‘He was just a young man, his life was just lost in all of this,’ said a protester at Ramabai Nagar. His caste matters and doesn’t matter, the stranger who told the photographer this, didn’t care that the young man killed the day before was a Kunbi or a Maratha or a Dalit. One could say one learns from a member of an angry oppressed community, the Dalit people, the value of a single human life. Rahul Phantangale (28) was killed during the chaos that ensued when bigots attacked people returning home after the 200th year centenary of the Bhima Koregaon battle. Then 16 year old Yogesh Jadhav was killed across the state in Nanded on the same day as the protests at Ramabai Nagar, after a lathi-charge by the police.”
Videos clearly showing that there were no ‘clashes’, no ‘caste riot’ circulated on social media, at that time, no one really wrote that the the tomb of Mahar hero Govind Gaikwad was vandalized a few days earlier. The escalation of Dalit assertion and pride was bound to shut down the city, protester after protester spoke in anger about ‘nyay’, it was justice they were fighting for, while the rest of the city (mostly on twitter) was complaining about traffic and late trains, that the city being held in ransom, completely unaware that an entire people were held in ransom for centuries.
For a people so humiliated on a day to day basis, so deprived of economic power, treated like electoral chattel by ruling parties, who suffer molestation and rape, massacre after massacre, and the acquittal of most of their killers, it is a surprise that their anger was only directed against public property (and the occasional journalist) and not every and any member of the upper caste.
The protests on Tuesday and Wednesday, show that the state and the police were clearly told to not interfere, the Dalit movement has political strength, the power to scare a trigger happy administration, and the vote-hungry political parties. There were random incidents of violence and some skirmishes, the police had attacked one settlement of Siddharth colony in the night of Tuesday and even broken the legs of a young boy. Over 250 people were detained on Wednesday alone. There were reports of an attack from Shiv Sena activists on Dalit protestors at Powai and Kalyan, and the de-centralized protests were unanimously angry with every camera that they felt represents the mainstream media that does not give their issues coverage.
The representation in the mainstream media directly affected the relationship between the camera and the protest: there was a strong anger against any one holding the camera, and it was a pattern across the protests and witnessed by every photographer in this series: a clear sign that editorial practices of decades of misrepresentation, of the lack of diversity in newsrooms, can now directly affect the well-being of any cameraperson.
The ‘mainstream media’ itself was being represented through a lens of anger, in different places and with different people, the camera was recognized differently: in some places you were not television news, so you were accepted, in some places, you were known to the community leaders, in some places a little conversation was enough to be allowed to take photos again, in some places you were not allowed to even use the phone. This revolution does not want to be televised.
All the photographs in this series were shot by freelancers who depend upon public transport to work, therefore the work and images only attest to the following regions, where each photographer could move and travel: Chembur, Ghatkopar, Dadar, Powai, Malad and Bandra East, and is limited to the city of Mumbai. When protests took place across Maharashtra, they were thankfully documented by the community themselves and shared on social media.
The protests in both Chembur, Dadar and Malad were mostly peaceful albeit aggressive. There were no incidents of violence against either the happenstance commuter or the police.
The protests in Powai saw lathi-charges against protestors, there was a destruction of public and private property and the arrests and beatings of protestors by the police.
Disclaimer: Post the bandh in Mumbai, there were reports of numerous arrests and combing operations across the bastis across Maharashtra. Some of us wished to continue our documentation of the violence the state was now unleashing on the population, but these incidents were taking place in places that we did not have immediate contact with or were known to. We, therefore, had to depend upon third-party activists and lawyers, and we were all aware that a community that doesn’t trust the media anymore, will not trust us in ensuring their anonymity.
And the role of the camera here, to expose a known violent entity, and the clear caste bias of the state and the ruling classes (cue the response to the Karni Sena), seemed redundant. The state was doing it itself.
This essay hopes to remain a document of what was, and will be.
Hari Adivarekar is an independent photojournalist based in Bangalore & Mumbai