“Freedom of the press is a precious privilege that no country can forego. The sole aim of journalism should be service.” In his book India of My Dreams, Mahatma Gandhi expressed the power of the pen and its capacity to build or destroy. With this as a benchmark, how many journalists and media houses would stand the test? With this as a barometer would the growing number of independent voices on social media and online platforms be considered awakened? Or are we stuck somewhere in between, struggling to make sense of the chaos around us, making extraordinary efforts to understand how our lives are impacted by governance and politics?

One citizen’s voice has been catching all the right attention on this subject since its inception in early 2020. All Indians Matter is a platform that aims to start conversations with, about and on India. A combination of written columns and podcast commentaries and discussions, the platform is the effort of former journalist Ashraf Engineer whose aim is to simplify everyday issues for the everyday man, especially the youth.

Currently the Principal Consultant at Pitchfork Partners, Ashraf describes himself as a “Dad to an angel. Runner, boxer, home cook. Journalist earlier, communication consultant now, space cowboy soon. Host of the @allindiansmatter podcast.” Samira Pillai catches up with the creator of the series, Ashraf Engineer, to find out what prompted him to initiate the journey of All Indians Matter.

Congratulations on one year of All Indians Matter. Your journey so far has been very interesting, with one platform after the next picking up the podcast. Can you recollect a specific moment or an incident that prompted you to start this series?
LogoI was a journalist for about 17 years and my journalism links have remained alive even after I stopped working in newspapers. I kept writing for various publications both nationally and internationally and spoke on international radio as an India expert. The spark for All Indians Matter was that over the last six or seven years, I found that the news media had not been doing a good job of bringing issues alive for people, of being objective, of speaking truth to power. I just felt that the media had failed completely. Having been a journalist for so long, the pain of this failing was personal to me.

My response to this was All Indians Matter. In late 2019, I decided to go ahead, got my website designed and running, and finally launched it in February 2020. It is a website dedicated to commentary, opinions, columns that intend to bring alive issues for everyday people in layman’s terms – people who don’t have the time to actually research but rely on the media for understanding. For example, if there’s a high government debt to GDP ratio, then it’s not something that people understand, or they don’t understand how it affects them. If there are three farm laws that are a problem, then people understand that farmers are protesting. But people don’t understand how it personally affects them, how it affects their day-to-day expenses, how it affects food security in the country.

I have also been very clear about the audience. I have been teaching since 2004, and when I go into my classes, I find that young people today are extremely keen to understand these issues and participate in the national debate. They want to do something, to make a change, but they do not have anybody that can explain matters to them or guide them. So with All Indians Matter, my audience is the 18 to 30-year-olds.

You mentioned that that six to seven years ago you started feeling that the media was not doing his job the way it should be. It is supposed to be the Fourth Estate and report on issues objectively. Where do you the think failing happened? What triggered it? Is it something that happened over time?
It happened virtually overnight. It happened with the change of government. When the first Modi government came into power is when we started seeing it – the clear stance that the media took in general. I am not saying, everybody. I am not saying all media houses or persons are like that. But we’ve only seen it growing worse. No matter what happens, the idea is to somehow project that the government is not at fault or that it is doing a good job. If there are lynchings happening, then the idea is to somehow blame the victims and say that it’s not really the fault of anybody in particular. If the economy is doing bad, then the idea is to make it seem the economy is doing good. If the government makes a statement saying everything is great, then there are no questions around it. But the facts clearly show that we are not doing great.

Why do you think it happened? And doesn’t this speak to the gullibility of the media or journalists fraternity?
No doubt about it. It’s not about gullibility – I think it’s about complicity, lack of spine, or the will to do the job that you’re supposed to do. As to why… it is something to ask the journalists. I stopped being a part of media houses in 2011, but it is a clear fact that it is happening.

Apart from breaking down the issues in layman’s terms, how does All Indians Matter, hope to address the gap left by journalists?
WebsiteThat’s exactly what we are doing. If media persons were actually doing this then laypeople like me wouldn’t have to do it. Remember that All Indians Matter is not my bread and butter. The website doesn’t have any advertising. There is no subscription platform either. So there is no revenue. It is a personal project. 

All Indians Matter is making issues clear, speaking the truth, not being afraid to talk about people in power, to criticize people in power, to name people in power when criticizing them. If you read any published column or listen to any podcast, I haven’t been afraid to talk about things. It is ironic that I am a single person, a single citizen of this country without any institutional support. Media houses are institutions, journalists have institutional support. I have none of that. If I can do it then why can’t they?

Can you take us through the process of how you go about selecting the topics that you speak on or invite expert contributions on?
It is largely defined by the news. For example, if the farmer’s bill comes out, I write about it. Or if the budget is out, then I analyze the budget. But it is not always news-driven. If you look at the podcast, for example, I’ve talked about learning outcomes and how India can improve learning outcomes from the schools. That was not really any news but it’s an important issue. I’m happy to address important issues. For example, I interviewed an acid attack victim. There was no recent acid attack incident – these attacks happen all the time in India. Having said that, I knew it’s an important issue because India has one of the largest numbers of cases on the board, but the lowest proportions of justice delivered on in these cases. Even when it comes to government schemes for compensation, for support, there is no delivery on it. It’s very poor. If you just look at the numbers – and these haven’t come from me, they are the government’s numbers – then I say it should make everybody sit up and take notice. This is the failure of the media. All this information is in the public domain. So why didn’t the media pick it up and talk about it?

All Indians Matter has steady growth since its inception and it’s gone on to a lot of platforms. Please take us through the whole journey and your feelings around it.
Guest PodcastWe launched with some great people writing for it. Ranjona Banerji, who is a senior columnist and my senior at MidDay, Sujata Anandan, one of India’s top political columnists, Tushar Gandhi who is the great-grandson of the Mahatma all agreed to write for All Indians Matter when I launched. From the very beginning, I was overwhelmed by the amount of goodwill the platform attracted. Their enthusiasm was clear and none of them took one penny from me. They all contributed because of my relationship with them and because they felt that this was important. Even the goodwill and enthusiasm from the people who read the columns – they wanted to know more, to be part of it – especially young people. That was really the validation that I needed. That was a greater source of satisfaction and joy.

It kept growing of course. The content kept flowing onto the website. Then in July of last year [2020], Aditya Kuber, who co-founded IdeaBrews Studio and is in the new media space, particularly audio, called me up and suggested that I expand All Indians Matter into a podcast. Aditya was my colleague in journalism at the Maharashtra Herald. So on Independence Day Eve, the podcast launched. Since then we have recorded well over 50 episodes. Initially, it started with me doing commentary. By September, we had started getting guests on board. As of today, we have one interview per week on a particular issue and one commentary by me every week.

In terms of challenges, it has been at a personal level… to just find the time and energy. My day job is really demanding and I have to take the time and space to research and write because every episode has to be scripted. If I’m interviewing somebody then I have to do a lot of research on the subject for my questions also to make sense. The other challenge is that we want to sustain it, so in the long run, we have to monetize it – we are working towards that now.

With your background in journalism and current engagement with Pitchfork Consulting in the brand communication space, I am sure there has been a cross-application of skills. Can you shed some light on that?
PodcastThat’s a great question. My journalism experience is what this whole effort is founded on. It’s a journalistic exercise. But over the last 10 years, what the brand communication industry has taught me more than anything else is to understand your audience. I was very clear from the beginning that I wanted to reach the people in my classrooms – the 18 to 30 age group. It helps me choose my topics, do my research and then write them a particular way. One of the most important podcasts I did was on the jobs crisis in India after the COVID-19 pandemic as it directly relates to the youth.

Another thing brand communications taught me was to talk in the language that your audience will understand. So even if I’m talking about economics, something like the budget, I’m very careful to not be too technical about it. Even if I have to use a technical term, then I break it down into simple language in a way that anybody can understand.

The third thing it taught me is the value of time. I cannot do a three-hour podcast because people won’t listen. It has to be compact. So my commentary podcasts are around 7-10 minutes long, and the interviews, because they are conversations, are about 35 to 40 minutes. We looked at the analytics of various times of the shows that I’ve done and realized that 35 to 40 minutes is the sweet spot and we’ve stuck to that.

You have previously authored a book, Bricks of Blood. Do you see All Indians Matter taking on more avatars in the future? It started as a website, moved to a podcast… any plans for a book?
I don’t know about the book, but definitely events. When I launched, in fact, I knew that I wanted to take it offline as well – conclaves, panel discussions. Though events are a different ballgame altogether because you need funding, logistics, event agencies and all of that. But that’s a little into the future. All Indians Matter has a long way to go before it can branch into that. The lockdown has shown us though, that events can happen even electronically.

Teaching has been a big part of your career and you have mentored journalists even in your journalism years. Do you have any plans to mentor more conscientious citizens to initiate a dialogue similar to All Indians Matter?

Xavier's Class'16

Xavier Institute of Communication: Class of 2016

Happily. What I am doing right now is nothing new. It’s what journalism was always about. It’s what I did for 17 years. It’s just that stopped happening in the last six or seven years, which is why I started doing this. If somebody reaches out to me and says we want to tap your mind; I’ll be very happy to do that. As far as the podcasting bit is concerned, I have already done a couple of workshops. Various things are possible in the future I still want to work on the website and the podcast a little bit more before I kind of branch off.

What is your vision for the future of All Indians Matter? What do you want to accomplish with this in the next few years? What do you want it to stand for?
I don’t want to sound extraordinarily grand because I am just a single guy with a small venture. If it results in even a small section of our young people being more enlightened about our national issues, understanding issues, getting vocal about it, questioning, starting debates, having conversations about it, then All Indians Matter would have accomplished its purpose. I want to reiterate that if the media houses were doing this, I wouldn’t have needed to do this at all. I left journalism because I wanted to leave journalism. I had no plans for doing something like this. But maybe someday we’ll hopefully go back to a golden age of media where an effort like All Indians Matter is not required.

Because I happen to know you, I know that there are many facets to you. There’s the brand strategist at Pitchfork. There is a foodie. I love your food posts. I keep going back to them on @brashinthepan. And then of course there is All Indians Matter. There is also the dad who loves running and boxing and your daughter who has been a point of conversation in your posts very often. So just trying to understand – what makes up Ashraf? How are these personalities different? Do they blend into each other, contribute to each other. Some insight into this…
I think you could say fatherhood is the most important thing I will ever do. It doesn’t matter if I become the King of the world tomorrow – it will be the most important function I perform. That said, my focus on fitness has made my mind far more agile and made me far more aware of the world around me. It helps me think better. It helps me think more, be sharper. Collectively, each one of these aspects of my life has actually made me enjoy all the other aspects a lot more. I focus so much on health. I enjoy my cooking a lot more, fatherhood a lot more. I have the energy for All Indians Matter – it keeps me mentally stimulated. I really look forward to the gym, the boxing class. They all fit like pieces of the jigsaw into my life and feed into each other. 

I don’t know if it sounds idealistic, but certainly, All Indians Matter was my way of trying to make a better world for my daughter. So when she goes out into this world (she’s almost 18 now) I want this to be a better world, a better country for her and people like her. That’s a huge driving force for me in All Indians Matter.

Our Takeaways from the Interview

All Indians Matter

Are you looking for a platform that talks about issues that truly matter? You should visit All Indians Matter at allindiansmatter.in or converse with Ashraf on Twitter @allindianscount!

Published On: February 26th, 2021 / Categories: Changemakers, Interviews /