Secret Printers, Anonymous Bylines: Indian Protesters Take News Into Own Hands

India’s state media called thousands of agitating farmers “terrorists”. A new crop of alternative news outlets promise to tell the true story.
Pallavi Pundir
Delhi, IN
March 17, 2021, 3:34pm
farmers protest india underground media alternative press
(Left) Farmers at the Delhi border read a newspaper founded by protesters called Trolley Times. (Right) Sargam Toor hands out Karti Dharti, a women-led publication she co-founded with her sister, Sangeet. Photos: Courtesy of Trolley Times (left) and Karti Dharti

Newspapers are often named after places. But 29-year-old Navkiran Natt had another idea when she founded one of the hottest new newspapers in India: Trolley Times.

Natt, a 29-year-old dentist and an activist, named her publication after a potent symbol of protests roiling the agricultural powerhouse. In massive demonstrations at the borders of New Delhi, hundreds of thousands of angry farmers have gathered since November to protest the Indian government’s controversial farm laws.

The new laws aim to modernize India’s enormous farming sector by opening it up to private buyers. But farmers call the move “unconstitutional” and say it will benefit big corporates at the expense of their livelihood, although pro-government state media have accused them of being separatists and terrorists.

Trolley Times exists to counter all of that,” Natt said about her four-page biweekly newspaper.

farmer protest underground media india

Navkiran Natt, an activist and dentist, talks to the protesting farmers at the Delhi border about 'Trolley Times', an initiative she started with her sister and five friends. Photo: Team Trolley Times

Natt launched the publication in December with her brother and five friends to document the “historic resistance” put up by the farmers, whose protests have met with police water cannons and tear gas. Almost 250 farmers have died during the protests either by suicide or succumbing to the harsh Delhi winters, according to data collated by farmers union called Sanyukat Kisan Morcha.

A familiar face at the protests, Delhi-based Natt allies herself with the protesters and, similarly, lives under constant fear of a crackdown.

india underground media farmers protest

Stories on 'Trolley Times' are in Hindi and Gurmukhi. Photo: Pallavi Pundir

“There are constant efforts to create a climate of fear among us,” Natt told VICE World News from the northern Indian borders of the National Capital Region. 

On Jan. 26, a peaceful rally by farmers turned violent after a faction of the protesters stormed the historic site of Red Fort in the middle of Delhi and clashed with the police. Natt said that the police visited four of her friends’ homes in Delhi, saying that she had called them on the day of the clash. “They took my name and Trolley Times’ name. It’s a part of the terror tactic to silence people like me,” she said.

underground news india alternative media farmers protest

Teams of 'Trolley Times' distribute the newspaper to farmers, who often don't have access to television or social media. Photo: Team Trolley Times

In less than 100 days, Trolley Times has grown into a newspaper with a circulation of 7,000 copies and a thriving social media presence. The number pales in comparison with those of newspapers with millions of readers. But its intent and impact made prime time national news and even found an audience outside India

But the popularity has also come with a need for caution. “We do not publish our printing location because of concerns of being shut down,” she said.

The protests have given rise to scores of social media-based outlets dedicated to tell the stories of the farmers. 

Advertisement

Pradeep Dalal, a journalist from the northern Indian state of Haryana, started Musafir News, a YouTube channel that features weekly interviews with farmers.

farmers protest india underground news scene

Pradeep Dalal in one of his videos from the farmers' protest.

“I’m from a farming family too,” he told VICE World News. “After the way the mainstream news channels demonised them, people like me had to step up and amplify their voices. I started my own YouTube channel to report from the inside when the big channels aren’t.”

Sangeet Toor, 37, launched the Karti Dharti newspaper in January with three others, including her sister called Sargam.

“I started my newspaper because this kind of mobilisation had never happened in recent history,” she said.

The first two editions of Karti Dharti carried stories and experiences of women from the protest site and outside. Much like Trolley Times, Karti Dharti keeps the names of some of the translators, writers and printer locations anonymous. “We also don’t reveal where we’re getting our funds from,” she said. “The only public faces of the publication are mine and two others’.”

underground media news farmers protest india

Protesters read 'Karti Dharti', a women-led newspaper that started in January. Photos: Team Karti Dharti

Toor, an activist and a cybersecurity analyst, draws a parallel between the Indian state and her past experience of being in an abusive marriage. “In a violent relationship, the oppressor does everything to keep the other person oppressed,” she said. “We must keep raising our voices to get out of it.”

Over the last three months, the Indian government has repeatedly sought to cut off all forms of communication for the farmers, including shutting down the internet in protest areas. It has also arm-twisted social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube to take down content and accounts supporting the farmers.

underground newspaper media indian farmer protest

In February, the Delhi police arrested a 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi for editing a Microsoft Word document “toolkit”, which was tweeted out by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. The toolkit had instructions on how to amplify information about the farmers’ protests on social media.

Toor said that her team is always prepared for the worst. “It’s a game where if you speak up against the oppressor, you’re bound to get a reaction,” she said. “Over time, we have lost the support of some women because of fears of online trolling. But many said that in case something happens to us, they will keep Karti Dharti running.”

Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter