laws, but any democratic movement of this scale cannot limit itself to just the primary demands. This movement is also giving us a historic opportunity to recognize peoples’ unity across religion, caste, class, and gender lines, which was long overdue, and if a mass movement such as this can achieve this successfully, it can be emulated in other spheres as well. To add, this movement seeks to recognize the gender disparity in both domestic and farm labour with a dual strategy of equal work distribution and equal pay, and land rights as well as the due recognition. So, this movement is also opposing the rising authoritarianism in India and the polemical agenda of the current government, which gives us a ray of hope for a better future for this country.

LILA: In these circumstances, Trolley Times has emerged as an important platform for documenting, archiving, and communicating amongst the farmers and also with the stakeholders outside. What was the original intent behind this initiative? Did you imagine it would grow the way that it has?

TT: The Trolley Times came out as it had to. The movement and the time we are living in have made us realize that mere criticism of the mainstream media will not suffice. And, please note that, Trolley Times may have certainly come out in the backdrop of corporate media becoming a government’s mouthpiece, but we are not just here to counter them or fact-check them. We are here with our agenda of setting up what good journalism ought to be. It’s creation and not just reaction that drives us. The creation of democratic, constitutional, and egalitarian ethos.

In the early days of the protest, when the media and the government relentlessly demonized the movement, there were very few voices to speak for it. Most importantly, as the protest sites were kilometres long and consisted largely of old people, the messaging within the protest became a crucial need to keep everyone updated as well as in keeping their spirits high. So, essentially, the Trolley Times came as an internal communication channel for the protesters. It was planned to be released in print within the community — a space where people could sit together and read. The applause it received on the first day from the farmers and the media houses across the world was overwhelming, and it made us realize that we were able to do something that was much needed. That’s when Trolley Times started looking outward to communicate beyond the protest sites.

LILA: What was the rationale behind selecting the newspaper as a format, especially when audio-visual media seem to be more accessible today? What aspect of this format attracted the team, considering that the founding editors themselves come from different backgrounds and different media? Do you see the print media sustaining itself amidst the growth of alternative media?

TT: It is certainly an era of digital media, but most agricultural and rural communities in India still depend on the print newspapers and magazines for news. In rural communities, there is a culture of reading newspapers in small groups and discussing the affairs of the day. Although everyone has phones, for ‘serious’ news people still prefer print. As the protests moved from their regional locations to the borders of Delhi at once, a stretch of around 15 kilometres was occupied by the protesters residing in their tractors and trailers. In colloquial Punjabi and Hindi, the trailers are called ‘trolley’. So, Trolley Times was brought out to replicate the culture of communal reading, and we also brought out news from various other protest sites.

We are a small team of activists, visual artists, and writers. None of us is a trained journalist. That gives us more freedom and a fresh approach to bring out this newsletter. So, we make space for articles for every kind of readership. That includes scholarly essays on the movement, ground reports from various protest sites, testimonials, illustrations, photographs, cartoons, and the profiles of the participating unions and protesters. It is published in the two most spoken/read languages at the protest sites: Punjabi and Hindi.  So, there is content for readers of all age groups and education levels. The appealing cover design in every issue attracts even the non-readers to start reading.

LILA: The pieces featured in Trolley Times range from the marginal and underrepresented stories of the protesters to critical analyses of the movement by scholars. At a time when popular media avoids both authentic stories and nuanced pieces in favour of simplistic versions that sell, what has been your experience of sharing the kind of stories that you do?

TT: It is not that there are no other news sources; Punjabi language newspapers are also available at the protest sites. Many regional social media news channels were also covering the movement from the very beginning. We try not to duplicate what the other newspapers or TV/digital media news sources are doing. TV/digital media goes after relatively sensational content. Newspapers have to bring all kinds of news. Mainstream media also have more resources.

We, on the other hand, do what we can do best, which is to be complementary to those news streams as well. The motive is to bring out underreported stories of the protesters; to excavate the heterogeneity and the solidarities from the ongoing movement. One such story is of a Muslim woman, Akbari, who walked for eleven days from Bhatinda, Punjab to the Tikri protest site at the Delhi border in solidarity with the movement. Herself landless, Akbari said that when the land is taken over by the corporates, their dream of owning land will also be snatched. She echoes the strong sentiment that puzzles many. The landless, however hard it seems, still see the present condition as better than a possible takeover by the corporate sector. It is this and many such apprehensions that led to such mass mobilization. Our own presence at the protest sites allows us to see the protesters’ struggles beyond sensationalism.

LILA: When an ideologically-driven newspaper like yours is born out of a specific political project, how does it hold a dialogue with those ideologically opposed to it, while also addressing questions of intersectionality and accountability within the movement it represents?

TT: Trolley Times and other voices from the movement were vigilant, and constantly kept the communication open with the outside world. We believe it is important to understand why the government has failed to bring the movement down. We publish visuals as they are. This is what the media is supposed to do — to (re)present things as they are, to make them seen, heard, and read. When the mainstream didn’t do it, we had to step in. Media is a watchdog of democracy, but here in India, it has become an extra-State agency to muzzle the dissenting voices, whether of the opposition or of the people. 

The movement is churning societies that have been ailing for long; it is making them think. Hence this protest is not just about the farm laws but also about the unethical pro-State media; about corporate monopoly; and about the rights to protest, to equality; or anything and everything that a citizen of a democratic country should have access to. This restructuring of imagination for a better society and people’s zeal of fighting for what is right for them — that is what we try to imbibe at Trolley Times, too. And, our team has always made sure that the intersectionality of the participants and their many identities and politics are reflected in our coverage, whether it is about gender, caste, class, or religion.

LILA: Since Trolley Times was born out of a specific need, do you see it sustaining or evolving as the circumstances change? What are your thoughts on bringing a movement to end once they have achieved their objective?

TT: Neither the agrarian crisis nor the farmers’ struggles are new in our country. Here, the farmers rose up to assert their rights as citizens. Their movement is not just a  protest but it has formed the foundation of many other initiatives to take on the state power and its subservient media. Trolley Times has been one such initiative that started as a tool of resistance. And, we believe that it would stay for as long as the resistance stays, beyond this particular protest, though we are still not sure about the form it may take in the future, because there are many other considerations involved. 

We are not seeing this movement ending in the near future. Since the three farm laws are about agriculture and food security, it adversely affects almost ninety percent of India’s population. And, as stated already, the issue is not just limited to India; it represents a global trend. Similar policies were implemented in the US in 1978, promising a better future to the American farmers, which, expectedly, did not materialise. So, we urge everyone to stand in solidarity with the movement, to amplify the voices of those at the forefront, and to organize in your own neighbourhoods while educating people about it. These fights can only be won decisively by opposing these policies globally.

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