Film Star Abhay Deol talks to Videoactivist Amit Kumar

Amit Kumar is from Ladwa town in Kurukshetra District, Haryana. He is a former police constable turned committed dalit activist. He has a BA in Music (Vocals) and is currently pursuing a Masters In Women’s Studies. His community is predominantly Hindu but Amit abides by no religion and is a true rationalist. He has a hopeful vision of his community’s future. He is happy that his community has embraced education and almost every child in his town goes to school. He is proud of his community. Amit’s IndiaUnheard videos continue to shape a new platform from which he and his people can fight for their rights. Amit narrates the story of his life... My story begins in my early twenties – the worst years of my life, which followed the best and the most carefree years of my childhood and teenage years. Overnight, the ruling party of my state, Haryana, changed and my secure job as a state police constable was snatched out from beneath my feet. The new government decided to downsize and privatize my unit of 9000 new recruits who had enrolled straight out of college. Suddenly I found myself drifting between jobs, failing to hold a single one down. During my periods of unemployment, I used sit at home, overwhelmed by my inability to find my place and purpose in the world. Even when I took on a job, I felt like I was being tossed around like a string puppet in high winds. I was lost like never before. During this time I used to frequent my cousin’s house. He had completed his Masters in Social Work and he explained the way he saw the world unlike any person I had ever met or unlike anything I had learned at school. I was introduced to concepts that seemed radically new at that time - social service, NGOs, human rights, caste politics etc. My cousin introduced me to the life and works of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. I knew that he was the author of the Indian Constitution but I was unaware of the extent of his work as a Dalit leader, of his critiques and philosophies and incisive views of society and oppression of the lower castes. This was a turning point in my life and the beginning of my story. I can now stand at this point, look behind me and see how I was discriminated against in school for being a Dalit. I can see how the upper caste teachers let Brahmin kids go scot-free but trashed me and other Dalit children like we were goons for committing the smallest offence.  I can understand why my upper caste co-workers used to tease me with arcane caste expletives and refused to eat with me. I can understand why my childhood was spent in a ghetto. I can stand at this point, look ahead and I can see my path, my purpose and my community. I can see my decision to become an activist for life, fighting for the rights of my people. I can see my place in this world. I can stand at this point and proudly say, “My name in Amit Kumar. I was born in Ladwa town, Kurukshetra district, Haryana. I am a Dalit, a son, a friend, a brother, a social worker, an activist, an Indian and a human being.” I joined my cousin in establishing DOST- Drishti on Social Taints – an organization which educates children from marginalized communities. We set up study centers for children to attend after school so we could help them with difficulties in their studies. We focus on improving their quality of education and giving them a space where they can focus on their studies, receive guidance and creatively indulge in learning. I believe that education is the first step that goes into enlightening an individual. Working at DOST also inspired me to pursue my own education that I had abandoned, and I decided to continue my Masters degree in Women’s Studies. Later, my cousin and I set up yet another NGO, MSC - Movement for the Scavenger Community - which assists the most marginalized and discriminated Dalit community in my state, the manual scavengers. They are the lowest of the lower castes and have absolutely no voice and no position in society. In this NGO, we rally them together to campaign for their rights and livelihoods. In late 2009, my cousin recommended Video Volunteers’ IndiaUnheard program to me. When he initially told me about it, I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It was only at my cousin’s insistence that I submitted my application. I was interviewed over the phone and when I was told that I had been selected for the program, I was overjoyed but also apprehensive. I was still not completely sure what I had got myself into.  In February 2010, I was on a train to Gujarat to attend the first IndiaUnheard Training Camp. It turns out that I did the right thing. The A to Z of the training was an absolutely new experience for me. It opened up my world in a million new ways. The two weeks of intense training made  a profound impact on my life. The biggest lesson I learned was that there is more than one way to approach an issue and that the activist’s greatest asset is his or her community. It taught me the importance of organization, of plans and strategies. I also had the opportunity to meet and share ideas with budding activists like me from all across India who were working on various issues that plagued their own communities. With a camera, a supportive team, and a platform that enabled me to voice the problem of my people to the entire world, I emerged from the training camp with visions for the future more concrete than ever before. I was filled with a newfound passion and confidence. It dawned on me that my life had unexpectedly found yet another turning point. When I returned home after the camp, I had trouble with my first video. It was a general confusion over what goes first and I allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the newness of it all. My mentors at Video Volunteers supported and encouraged me and one fine day, while passing by my neighborhood temple, the thought struck me: “Why do only lower castes visit this temple? Why doesn’t an upper caste person ever enter?” It was as if there was a ghetto in heaven. My first video was on this temple that the upper castes consciously avoided. Making it was an unforgettable experience. I had to overcome my own hesitancy and I quickly realized that most of my fears were of my own making. The community people were supportive and willing to talk. While shooting the video I felt enthused and even powerful. When the video was published on Video Volunteers’ website I was pleased with myself, but at the same time, when I watched the video with friends, I realized how such small stories matter and how they reflect and portray the state of my community. As an IndiaUnheard Community Correspondent, it was, and continues to be, my responsibility to speak for my people and to tell their stories. All the videos I have made are close to my heart. I was provoked to make a video on the Dalit child who was mercilessly caned by his teacher because I had been through the same trauma in my childhood. I make videos on corruption in the government because my own life was irrevocably altered by a politician’s whim and fancy when I lost my job as a police constable.  I document caste violence and discrimination because it is the reality that my community has to face and fear every day. I documented the pollution of the flour mill because my friends and acquaintances were suffering. I was most proud when my video forced the authorities to reflect on their practices and build a shed around the mill. It’s a small change but hundreds are breathing better because of it. I want my videos to be watched not just by the world but by the people from my communities. It is from within them that change will begin. I know I will never run out of stories. My community has so many stories that I could spend my whole life dedicated to capturing them on camera. My work as a Community Correspondent is part of my identity now. I am known as a journalist in my locality and I love it when the upper castes in my village are caught unawares when I tell them that I’m working for the English-language media. The camera is also making quite a role model out of me. My little nephews accompany me on all my shoots and I teach them to hold the camera while I talk to it. I think I will be able to make a good activist out of at least one of them. I’m sure that somewhere inside one of these kids there’s a potential Community Correspondent in the making. It’s been one and a half years since my induction as a Community Correspondent. I’m trying to juggle my studies, my NGO work, my videos and my growing responsibilities within my family. It’s not always easy, but when I look at what is happening in the world around me I realize that one has to keep going. And the time is now more than ever. To all the people across the world who have watched my videos, I wish to ask the people just one question. Can you tell me why the world is getting more and more violent? Why is the world becoming uncivilized under the guise of progress and development? If anyone has a solution for this, I intend capture it on my camera. Then we’ll make a video out of it and show it back to the world. - Amit Kumar as told to IndiaUnheard

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