27% of Indians practice untouchability, and around 160 million people are considered ‘Untouchables’, in present day India. Caste issues in India cuts across income and education: 33 percent of the poorest Indian households practice untouchability, and 23 percent of the richest do so too; and 30 percent of non-literates practice untouchability, as do 24 percent of graduates/diploma holders. (source)
This issue is structural in India, existing for centuries. Today, on the occasion of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar’s 131st birth anniversary, we look back on some of Video Volunteers’ work on caste and untouchability.
“Over the last 12 years, Video Volunteers has produced more than 600 video reports on caste and untouchability, across India. These video reports are often from the remotest areas of India, adding to the important documentation and discourse of the caste narrative. These videos are tools of transformation and have impacted the lives of more than 16,000 Dalits, who have seen a reduction in caste-based violence or structural discrimination as a result of our work,” says Amrita Anand, Senior Manager, Field Productions.
“Caste discrimination continues because of the lack of political will of the ruling class. Lack of education and abject poverty is another reason for caste based discriminations,” says VV’s training director Manish Kumar.
He told us that about 30% of the correspondents in the VV network are Dalits. “The way the Community Correspondents empower themselves and the community is heartening. Correspondents like Indu Devi from the Musahar Community have done great work, as has another Correspondent, Aarti Valmiki. Apart from working with us, Aarti's other job is to sweep the local police station.”
VV's work has had notable impacts on the issue of caste.
A campaign by Correspondent Vashar Jawalgekar and other NGOs was instrumental in a policy change in the state of Bihar that regulated the sale of acid by ensuring purchasers show their identity cards. The years-long documentation and support to acid attack victim Chanchal Paswan also increased compensation from INR 25 thousand to 600 thousand. Watch the video: 2017 Chanchal Paswan acid attack episode
In Rajasthan, one custom was to walk barefoot in front of the Upper Caste houses, for ages. Our video made the authorities take action and that demeaning practice was stopped in that village.
Video Volunteers also impacted the Midday Meal distribution, in the state of Gujarat. Our video went viral, and helped mobilize local organizations and the school authorities had to change their policies. “Because of the video, people from all over Gujarat called up the school’s principal to stop the discrimination,” said local activist Ramesh Makvan of Panva, Gujarat, at the time.
“The gruesome incident of the Dalit activist who was burnt to death sent shivers down my spine. We managed to get compensation posthumously, working with the National Human Rights mission,” Manish Kumar mentioned.
The guiding force for much of VV's work on caste is Stalin K., the co-founder of Video Volunteers who has also made two celebrated documentaries on the issue of caste, who shared his thoughts in an interview.
Q. - What is the situation of caste based discrimination today, in this special day of Ambedkar Jayanti, in India?
Stalin K - "Awareness about caste atrocities has increased manifold since the time I started working on caste issues, 30 years back. The structural inequities that exist today, whether it is based on caste or gender, are ancient structures. In India, people argue that it's been going on for anywhere between 2,500 - 4,500 years. Now, if that system is running for eons, how many years would we need to dismantle it!
My experience of working on untouchability goes back to the 1990s. One significant change we see today is the awareness, particularly amongst the Dalit community, about their rights and their entitlements. Today they are unwilling to take things lying down."
Q. - How is this change happening, this awareness?
Stalin K - "There are several media projects across India, ours included, who are working on these issues for the past 2-3 decades. These are all positive changes.
The academia, the scholarships, has improved in these several years. For e.g. books like Caste Matters of Suraj Yengde is an example that though caste-based oppression and discrimination continues in modern India, the resistance is equally getting a strong foothold. The whole Ambedkarite movement is a sign of hope.
There is a global awareness now of the fact that caste still persists and therefore caste based violence is on the radar."
Q. - You shifted your focus after making the film IndiaUntouched to community media. Why did you make this shift?
Stalin K - "I changed my way of working because I was uncomfortable. I cannot point the camera on the communities any more, I do feel there are unequal power dynamics.
Also, earlier the film equipment and mediums were expensive. Massive cameras, expensive tapes, lighting etc. were cumbersome and you always needed a crew. It was designed that way, it was not democratizing. Today’s technology of point-and-shoot cameras revolutionized this entire process.
Earlier, even if one had the desire to let go of the power to tell other people's stories and had the desire to enable people to tell their own stories, it was difficult because you did not have options, but that has changed.
The advent of high quality cameras in smartphones changed the whole perspective. Now the act of creating content and stories, and owning your narrative, is understood to be a key element of either individual or community empowerment.
If you're not owning your story, you are letting other people broker that. Then the accuracy of that narrative depends on the sensitivity of the mediator. Our trained Community Correspondents are all engaged in the act of building India’s collective knowledge, and community media democratizes that process.
I always say that who creates the content is as important as what the content is, because today, power lies with the person or community that controls the narrative."
Q. - What are your memorable moments in this journey of community media? Please share your observations on the process of empowering voices that are not often heard.
Stalin K - "I do remember vividly the videos of our campaign on Untouchability Article 17, they were short, documenting all kinds of caste violations.
I liked that style because those 30 - 40 videos did not bother to give you the context of why this is happening, it just showed what is happening. And I think that's also a part of a powerful narrative that when you are talking about violations, you don't always need to know why it happened. The viewer immediately wants to know the reason behind it. But that’s not important, because a gruesome punishment is uncalled for, period. It doesn’t matter what s/he did to deserve it.
We say, speech, when heard, becomes a voice. That's our game - our work is to free the voice, our motto is to empower voices. I believe more and more diverse kind of people should be talking about their own issues, whether it be Tribal communities or people belonging to different sexual orientations or differently-abled communities. All kinds of communities need to have their own voice.
Lived experiences are crucial to form an understanding of any society. Currently in India and around the world, policy making follows the representation model, where policy experts speak on behalf of marginalised communities. We do not yet have a system where marginalised groups self-represent. I believe the only correct way is to give the power of the storytelling, of creating content to the people who live those lives."
For this Ambedkar Jayanti, VV is running a campaign from 4th April to 16th April. The videos on caste based discriminations of the last 10 years are highlighted and shared through the social media channels throughout the week, encouraging people to watch and understand the gravity of the problem.
Do visit these pages to see the campaign videos
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