Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA) was started as a personal blog. Today, it is a huge public platform for young thinkers and writers. DU Beat was in conversation with the man behind YKA, Anshul Tewari who is the editor-in-chief and founder of this platform.
From losing writing competitions in middle school to winning the Young Innovator Award from the UN International Telecommunication Union in 2012, Anshul’s journey is one of perseverance and awe-inspiring growth.
Let’s see what he has to say about how his struggles at Delhi University, the success of YKA and the power of the youth today.
Q.1 Could you tell us a little about your journey? Why did you start YKA? Did you think it will become such a huge platform someday?
When I started YKA, I was 17. I wasn’t the best student in school, but I was heavily involved in extracurricular activities. I had started a blog where I would publish my diary entries and uninteresting poetry. My family read and watched a lot of news, and that had a great impact on me. I strongly felt that the representation of youth in the news landscape is missing, and even if it was there, the youth in such landscapes are patronized. So, when I was growing up, I wasn’t really sure if my voice mattered. I felt this pent-up frustration about how everybody says young people are important but no one really takes your opinion.
That is how YKA started – as a blog where I would voice my opinions, and slowly this platform changed to a public forum. I remember going to all my friends and asking them to read my blog, whenever I would post something new. However, the more I shared, the more I would get disappointed. We grow up in a culture of silence- where speaking up is not really encouraged. This realization led to my taking up journalism at Maharaja Agrasen College. I was working very hard to build YKA, I even remember printing posters and going from college to college publicizing the forum.
Initially, no one took me seriously. In 2008, e-journalism was not really a thing. My first few readers were my family members- mostly my mom (laughs). Slowly we started picking up.
Whoever would comment on our blog, I would ask them to write on YKA. That’s how I gathered the initial 100 readers.
Q.2 Today, since almost everyone has internet access- content creation is abundant. How does YKA manage to sustain despite so much competition?
There are two broad aims that we pursue throughout our venture. Media is not the outcome of what we do, it’s a path to what we want to get to. We don’t just associate ourselves to a journalism platform. We also run our own campaigns, fundraisers etc.
That’s what brings me to our second vision which is enabling more young people to speak up. We don’t want to work in areas where someone else has done a great job, or can do it better. We want to create new spaces. Most journalism platforms are just attached to traditional forms of journalism, while on the other end of the spectrum, there are organizations that are elitist in their approach. They have extremely polished content, and the rawness of the story goes for a six. This gives the impression to the readers that their content is specifically for urban English speaking people.
From a tactical point of view, we are the only platform which is bottom-up, where people have the freedom to write what they want. Not many platforms let you do that.
It’s different from other spaces which say – yes you can read – but you can’t create.
Q.3 Since you don’t have control over the content submitted, how does YKA deal with content that could run the risk of being “offensive”?
Like any democracy, YKA too has its constitution. Our community guidelines ensure we approach issues in a certain way. We do not let bad grammar or language come in the way of communication. At the same time, our platform will never advocate for ideas that are discriminatory in nature. If anything, we make an additional effort to represent minorities, and previously discriminated against communities on our platform, in our office etc.
It does happen sometime, that published content can be offensive to some, like when college students speak up against their administration. When the first legal order was released against a story on YKA, I was taken aback. But now it is normal, and we’re prepared for such scenarios.
Q.4 You have a policy of representation at YKA. For example, a trans-person is encouraged to write about their struggles, rather than a cis-gendered person writing about them. Could you elaborate on the rationale behind it?
It’s not like if you’re cis-gendered and writing about trans-folk, we will disapprove your content. But when we reach out to people for a particular issue, we try for people who are experiencing that issue first hand.
We realize that if we want YKA to be an inclusive space, we can’t speak for a community that is being marginalized. The best thing that we can do, is stepping aside and passing on the mic. The rest is up to the community on how they want to express themselves.
Tribal issues are a huge part of the kind of content we publish on YKA. To make sure we are doing our bit, we have partnered with a social media initiative called ‘Adivasi Lives Matter’. In this venture, we only have the Adivasis writing about their struggles. Similarly, for queer issues we created a platform called ‘CAKE’.
We take representation very seriously.
Q.5 Today, the youth faces a dilemma- they are asked to change the world – but don’t have the means to change it. What’s your opinion?
This problem was there when YKA started and still exists. We are pressurized to choose the right career path, be socially active and all that.
A young person‘s fundamental right to choose is taken away, because we as a society believe, that if someone is younger than us, then we have power over them. This power dynamic works phenomenally in families, schools, colleges. Anybody who is older, feels they have a right to tell you how you should approach your life. This entire problem comes from the thinking that a young person probably does not deserve the agency that they should.
That is a very systemic problem, you can’t solve it by creating youth advisory boards or youth committees. Just bring young people in your main advisory boards. Include them instead of separating.
I also feel this is rather South Asia specific. In India it’s amplified, because you have different communities and traditions. On top all of that, young people also grow up with this feeling of constant debt to their teachers, parents, guru etc. So they end up spending their entire life getting rid of that debt. And they never really get a chance to grow the way they want to.
Q.6 How did Delhi University contribute to making you the writer that you are today?
During my college life, I was never at college. I was always in a cybercafé, blogging on YKA. The three years I spent in college were terrible for me since I was subjected to bullying by my classmates. And the situation got much worse, when the institution that I was a part of refused to support me.
That transformed my personality and strengthened my resolve in YKA, because I realized the importance of speaking up. On the other hand, I was dealing with a situation where I was unable to speak up, so it made me empathize with those who couldn’t.
Having said all of that, I was active in AISEC and street theatre, there I interacted with diverse people. I also interned at several places like the Indian Express and the Wall Street Journal. When I worked at these organizations, I learnt a lot about how media works. That helped me strengthen my resolve to establish YKA even further.
Q.7 Writers are often called “arm chair activists”, and sometimes criticized for writing from safe spaces instead of coming to the field and raising a voice. What would you say to such critics?
I would tell them to please continue living under a rock. I don’t think there’s any point in arguing with people who believe that raising your voice on social media does not bring change. Look at #MeToo. It transformed the way we talk about sexual harassment and this movement was completely online. The internet gives you a safe space to write about what you really want. There are aspects of the internet that are not really that great, but in the end, the internet is a mirror of society. It’s not like it makes you bad. It just gives you that garb of anonymity.
I’m a strong proponent of having free and fair access to the internet. The biggest writers have been responsible for transforming ideas of generations. So yes, I do believe that those critics are living under a rock.
Q.8 Journalism is considered the fourth estate – something that can dethrone governments as well. In this context, what do you think about the current situation of freedom of speech in journalistic spheres?
I don’t think journalism is the fourth estate anymore, because it is the fourth pillar when it holds people accountable, not when it fails to hold them accountable. I completely agree that India is one of the most unsafe countries for journalists, especially if you are investigating people who are in positions of power.
And I don’t have a solution to this, but I do feel we need a transformation in the way people consume media. We need to bring change in these media landscapes, and that’s what YKA aims to do. It is critical that governments and people in power realize that when questions are asked, they’re not asked to dethrone you per say, they are asked to remind you of your duties and make you better at them.
Feature Image Credits: Medium