Under Pressure

The closure of Forward Press print edition is a backward step for journalism

The anti-caste magazine was targeted by the Sangh Parivar as far back as 2014.

Silvia Maria Fernandes Kostka and Ivan Kostka do not give up easily, and I am still hoping that they will not close down the print edition of the Forward Press, the Hindi-English bilingual Dalit-Bahujan magazine they founded in New Delhi in 2009.

Silvia Kostka, the chair of the holding company, Aspire Prakashan, says they just cannot carry on, but after June, the monthly magazine will continue in a digital version with the same editorial staff bringing it out. For these two, Forward Press is a labour of love, and of some pain. And a bit of an impossible dream. She is a surgeon, he a poet and journalist from Mumbai, who lived and worked in the United States and Canada for decades before making New Delhi their home, and workplace. Both are in their early sixties, evangelical and just a trifle revolutionary.

Voice of the opppressed

The impossible twin tasks they undertook was to bring out a bilingual magazine that would speak for the marginalised, at the very bottom of India’s caste structures but going against the popular wisdom of appealing either to the Other Backward Classes or to the Dalits. The two are often at war, and not just in the Jat- and Yadav-dominated landscape of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar, but also in the Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka region of the Deccan peninsula. As Kancha Ilaiah, the mercurial Telugu Yadava professor of Osmania University, who features often in the magazine, said, the Dalits and Other Backward Castes are united in their common enemies in the Upper Castes obeying the Brahminical Code, a point he spelled out in his controversial books Why I Am Not a Hindu, and Buffalo Nationalism.

Publishing a bilingual magazine has not always been a success. Though it has been tried often in the past, it remains a fraught experiment. Ivan Kostka does not take the easy way out of two separate sections in English and Hindi stapled together. The English and Hindi pieces run in parallel columns on every page, even on the website. An English reader, if familiar with the Devanagari script, could sentence by sentence, learn Hindi over a period of time, and pretty idiomatic language too. In the process, he or she would also get an insight into some very complicated caste discourse. That, in fact, was the whole point when the magazine was being thought through. Ivan Kostka signs his editorials wearing a Mahatma Phule turban in the Hindi one, and his casual “western” attire in the English editorial.

Mapping the common ground between the two is a more difficult task. It goes beyond the political discourse of Mayawati, or of the Lohiaite positioning in Eastern India. Forward Press has been able to bring on board a rich stable of writers, and a slew of arguments and personalities who have shaped the political consciousness and articulation of the subaltern groups. When it shapes up, the web archives will be a rich mine of data on the subject.

Mahishasur made his full-blown buffalo-headed appearance as the incarnation of upper caste supremacist politics in a Forward Press cover story titled “Who are the Bahujans really worshipping?” in October 2011. Following this, some Bahujan students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University began to independently observe Mahishasur Martyrdom Day. Then in October 2014, the magazine revisited that story. For good measure, the now-iconic cover page of the magazine had an inset of Mary Kom, arguably the most prominent aspirational woman icon of tribal India – Central or North East.

Mahishasur made his full-blown buffalo-headed appearance in the Forward Press in this context, when the magazine celebrated him first in October 2011 and then in 2014 as the victim of Goddess Durga, presented as the incarnation of upper caste supremacist politics. For good measure, the now-iconic cover page of the magazine had an inset of Mary Kom, arguably the most prominent aspirational woman icon of tribal India – Central or North East.

Sangh target

Ivan Kostka had been in the cross-hairs of the Sangh Parivar almost from the first issue of the magazine because of what were perceived to be his Evangelical Christian connect. Anniversary functions of Forward Press, some held in the Constitution Club, had featured senior Opposition leaders such as Sharad Yadav. The writers, poets, journalists and activists present had been ruthless in their attack on caste hegemony and Brahmanism.

The 2014 Mahishasur cover story was the trigger. The Sangh’s mouthpieces sounded the bugle, its student and youth wings agitated, and the police cracked down. Long before intolerance and anti-national issues brought the Jawaharlal Nehru University to a boil, Delhi police went on a rampage in its Nehru Place office on October 9, 2014. They vandalised the cabins, and detained four staff members. The Mahishasur special was carted away to the police station.

The Kostkas went incommunicado to all but their closest confidantes. The magazine continued to be published though.

It is a shame that the journalistic fraternity did not align itself with the harried publishers and the magazine itself at the time of its most severe trial. It was largely left to its own devices. I would call it a betrayal.

My friend and senior colleague in Patriot and the Observer, Bhawa Nand Uniyal, in his now-historic column in The Pioneer published in 1996 exposed the utter absence of Dalits in the senior echelons of the national media – English and Hindi. Not that the situation has been much redressed by the passing of time. And while there is a visible, though seemingly reluctant, effort at investigating the Dalit universe, TV coverage alternates between the patronising and the cover up.

We need more than one Forward Press, in Bangla, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Marathi and in Punjabi. People seem to have forgotten that the land of the Badals has a large Dalit population, which faces violence as vicious as in any of the badlands of the East, or of central India.

The closure of the print magazine will be a backward step for Indian journalism.

Corrections and clarifications: This article was updated on March 18, 2016, to reflect the fact that the first story Forward Press ran on Mahishasura was in October 2011, not October 2014. The publisher of Forward Press has also clarified that the magazine has at no time joined student groups at Jawaharlal Nehru University in observing events on Mahishasur Martyrdom Day. The editorial staff of Forward Press will not work pro bono for the digital version of the magazine, as previously stated.

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