Man is to be seen as a “glorious thing made of stardust”, wrote 26 year old Rohith Vemula, in his suicide note. On Jan 18, 2016, while the fervour of New Year celebrations was still in the air, the sky with its constellations and eternal vibrations went out for the young PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) when he hanged himself following a 12-day campus protest against institutional ostracisation. Subsequently, strong feelings of disbelief, grief, anger and agitation among students and sympathisers came together in one loud statement: Dalits and the minorities of India are still the worst discriminated groups in the country, even in the 21st century.
Dalit Camera, an activist platform in an audio-visual medium, has been showcasing the terrible discrimination the Dalit population faces in India on an institutional and socio-religiously sanctioned basis. In effect, Dalit Camera is all but a handheld video recording device that its users carry from venue to venue recording spontaneous meetings or interviews, without a ready script. The term Dalit refers to the “untouchables” who are deemed the lowest social group in India’s largest religious segment, the Hindu society. At one end of the spectrum are the Brahmins who take up learning, performing temple duties, and other “higher” professions; at the other the Dalits who work mostly as manual labourers, sanitation workers, funeral area aids, landless farmers, maids and servants. Dalit Camera, as an activist forum, engages in documenting the plight and fight of these social groups, staunchly adhering to Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s philosophy of caste annihilation.
Ambedkar was the principal architect of the Indian Constitution following the country’s independence from Great Britain. Born into a low-caste family, Ambedkar went on to become a well-known scholar, but continued to face social discrimination and maltreatment from his childhood onwards. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest thinkers that modern India has produced, Ambedkar embraced Buddhism later in life to register his protest against caste-ridden Hindu society. The present-day Dalits in India look up to Ambedkar and his work as their guiding path to social emancipation. Dalit Camera, being the eyes, ears and the voice of Ambedkarite socio-politics, aptly uses the documentary as a tool.
On a typical day, 33 year-old Ravichandran Bathran, founder member of Dalit Camera, is up and about with his devices to reach a spot where a meeting or sit-in is in progress or an interview lined up. Ravichandran, currently a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, has been up close to caste discrimination and segregation. Regarding the recent political unrest among Dalit students, he solemnly observes that Dalit lives should matter not in their death or loss alone, but in the time of their living, achieving and winning; recognised and celebrated thus.
“Past is our signature, unfortunately,” he says. “We must acknowledge the present.”
Dalit activists will strongly affirm that Rohith Vemula is unstoppable even in death. Ravichandran’s initiative Dalit Camera, which he calls an independent Dalit-led non-mainstream information channel, has captured more of the human aspect of this tragedy. The team went right up to the mourners and protestors who had gathered at UoH, demanding justice. Speaking to friends, as well as later recording Vemula’s mother, Dalit Camera highlighted the simmering unrest among students. Dalit Camera showcased the callous attitude of the university authorities and the police and focused on the protestors challenging the system.
“The recorded history of Dalit protests is always the past,” says Ravichandran outlining the process that Dalit Camera follows. “Somehow our emotions erupt only with the past tense, after a killing, a massacre, a suicide. We never came to a stage to protest day to day caste violence. This is what Dalit Camera seeks to address.”
Ravichandran says he finds history repeating itself, again and again, in the most possible sordid manner, whenever Dalit Camera gathers its resources and rushes to document the woes of the so-called lowest of lowest, as sanctioned by religion and society. For instance, in the recording of Ms. Krishnaveni, Panchayat President, Victim of Caste System, Dalit Camera shows how Krishnaveni has followed in the steps of former panchayat or village committee presidents who had been attacked for being Dalit. Her case stood out as an example of discrimination against Dalits as well as rural women leaders in general.
Born in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu state, Ravichandran says that there “the geography of the caste system is different from other region as regards the modes of discrimination that are in the flat land.” Each caste, he recalls from his childhood, had its own temple, ration shop, public school, and other shops. For example, the dominant caste in the Niligiri District is the Badaga, who mostly live at the top of the hill or on flat ground while Dalits live near river streams or places prone to landslides or in waste lands. Consequently, the hills make subtle any public discourse of caste discrimination within this geography, according to Ravichandran.
“My father used to say that when upper caste Hindus wanted to clean their toilet they would call him to come through the back door. Also, in case he needed water while working, there would be a coconut shell kept near the toilet.”
On another occasion, Ravichandran’s father narrated to the family being called to work as a cleaner when the police found a decayed murdered body in a ditch. Even after consuming a full bottle of alcohol the police provided, the smell of the terrible task did not leave him. “And for the first time that night he told my mother that our children should not get into this profession.”
Ravichandran continued going to school and on to higher education. For him, this meant more hardships as he tried to veer away from the stranglehold of the Hindu caste system. Ravichandran’s father was a sweeper in Kotagiri Town Panchayat – he worked as a light boy at a photo studio to sustain his education. “However, they never let me operate the video camera,” he recalls.
Today, the Dalit Camera team does not want to claim any credits about changing the discourse of the Dalit movement in India. In this digital age, it hopes to bring the movement to the foreground. The team believes in using a simple recording device to preserve incidents and developments around the caste narrative in India for generations of activists and scholars to study and observe.
Georgy Roy has also been with Dalit Camera since its inception and worked alongside Ravichandran in editing and uploading the videos. He recalls his own experience of growing up on the tea estates of Kerala where he observed the dominant caste attitude against Tribals or Adivasis residing in the estates and forests. A Syrian Christian, he found out more about injustices meted out to Dalits and Adivasis during his early student days.
“My first encounter with Dalit Camera came after my Masters where, spurned by the university discourse on caste, I was arguing with everyone back home — in the streets, at tea shops. This resulted in my being seen as a perpetual trouble maker. I realised then that if one has to make a substantial contribution then one has to have a proper outlet to it. This is when I took my first video for Dalit Camera,” says Roy.
Thereafter followed a series of interviews where Ravichandran busied himself collecting funds for the venture while Roy worked on producing the videos featured on Youtube.
“One thing I understood was that it was not as cosy as I had imagined: taking videos, burning them into discs, and sending them to Ravi, as I didn’t have Internet.”
Roy’s own activism was mainly based in Kerala where he worked for the land movements, met leaders like CK Janu and Sunny Kapikad who led the historic Muthanga struggle, covered seminars, and worked with Rekharaj on feminism.
Both Ravichandran and Roy are deeply aware of the background that Dalit Camera springs from – essentially, a spirit of discussion and dissemination. The title “Dalit Camera”, as an entity to symbolise anti-caste activism, came about in 2012. Dr. Sudhershan Balaboina, an Osmania University scholar, gave the name, and it initially functioned as an activism platform particularly for Osmania University scholars.
The radical nature of Dalit Camera has not been limited to student protests alone, but it reaches out for social transformation through an ideological transformation. It is the cultural hegemony of the dominant castes that Dalit Camera constantly challenges. Examples of some of these narratives are celebrating beef eating as sustenance for Dalits and Tribals; commemorating the legacy of Narakasura; petitioning the State Human Rights Commission that Deepawali festival hurts the sentiments of Dalits and Tribals, and many such socio-cultural issues.
Ravichandran cites his past as a student at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages (CIEFL), Hyderabad, in 2004, to put in perspective the functioning of Dalit Camera.
“Since this place was very elite and I, like many Dalits and Tribals, found solace in anti-caste thoughts. It is here the activists enquired about me and asked me to become who I am. My parents, especially my mother, tried making sure all her life I will not be a “chakkiliyar”, and she named me “Ravichandran”, a Sanskrit term that meant sun and moon… I started to look for the same roots that my parents wanted me to be away from.”
The chakkiliyar, an abject low caste in the hierarchy of the Hindu society, became the subject of query for Ravichandran. Especially when he found out that even today, they are heavily discriminated against and barred from education and other social benefits.
During his Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) research on the chakkiliyars, anti-caste faculties organised a discussion and invited intellectuals from Tamil Nadu state to address the issue.
“We officially recorded the speech and uploaded only parts of it owing to technical difficulties. This is the first video that was available on Arunthathiyars in 2008,” says Ravichandran.
Roy and Ravichandran confirm that many anti-caste activists and their sacrifices don’t get noticed because the mainstream electronic and the print media do not give coverage to these activists. Dalit Camera steps in to fill the void.
“Not saying we successfully did it. But this initiation led to many YouTube channels to emerge. We at least covered a quite few videos from the state of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Kerala,” says Ravichandran.
Dalit Camera deliberately avoids the path of the traditional media. It is not a news channel but one that wants to remain in its chosen niche, and seek out stories on Dalits and Tribals and exclusively their tribulations and triumphs, asserts Ravichandran.
“There is no need for us to go where NDTV (a mainstream electronic channel) goes. They anyway will not cover our story in depth with empathy. It is we who tell our story,” Ravichandran says. “We’ve never crossed one single challenge that actually is there in the anti-caste movement. I think it will take a long time to come for us to even face challenges. Till date we haven’t faced one because we are not prepared yet.”
In a very fluid manner, Dalit Camera began by simply approaching topics in caste discrimination. “No long term agenda, it started just to record and upload. Many started looking at the venture as a channel of archive, news, information. But for me it is just a mode of communication,” says Ravichandran.
Roy considers his work having more affinities towards archiving. Although he feels he is playing the role of a mere journalist or archivist who sells hope, Roy believes that if real hope has to come it’s when the people see a future in these movements that “we have been lucky enough to bring up”. For Roy and Ravichandran the experience of this brand of activism is fulfilled when in the end people react to the subject and problems at hand.
For the public and the core supporters of Dalit Camera alike, there is no copy right over the videos that are uploaded. Initially, named after Ravichandran Bathran, the YouTube videos of Dalit Camera are now available to all as Dalit Camera Ambedkar. And indeed they uphold Dr Ambedkar’s thought: ‘the emancipation of the mind and the soul is a necessary preliminary for the political expansion of the people’. Dharma Teja, the third team member, shot most of the Dalit Camera videos.
It remains a lamentable fact, however, says Ravichandran, that issues on Dalit and minorities come to limelight “only once you die.”
Roy echoes similar sentiments.
“At a time when freedom is itself considered a commodity something which you can buy from a shop … my question is, what can Rohith’s life and death tell us? It tells me that freedom or to be free is to take a risk where everything around you says you are unfree.”
The most recent incidents of police action and the arrest of students in one of India’s best known campuses – Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) – accused of “sedition” by the government; attacks and aggressions against Muslims and Tribals, and more such incidents have prompted Dalit Camera to step up its game. The platform has added more recordings of statements and actions that defend students’ rights, freedom of speech, and Dalit sentiments against these recent human rights infractions.
At the end of it all, for Ravichandran, Roy and the others, it remains a job to be done without letting any judgment tint their lens. While opinions mount on issues related to justice for Dalit and minorities, in scores of cases yet to be heard properly by the Indian judiciary or media, these activists just slip on their walking shoes, a shirt and sling on their bag of equipment and quietly begin filming at the spot. They want to remain focused on finding narratives of survival, of fighting back and rising from the ashes of discrimination.
Nabina Das is the author of two volumes of fiction and two collections of poetry. Her latest is The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped (2014), a collection of short stories. Her debut novel Footprints in the Bajra (2010) was long-listed for the 2011 Vodafone Crossword Book Award. Nabina’s debut poetry collection Blue Vessel (2012) was cited as one of the best poetry books of the year by poet Sudeep Sen in New Indian Express, while the most recent volume Into the Migrant City (2013) was listed as one of the top 11 poetry reads of 2014 by Scroll news magazine. Nabina is a journalist and media person by professional training and, with an MFA from Rutgers University, she teaches creative writing in universities and independent workshops.