I hadn’t planned on filming anything. Making a video never seemed like an option in a situation like this. I was about to witness sheer destruction from the worst caste riots that Tamil Nadu had seen in decades. I didn’t want to be an intrusive American documenting people’s suffering for the sake of a Youtube video. I didn’t feel capable of visually reconstructing a story of hierarchy, hatred, and violence in a place I barely knew.
On December 13th, I joined my co-workers on a relief mission to three Dalit villages in the Dharmapuri District. I was very familiar with the cold facts surrounding the situation in this region. On November 7th, a mob of 2500 Vanniyars – members of the locally-dominant caste group – had attacked Natham Village, Anna Nagar, and Kodampatti Village. Over the course of five hours, houses, property, and lives were systematically destroyed.
Villagers were able to avoid direct violence by fleeing their homes as the mobs approached. From the distance, they saw their possessions and livelihoods go up in smoke.
Initial reports claimed the riots were spontaneous. Apparently, many Vanniyars were angry when a Dalit boy, Ilvarasan, married a Vanniyar girl, Divya. After local Vanniyar leaders ordered the couple to separate, Divya’s father – who initially accepted this intercaste marriage – committed “suicide” due to public shame. (However several journalists, social workers, and academics have questioned the mysterious events surrounding this “suicide.” Some have even alleged that Divya’s father was murdered by leaders of his own caste group.)
Upon hearing news of the Divya’s father’s death, rage quickly spread through the Dharmapuri’s Vanniyar population. Soon after, the destruction began.
My colleagues and I do not believe that this was a spontaneous riot. We fail to comprehend how 2500 people could assemble with a single purpose in less than an hour. We cannot imagine how a raging mob would have the foresight to tear down trees and generate other well-constructed roadblocks to prevent relief services – including police and fire vehicles – from helping the innocent victims. And we seriously doubt that this group of people would casually have hundreds of petrol bombs at their immediate disposal if they hadn’t pre-planned a violent attack.
What was most striking was the way this mob targeted signs of material wealth in these villages. The Dalits in Dharmapuri have been able to improve their economic conditions in recent decades by securing wage labor in Bangalore and Chennai. But their vehicles, television sets, school books, sewing machines, jewelry, bank statements, and money – all signs of upward mobility – had been stolen, dismantled, or torched to the ground. In many cases, only these items were targeted while other forms of property were left untouched.
On this particular mission, my job was to document relief efforts by taking photographs. As people received their clothes, school supplies, stoves, and bedding, I took their picture. There were practical reasons for this. Donors and government officials needed proof that victims actually received these basic commodities. And the villages’ leaders – who played a critical role in the organization of this effort – could refer to these pictures to make sure that every family received their share.
I arrived in Natham Village hours before we started distributing goods. Rather than sitting idle, I started snapping pictures of people unloading items from two large lorries. As I meandered away from the trucks to a well-worn pathway, a middle-aged woman, who was standing nearby, began chatting with me. And then another two came. And then three more. Before I knew it, all of these women began describing the riot on November 7th and its aftermath. They talked about Ilvarasan and Divya. They spoke of structural damage to their homes and their inability to cook food for over a month. They also described the acrid smell of burnt petrol, which overpowered the air in their homes for weeks after the attacks.
A few of the women asked me to follow them. They wanted to show me their homes so that I could witness the damage with my own eyes. As we walked through ash, debris, and shattered glass, they pointed out specific items – broken tv’s, torched bureaus, etc. – and asked me to photograph them. One woman showed me a bag full of burnt 500 rupee notes. These images were simultaneously stunning and haunting. But the women were insistent that I keep photographing their ruined homes. It’s almost as if they wanted these photos – taken weeks after journalists had left the area – to tell the world that they are still suffering. Dalits in Natham Village would eventually rebuild their lives to some degree, but they didn’t want others to forget the violence they had faced.
In one particular room, which had clearly been bombed, I asked one of the women, “Record-pannu mudiyamaa? (“Can I record?”) She encouraged me to do so. At that moment, I clicked the record button that I had intended to avoid. Before long, I started gathering more clips with the consent of my new guides. And from there, I decided to shoot more footage of the relief efforts.
It was a long, exhausting day. By the evening, my camera’s battery had died and my memory card was full. But I didn’t know what to do with the footage. I sat on it for weeks, wondering how I could assemble it. I faced doubts. Was this really my story to tell?
I’m not sure it is.
However, the people who encouraged me to gather footage did so with the understanding that I would share these images with others. I felt the need to do my incredibly small part in helping the world understand the daunting challenges confronting Dalits in Natham village, weeks after the November 7th attacks. And I hope my work shows that recovery – though an excruciatingly slow and painful process – can happen, even in the darkest of times.