In movies, a superhero or a vigilante is usually a person who has been wronged by society and who does not get help or justice from the authorities appointed for the task. Frustrated, they wear a mask, don a body-hugging suit, arm themselves with a weapon, use their superpowers (if any), and set out to punish criminals, corrupt police, or government officials who have been troubling the poor, weak or oppressed.
Meet Anil Kumar Saroj, our Community Correspondent from Bhadoi district in Uttar Pradesh who has proved that one does not need to put on a mask, wear a bodysuit or take the law into their own hands to fight for the rights of neglected communities and give them their dues. He has been doing this by being the face of activism, armed only with his camera and unflagging energy to be the voice of the needy, marginalized, and exploited.
Anil has been working as a grassroots social worker for several years and has been an active Community Correspondent with Video Volunteers for 8 years since 2014. He has reported on issues related to employment, corruption, caste, and women’s rights in Uttar Pradesh or wherever people need him. Being a member of a scheduled caste (a sub-community that has historically faced deprivation, oppression, on account of their perceived ‘low status’ ), he witnessed exploitation and segregation right from an early age in his village by 'upper' caste people.
"My mission is to empower people of marginalized communities to know their rights, fight for them and raise their voice against discrimination," says Anil.
His February 2022 story, is about the discrimination faced by school-going children of the Mushahar community, a Dalit (Scheduled Caste) community found in the eastern Gangetic plains.
Their name literally means ‘rat-eater’ due to their former occupation of catching rats. Their children were denied their quota of nutrition and food ration by Anganwadi workers, and Anil’s story on this issue is the most recent example of his undying commitment to his mission.
"Under the Anganwadi system, school children are entitled to a minimum ration. But, because some of the children are from the Mushahar community they were denied their quota. The administrators of the program discriminated against them and thought of them as unclean," he explains.
Fire in his belly and camera in hand, Anil worked with the community members and took up the matter all the way to the District Magistrate. He rallied for their cause, published a video story on Video Volunteers and informed the community about their rights. The story's impact led to the children getting their quota of ration and Anil receiving a lot of respect from the Mushahar community.
Life and crimes in the city of dreams
Anil left his village and headed for Mumbai with his mother when he was 4-years-old. He stayed with his father who was a laborer in a cloth mill. Being an only child, Anil's father toiled hard to provide him with a school education.
Despite his formal education, he experienced the daily struggles of Mumbai's infamous slum survival. Legendary Greek fabulist Aesop's famous words "You are the company you keep" came true for Anil at this phase of his life because he entered into the murky world of crime partly because of the company he kept and partly because becoming a 'Bhai', as gangsters in Mumbai are called, was like a high for him.
"I was lured to the world of crime and worked as a money collector for a notorious gangster for about three years. Even though I was in this dark trade I did not like to witness the exploitation of people and especially women," he confesses.
In 1991, when Anil was at the peak of his gangster life, an incident took place that changed his life forever and made him rethink about the life he was leading. Recollecting his past, Anil says he had a friend named Kumar, who was from Madras (now Chennai). Kumar used to pass lewd remarks at girls of the locality and used to trouble them. Even though he was also a thug, Anil was a gangster with a conscience. He scolded Kumar on numerous occasions but his friend did not mend his ways. "One day he made some obscene remarks at another Gangster's sister and this turned the tide against Kumar. He was cornered by the gang members, stabbed to death and his face was disfigured with a huge stone," recounts Anil.
The incident sent shock waves in the locality and among Anil's gang members because of the brutality of Kumar's death. The police arrived and Anil fled Mumbai and went into hiding at a relative's house in Surat city in Gujarat. "I decided to not go back to Mumbai because I didn't want my actions and lifestyle to put my parents in trouble with the law. I was in Surat for a few months and then moved to India's capital city New Delhi in 1992," the reformed gangster says.
A year later, communal riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims against the backdrop of the Babri-Masjid demolition in 1993 and Anil's father's small shop came in the line of fire of rioters and was burned down. "Though I never visited my parents since I fled Mumbai after Kuimar's murder I was in touch with the over phone. I was never short of money and had the latest Motorola handset. I told them to leave the city and head for our village in UP," he says.
Gangland to homeland
On returning to his village in 1993, Anil noticed injustice all around, and realized that the fearlessness he’d learned on the streets of Mumbai could help in resolving conflicts between different communities back in the village.
"My foray into activism began when I helped some villagers get access to a cow shelter. It belonged to them on paper, but was taken away forcibly by upper-caste members. Since I could read and write, I went through the documents, wrote an application to the local officials, staged protests along with villagers till the 'gaushala', (cow shelter), was given back to them." The mafia man had turned into an activist.
Clear that this was his calling, he turned into a full-time activist and worked with a few organizations like People for Peace Service Society that supports the mobilization of marginalized citizens to implement solutions to problems they face.
Anil believes that his community cannot develop without the advancement of women. In the late '90s, he worked to create economic opportunities for women, such as opening a space for women workers in the agarbatti (incense) market. This initiative was done through the Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana government program that aimed to provide jobs to the unemployed poor.
"I encouraged the formation of womens' self help group (SHG) in our village and other villages where long-standing issues related to elderly people's pension, ration, widow pension to name some were addressed," he says.He had learned that people needed to to handle their own issues rather than wait for others to become their problem solvers. Anil was hopeful that the program would create positive change, but realized that it was filled with corruption.
He turned to journalism as a means to expose corrupt practices and to advocate for women’s rights and employment opportunities, "and that was another turning point in my life," he adds.
Anil turned to journalism as a means to expose corrupt practices and to advocate for women’s rights and employment opportunities. In one of his most poignant films, Anil filmed a regular household where a little girl of less than 10 is seen doing all the domestic chores –including caring for her own brother, the same age as her, as he prepares to go to school. taken care of by her.
Lights, Camera, community, and action
Anil's time in Mumbai also exposed him to the glitz of Bollywood, India's film industry, and in filmmaking. "I knew some children who were working in the film industry in Mumbai and I went with them for some movie shoots. I was taken up by the camera, lights, and filmmaking and deep down maybe I harbored ambitions to be a filmmaker," he says laughing aloud over the phone.
His working stint with The Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) introduced him to Video Volunteers in 2014, which trained activists and journalists of PACS. From here on, there was no looking back because Anil realized he could use the power of the camera and visual storytelling to get justice and equality for the marginalized people of his region.
"With video stories, there is an impact because we could show the issues of people to senior officials. All these years, they managed to get away without acting on critical issues by sweeping petitions and letters under the carpet but they can't hide a video," he says, highlighting how it was like a Eureka moment for him.
Grassroots work to on-ground Impact
Now that he got his feet deep into activism and community media, Anil decided to focus on the welfare and upliftment of the completely ignored Mushahar community that lived in several villages of Badhoi district. These days, they work in pigsties and are landless laborers, with many still unaware of their basic rights.
"The Mushahar community is discriminated against by people of all other castes, school officials and the local officials. Their children don't get to study because other kids don't want to mix with them, play with them or have them anywhere around. I feel I am among the few who really cares for them and will continue working to give them an equal status in society, uplift their standard of living, and improve their literacy rate,” Anil says.
Talking about his one of his recent stories, Anil says he fought tooth and nail with government officials to get 142 laborers their wages.
"This incident in February 2022 was in Mahadepur village and 150 road construction laborers were not being paid their wages. I filmed them protesting, voicing their demands on camera and we all went to the District Magistrate for quick redressal of the matter. The DM got furious on seeing me with the camera and told me to stop this activism, threatened to lodge a police complaint and he took away my camera," Anil described the incident which still makes him fume.
Unfortunately, an official snatching a camera or making a Correspondent delete their footage is a not uncommon occurrence in VideoVolunteers.
He sought the intervention of senior VV members and got the official to return his camera. "We continued our protest for a year and the officials finally relented and gave the laborers their due wages," adds Anil emphatically.
This was not a one-off incident. Anil has faced many challenges in his journalism. However, that could not deter him. He continues to use Video Volunteers as a platform to expose exploitation, injustice, and corruption embedded within Indian society.
Frequently using the word 'funda' to describe his modus operandi to get work done for the community, Anil says, "At first, I tell them (government officials) with love, then I take two people along with me and if there's still no impact then I march to their office with a mass of community members and inform other journalists to report about the protest," he says with pride.
Hard work and Impact rewarded
In the eight years, he's been a community correspondent, Anil's work has been recognized by VV when he was named the best correspondent in 2015 and best field mentor in 2017.
A look at the In depth statistics about his work so far are clear indications for the awards he's won. Anil Kumar has produced 219 video stories that have impacted the lives of 37,238 people.
Even as he is happy with this recognition, his joy doubles up with the love and respect he gets from the community members, whose problems he resolves. Even my family is very proud of my work and I find that very satisfying," says the father of four, including a college-going girl.
His commitment to elevating the status of the Mushahar community is almost soul-stirring, which comes across in one of his stories where a man lost his hut, all his identity documents, and his family in a fire.
"Once again, we were made to run from pillar to post by government officials for this man to get his dues. After a one-year effort, he got financial compensation, his identity papers and managed to build a better house. Even though he didn't have a family to live with him anymore in a better house, I could see tears of joy and gratitude in his eyes," Anil says almost in tears recounting the struggle they underwent to create an impact in this case.
The Virus days
When the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed across India, Anil quickly got a pass made so that he could move village to village and check on the status of the community.
"I got a pass made and used the press card too. The Musahar community was in deep trouble. I used my network and rapport with NGOs and managed to get them rations. Video Volunteers also provided much-required support and food to several people in my locality. We made sure that no one dies of hunger," says Anil.
He also took up the task of providing real information about the effects of vaccines in his inimitable style. "I told people that the upper caste members like Brahmins were also getting their vaccine shots and no one died due to it, so you will also be safe. This led to 3800 families being inoculated," he says mischievously.
Tech and other interests
Over the years of working as a grassroots activist, Anil Kumar Saroj has realized the need and use of technology in visual storytelling. "Initially I used heavy cameras and tablets but now I use a Readme phone given by Video Volunteers to film the stories. I love to edit and script too. I also taught my daughter to use the tablet for her online schooling during the lockdown. I like to keep updating myself with technology so that my work improves," says tech-savvy Anil.
Giving an insight into his personal interests he says he had formal training in martial arts and even broke a leg while landing a few kicks during his training days in Mumbai.
VV's role and what lies ahead
When asked to define what Video Volunteers means to him, Anil replies without hesitation, "Action, motivation, empowerment". His goal in the next three years is to form his own NGO that works towards empowering five women and five men from the marginalized communities to take up local leadership roles and fight for issues and rights.
"I want to motivate people to know their rights and fight their own battles by knowing the system. This has to continue even after my death. that's the impact I want to create," the fearless community correspondent says signing off.
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