x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Dalit Camera gives a voice to India’s long-abused lower castes

As a Dalit student at a University in Hyderabad, in southern India, Bathram Ravichandran was abused and taunted mercilessly. The experience triggered the idea to give the lower castes a voice and he founded Dalit Camera, where he and like-minded friends upload videos on YouTube of Dalits giving first-hand accounts of their lives.

Bathram Ravichandran is the founder of Dalit Camera, through which volunteers post videos of mistreatment on YouTube. Courtesy Dalit Camera
Bathram Ravichandran is the founder of Dalit Camera, through which volunteers post videos of mistreatment on YouTube. Courtesy Dalit Camera

The gang rape and murder of two teenage Dalit (formerly known as the “untouchables”) girls in Uttar Pradesh on May 28 has outraged the world, but, in India, it’s just another in a shockingly long series of crimes against the lower castes.

The horrific incident received heavy media coverage across the subcontinent, but Bathram Ravichandran remains unconvinced that Dalits will benefit from the furore.

Ravichandran understands intimately the centuries-strong discrimination that underlines these crimes. Two years ago, as a Dalit student at a University in Hyderabad in southern India, Ravichandran was abused and taunted mercilessly and the fact that he was assertive and fought back only made it worse.

He didn’t give up, and hit upon a way to give the lower castes a voice: he founded Dalit Camera, where he and like-minded friends upload videos on YouTube of Dalits giving first-hand accounts of their lives.

The idea came to Ravichandran after he heard of the brutal beating of a Dalit woman by upper-caste villagers who resented her position as the head of the village council. Her legs were so badly injured she was unable to walk for months.

“I interviewed her and others who described how the upper castes refused to let her sit in a chair during council meetings. She was forced to sit on the floor,” he says.

Since then, Ravichandran and a group of about 20 other Dalit activists have been uploading videos on Dalit Camera.

The footage includes everything from an interview with the Booker prize-winning author and activist Arundhati Roy (she recently wrote that the caste system is “one of the most brutal modes of hierarchical social organisation that human society has known”), to a clip of female Dalit labourers in Rajasthan being forced to “show respect” to upper-caste residents by removing their shoes when walking past their homes.

Despite India’s policy of affirmative action for the country’s lowest castes – besides welfare schemes, a percentage of places in universities, colleges and government jobs are reserved for them – Dalits continue to suffer daily ignominies.

Ravichandran says he chose YouTube as a means of spreading his message because the media rarely reports crimes committed against the country’s 165 million Dalits.

Now, encouraged by the recognition Dalit Camera has received, along with some donations, the team has four cameras. But the amount of coverage they can give each atrocity or crime is limited – the 20 volunteers often do not have the money for travel expenses.

Georgy Kuruvila Roy, a 24-year-old Calcutta-based student who is proud of his hard-earned doctorate, is a volunteer who uploaded a video during the debate that followed the Delhi gang-rape case in 2012.

“I interviewed a Dalit activist who pointed out that the rape of Dalit women is never covered by the media but when an upper caste, urban, educated woman is raped, it is a big story,” he says.

The statistics back his claims: in 2012, a young woman was gang-raped in New Delhi and subsequently died of her injuries, eliciting anger both in India and across the world.

Official figures showed that 1,574 Dalit women were also raped that year, but there was no media outcry.

Ravichandran says there’s a long way to go and cites the recent teenage rape and murder case as an example of how “different treatment” is meted out to Dalit victims of rape in India.

Asked if he will cover the rape, he replies: “How many can we possibly cover? It’s an epidemic – Dalit women suffer sexual violence every day. The case of the rape and death of the two teenagers only got media attention because Dalit groups brought it to public notice.

“Secondly, photographs of their faces and hanging bodies were shown, which is against the law and which would never be done with upper-caste victims.

“And thirdly, at no time has any television debate on the issue included a Dalit woman or Dalit group.”

Ravichandran is now planning to buy a professional camera and will try to raise money to start paying volunteers. The grand plan? Setting up a news website for Dalit stories.

“If everyone starts filming what is happening to Dalits, just imagine the effect,” he says.

“The camera has become a tool for our self-respect.”

artslife@thenational.ae