Tehelka Profiles Video Volunteers, founded by AIF Clinton Fellowship Alumnus Jessica Mayberry

Unheard. Unseen. Untouched.

A new video initiative could jolt our apathy and sensitise us to Dalit atrocities, says Janani Ganesan

The video clip is one minute long. The camera zooms on a group shouting instructions in the midst of confusion. There’s been an accident. Two bodies, alive or dead, are being hauled from a manhole. They are covered in excreta, hairballs, sewage filth. The image is so strong it carries the raw stench. A hosepipe spews water with such force at the limp form of one of the men that his T-shirt rides up.

Jai Kumar, 34, of Ludhiana, Punjab, who filmed this scene, says Dalit labourers suffocating in manholes is not an uncommon sight here.

The brief clip may have been a long blur if it made it to national television. Or reduced to a statistic with reports of similar incidents. Or discussed animatedly by a commentator on a split screen, distanced from the horror. Or even depicted sensitively by a passionate and empathetic reporter.

But Kumar does not step into the camera frame. Though a Dalit himself, he lets the incident speak without him interceding. Within the same 60 seconds, the scene shifts to another person arriving for work at the same manhole, a few days later. “You should be covering your nose with a mask,” Kumar’s voice says, in a slight intervention for safety. “I don’t know anything about that,” answers the new labourer.

This short clip is one from a video series put together by Dalits across the country. The series has been created by members of Video Volunteers (VV), a non-profit founded by Goa-based couple, filmmaker K Stalin and social media entrepreneur Jessica Mayberry in 2003. Their release is slated to coincide with Ambedkar Jayanti on 14 April.

Says Stalin, “The media always covers stories that are already events. We wanted to push the lives of these people and their realities to the mainstream.” Professor Robin Jeffrey, author of India’s Newspaper Revolution, has written on how the mainstream media has excluded Dalits based on a 2006 survey finding — among more than 300 senior journalists in 37 Hindi and English newspapers and television channels in the capital city, none were from the SC/ST community. This absence of representation of almost a quarter of the population, means that the community is accustomed to having others speak on their behalf.

Video Volunteers wants to give that community its own voice. And so we hear women in Rajnandgaon in Chhattisgarh tell the viewer, “When the baby is born, it is taken to the hospital to be weighed, but no one touches it.” Dalits in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu, say, “They won’t allow us to bury our dead in this church.”

M Mani, a 25-year-old Dalit, has worked with VV in Chennai for two years as a community correspondent for their programme called India Unheard, which uploads one video daily from correspondents across the country. His mother does domestic work in a Brahmin house. He says, “Even though they were kind to me, they insisted we use separate utensils to eat and drink water from.” This is a caste atrocity, as is the death of the sewage workers in Punjab.

Mani was threatened by an uppercaste group in Chengalpattu when he tried to capture on camera the murder of a grave-digger who buried a Dalit in an upper-caste church. “I told them I won’t use the video anywhere. But I came back home and immediately sent the video to VV,” he says, excited to find a first forum of protest.

Stalin and Jessica have significant experience with protest. Stalin has helped draft the Community Radio Policy and campaigned extensively for the right of communities to launch stations. He has also been the Convener of Community Radio Forum. Jessica arrived from the US in Ahmedabad on a fellowship with the American India Foundation to train rural women in filmmaking. Stalin had also created documentaries like India Untouched and Lesser Humans on caste and untouchability.

About choosing topics for the videos, the one sphere in which VV offers direction, Stalin says, “Sometimes our trained volunteers come up with their own ideas to shoot. But sometimes we point issues out to them that need to be covered.” This allows them to embark on scaled projects like their current one on untouchability modelled as a national survey.

Stalin concedes that community radio has not met expectations because of fluctuating funds. Technology has come to the rescue of VV. Basic flip cameras can be bought for under Rs 10,000 while setting up a radio station needs a minimum seed fund of Rs 10 lakh. These lowered costs raised VV’s ambitions and 45 volunteers were recruited across the country. When a national news channel bought their content, it signalled hope that VV voices would be heard widely.

VV has also found an ally in actor Abhay Deol, who is now their ambassador. While his work hasn’t previously engaged with caste, Jessica recognises his passion, “I saw Abhay give a TED talk about why Bollywood is unable to make movies on subjects that would matter. He is very committed and turns up for every press meet we have.” Though appointing a spokesperson for a project intended to give the voice back to a community is questionable, a star like Deol is a way to broadcast and engage with a larger audience.

Mani says when he shared his videos with panchayat leaders, they blamed it on tradition and washed their hands off the issues. VV believes that taking these videos to the National Commission on Scheduled Castes will begin the process of sensitisation and empathy. “Beyond that, it is up to the society to question the lawmakers and keepers about their effectiveness,” says Stalin. And this may happen, when their site gets more than the current 30,000 hits a month. www.videovolunteers.org

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