Dalit voices, loud and clear

BY AMRIT DHILLON| IN Media Practice | 02/02/2016
The YouTube channel, Dalit Camera Ambedkar, captures events and emotions the mainstream media has no time for.

Dalit Camera Ambedkar video of a protest meet was held in Hyderabad Press Club on 10 November, 2015


If future historians of dalit outrage want to see footage of the anger, protests, vigils, speeches, songs, and hunger strikes that have marked Rohit Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad, an archive is springing up right before their eyes on the YouTube channel, Dalit Camera Ambedkar where about 110 videos have been uploaded under the tag ‘Justice for Rohit Vemula’.

The stated purpose of the channel is: Capturing Stories that Others Choose to Hide. The founder of Dalit Camera Ambedkar, Ravichandran Bathran, 34, launched it two years ago while he was a student at Hyderabad to document the experiences of dalits which are invariably ignored by the mainstream media.  

As it happened, Vemula’s suicide, for various reasons, has been extensively covered by the media but that is merely the exception that proves the rule. On any other normal day, the life of a dalit remains obscure.  

‘As a student, I didn't have the means to start a newspaper or television channel. But what I could do was to film instances of discrimination. When we hear of an atrocity, we interview the victim, put up whatever raw footage we have, record dalits' opinions and upload the video,'' said Bathran.

The videos are varied. They can range from a recording of Arundhati Roy talking about Ambedkar’s The Annihiliation of Caste, a stirring new song about dalit oppression, their right to eat beef, a talk on how Dr Ambedkar can be neither adopted nor appropriated by Hindutva forces, the murder of 20 Tamil coolies in Chittoor, dalits attacked for entering a temple in Coimbatore, the politics of upper caste teachers, or a random clip of a schoolboy travelling on top of a bus in Hyderabad and saying with a big confident grin ‘We are not inferior to anyone’.

A former doctoral student of English at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad, Bathran’s channel has become a rallying point for the community, with its videos generating debate on dalit social media.

The idea of a YouTube channel came to him after he was attacked by 20 upper-caste students and Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members on campus in 2008 for being too ''bolshie'' as a student leader. He was trying to decide how to deal with the humiliation when he heard that a dalit woman sarpanch known only as Khrishnaveni had been so brutally attacked by upper-caste villagers outside Hyderabad that she would be unable to walk for several months.

'I borrowed a handycam from a friend and went and interviewed her. We filmed people who described how the upper castes had stopped her functioning. She wasn't even allowed to sit in a chair during meetings,'' he said. 

Since then, Bathran and some of his fellow activists have been filming and uploading videos. The videos are not edited, deliberately. One reason is shortage of money – editing, scripting and voiceovers cost money and Dalit Camera Ambedkar has hardly any. Another is his desire to record events and interviews and leave them as they are - authentic, untouched footage for people to view as they wish and make whatever they want of it.  

However language is a limitation. Most of the videos are filmed in Hyderabad because that is where Bathran’s colleague and lone volunteer, Dharmateja LV, lives. Dharmateja works as a software engineer and is able to go out and film only at weekends. Some recent videos have been translated from Telugu to English.  

What Dalit Camera Ambedkar can do is severely limited by money. After starting off with one camera, it now has five, mainly funded by well-wishers. But who has the luxury of time to swan around filming events and interviews at their own expense? Bathran and Dharmateja try to do as much as they can but filming means taking time out from your normal routine, travelling somewhere by bus or train, paying for meals on the road, and other expenses.

Earlier, as a student and activist, Ravichandran used to have at least the time, if not the money, but his circumstances have changed. He has become a householder. He has a wife to support along with his elderly parents who financed his education with great difficulty from loans and their salaries as sweepers. He is also a research scholar now at Shimla and wants to give his work his best. 

‘I have my family responsibilities,’ he told The Hoot. ‘A friend once told me that dalits become emotionally drained from reacting to so many atrocities and injustices. They get sidetracked and their academic work suffers. I am conscious of this and trying to focus on my academic work.  Dalit Camera cannot react to every single event or crime, particularly as there are now several other dalit platforms also making a contribution such as Round Table India.’

Bathran says that he needs to get a job, not just to support his family but to have some income to put into Dalit Camera Ambedkar. After all, as he says, who will be prepared at some point in the future to sponsor or fund the channel if he himself has no money of his own to put into it?  

While the amount of time he currently spends on the channel has lessened, his long term aim is to make it sustainable. Funding will be required but he has no desire to ‘beg’ from anyone and is wary of corporate funding. As and when he manages to find some funding, he plans to expand the channel’s scope to include live events such as a weekly debate. But that is about one to two years down the road.    

For the moment, Bathran’s sole concern is to chronicle the lives of dalits.  The importance of this task cannot be overstated. Other dalit leaders such as Chandra Bhan Prasad feel that much of dalit history – the food they ate, their celebrations, their clothes, their different musical instruments (they were not allowed to play certain kinds), their traditions – are dying out. 

No one has preserved what little might still remain in the artefacts, utensils, photographs and jewellery scattered in homes across the country and in the memories of elderly dalits. When I met Prasad last year (to discuss the beef controversy), he told me that it is for this reason that he is working to create a Dalit Museum.   

Their history and culture – as felt, lived, experienced and understood by them – are vanishing. Slavery, with a total of around 12 million slaves shipped from Africa to the New World, has its museums; Wikipedia lists over 70 in the US. But the lives of 160 million dalits have only rarely been documented for posterity.

Even now, popular culture has no dalit icons. There is no dalit TV anchor, no dalit model, and no dalit star in Bollywood. Ordinary lives are mostly ignored. In 2012, the year of the infamous gang rape of Jyoti Singh, the official figures showed that 1,574 dalit women were raped. This was not deemed to be news.

Although he is holding off a bit from Dalit Camera Ambedkar right now owing to other pressing commitments, about 18 months ago Ravichandran told me: ''If everyone starts filming what is happening to dalits, just imagine the impact we can have. The camera has become a tool for our self-respect.''


(Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist in New Delhi).




The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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