Filming Destruction (and Recovery)

My “guides” for the day assess the damage of a home, six weeks after the Dharmapuri riots.

 

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.

The hall of a Dalit home in Natham Village. The rioters burned the contents of the bureau before knocking it over.

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.

A pile of burnt clothes, books, and bank statements.

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 woman holds up a charred 500 rupee bill.

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.

 

Ted comes to the AIF fellowship with a passion for performance, human rights advocacy, and gender equality in India. After graduating from Kenyon College with a degree in International Studies, Ted served as a Fulbright Scholar in South India. There, he researched the social movement of the Thirunangai (Tamil Transgender) community, focusing on the ability of community leaders and activists to utilize creative technology and event programming to promote their agenda to the public. During his tenure as a Fulbright fellow, Ted had the opportunity to present his research and also perform Karagattam - a South Indian folk dance that he studied since 2003 - at various conferences and Fulbright alumni association events in India, Pakistan, and Nepal. After returning to the United States and spending a year as a Marketing Associate at the Corporate Executive Board in Washington, D.C., Ted was named a Peace Fellow by The Advocacy Project. As a Peace Fellow, Ted spent six months working with the Jagaran Media Center, a Dalit rights advocacy organization in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he helped revitalize their print media division and led creative projects profiling the arts of lower caste communities. Ted is currently a 4th year candidate in the Department of Anthropology at American University.

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6 thoughts on “Filming Destruction (and Recovery)

  1. Ted, it was worth the wait. I agree with you that it’s incredibly important for us and the rest of the world to actually see the images and here the accounts that you heard, especially when the journalists have left. It’s what victimized populations always say, whether they are victims of nature or man-made violence: the world forgets us when the cameras leave.
    I feel as if almost every young Indian person that I know here has faced or is facing familial/social opposition for some reason or another, and the story you tell is a terrifying example of what can transpire in the expectation and enforcing of that opposition.

  2. Ted, the work you are doing is impacting more lives then you know. Keep up the good work. We appreciate you for giving a first hand report of this and other atrocities that the news channels would hesitate to report. These efforts by you and other NGOs would instill more confidence in them while helping them to rebuild after the devastation. Laudable effort.
    Veda, Asha, and Nikhil

  3. Amazing story and so well written and powerful. I look forward to seeing many more such fantastic projects in the future. It is so nice to see someone who really takes the time to get to the real story and the people involved and let the word see it for themselves through the video. Perhaps also seeing the people hurt by such horrible violence will also eventually cause the members of the people who inflict such pain to re-think their actions, or at least think about things in a different way before such violence may happen again.

  4. Your blog has been an eye opener for us. Such social injustice has been occuring for centuries. Thank God for young people like you to expose such offensive actions. keep up the good work. May God strengthen you and guide you to fulfill the ultimate purpose of God in every life.

  5. Powerful light on the sad truth that caste discrimination is still very much alive. Thanks for sharing with us! It’s a step in bringing the realities of our neighbors into our own reality so we can demand justice.

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