Documenting anti-caste protests in Mumbai

‘He was just a young man, his life was just lost in all of this,’ said a protester at Ramabai Nagar. His caste matters and doesn’t matter, the stranger who told the photographer this, didn’t care that the young man killed the day before was a Kunbi or a Maratha or a Dalit. One could say one learns from a member of an angry oppressed community, the Dalit people, the value of a single human life. Rahul Phantangale (28) was killed during the chaos that ensued when bigots attacked people returning home after the 200th year centenary of the Bhima Koregaon battle. Then 16 year old Yogesh Jadhav was killed across the state in Nanded on the same day as the protests at Ramabai Nagar, after a lathi-charge by the police.”

Videos clearly showing that there were no ‘clashes’, no ‘caste riot’ circulated on social media, at that time, no one really wrote that the the tomb of Mahar hero Govind Gaikwad was vandalized a few days earlier. The escalation of Dalit assertion and pride was bound to shut down the city, protester after protester spoke in anger about ‘nyay’, it was justice they were fighting for, while the rest of the city (mostly on twitter) was complaining about traffic and late trains, that the city being held in ransom, completely unaware that an entire people were held in ransom for centuries.

For a people so humiliated on a day to day basis, so deprived of economic power, treated like electoral chattel by ruling parties, who suffer molestation and rape, massacre after massacre, and the acquittal of most of their killers, it is a surprise that their anger was only directed against public property (and the occasional journalist) and not every and any member of the upper caste.

The protests on Tuesday and Wednesday, show that the state and the police were clearly told to not interfere, the Dalit movement has political strength, the power to scare a trigger happy administration, and the vote-hungry political parties. There were random incidents of violence and some skirmishes, the police had attacked one settlement of Siddharth colony in the night of Tuesday and even broken the legs of a young boy. Over 250 people were detained on Wednesday alone. There were reports of an attack from Shiv Sena activists on Dalit protestors at Powai and Kalyan, and the de-centralized protests were unanimously angry with every camera that they felt represents the mainstream media that does not give their issues coverage.

The representation in the mainstream media directly affected the relationship between the camera and the protest: there was a strong anger against any one holding the camera, and it was a pattern across the protests and witnessed by every photographer in this series: a clear sign that editorial practices of decades of misrepresentation, of the lack of diversity in newsrooms, can now directly affect the well-being of any cameraperson.

The ‘mainstream media’ itself was being represented through a lens of anger, in different places and with different people, the camera was recognized differently: in some places you were not television news, so you were accepted, in some places, you were known to the community leaders, in some places a little conversation was enough to be allowed to take photos again, in some places you were not allowed to even use the phone. This revolution does not want to be televised.

All the photographs in this series were shot by freelancers who depend upon public transport to work, therefore the work and images only attest to the following regions, where each photographer could move and travel: Chembur, Ghatkopar, Dadar, Powai, Malad and Bandra East, and is limited to the city of Mumbai. When protests took place across Maharashtra, they were thankfully documented by the community themselves and shared on social media.

The protests in both Chembur, Dadar and Malad were mostly peaceful albeit aggressive. There were no incidents of violence against either the happenstance commuter or the police.

The protests in Powai saw lathi-charges against protestors, there was a destruction of public and private property and the arrests and beatings of protestors by the police.

Disclaimer: Post the bandh in Mumbai, there were reports of numerous arrests and combing operations across the bastis across Maharashtra. Some of us wished to continue our documentation of the violence the state was now unleashing on the population, but these incidents were taking place in places that we did not have immediate contact with or were known to. We, therefore, had to depend upon third-party activists and lawyers, and we were all aware that a community that doesn’t trust the media anymore, will not trust us in ensuring their anonymity.

And the role of the camera here, to expose a known violent entity, and the clear caste bias of the state and the ruling classes (cue the response to the Karni Sena), seemed redundant. The state was doing it itself.

This essay hopes to remain a document of what was, and will be.

Hari Adivarekar is an independent photojournalist based in Bangalore & Mumbai
Some protestors at Dadar station managed to stop a train bound to Kalyan, as others cheered them on from the platform, while hundreds of commuters watched on

 

Hundreds of protestors made their way from many locations across Mumbai to Dadar from Panvel, Bandra, Kalyan, Thane, Vashi, Santacruz, Byculla and Worli.
This young protestor was the first on the tracks, waving his Buddhist flag, which signifies that there should be no discrimination based on race, nationality or skin colour, a potent symbol for the day of protests
Women and children turned out in large numbers to join in cries that called for the arrest of two main accused and others involved in instigating the attack in Bhima Koregaon, while shouting slogans against PM Narendra Modi and the ubiquious cries of “Jai Bhim!”
The statewide agitation had three primary demands, the immediate arrest of the two prime accused and others who perpetuated violence in Bhima Koregaon along with the suspension of the Panchayat, Duty Inspector (police) and District Collector for the village and neighbouring Vadhu
To their credit the police did not use violence, even in the form of their thick plastic lathis, at any stage
 Javed Iqbal is a journalist and a photographer
Dalits at Ramabai Nagar in Mumbai blocked the Eastern Express Highway for the second time in two days to express and declare the singular message to the state and upper castes: do not attack us.
‘We are going to protest, you stop the atrocities on us.’ – was the dominant conversation at Ramabai Nagar between the protestors and the police.
Ramabai Nagar was where in 1997, 10 Dalits were killed in a police firing, another died a few years later, taking the toll to 11 people, after the statue of Dr.Ambedkar was desecrated with a garland of shoes and the police crushed the subsequent protests. The firing took place when the SRPF sub-inspector Manohar Kadam fired into residents of the settlement far away from the actual protests taking place on the highway. He is today a free man.
The city-wide protests also drew strategic unity among different settlements. In a show of strenght, numerous settlements would march and plan actions together. Here the residents of Kamaraj Nagar marched to join the rasta roko at Ramabai Nagar.
There was a visibly justifiable anger among protestors across the city against the mainstream media or any form of media due to its lack of coverage of the attack at Bhima Koregaon, and its historical bias against Dalit communities. The ‘media’ was at times chased out, called casteist and savarna. Yet the majority of people were accepting of a journalist if one explains one’s position.
Siddharth Colony residents testify that five of their friends and neighbours were beaten by the police after the protests in the night of the 2nd. Two are in the ICU at Sushrat hospital and Research Center (where a lot of residents work as well) and three in the general ward with broken bones and concussions. The hospital administration did not let mediapersons meet them.
Pramod Kamble is an Air India employee and resident of Siddharth Colony who was one of the people injured, when the police attacked residents even ‘after’ he was helping them put out fires.
While protestors blocked off the highways a lot of other residents took advantage of the unique introduction of open spaces in the city to enjoy themselves, riding cycles, taking selfies, etc.
 
Prthvir Solanki is a freelance photojournalist
Almost every protestor spoke to, spoke about Milind Ekbote and Shambaji Bhide, political leaders close to the ruling BJP and the RSS, pinning the blame for the current violence on them. There were many slogans raised against the CM Fadnavis, and the trio of Brahmanvad, Jaativad and Manuvad , (Brahminism, Castiesm and the followers of the Manusmriti)
At Amar Mahal junction, a large protest from numerous nearby settlements would have hundreds join in as the crowd slowly made their way towards Kurla, a usually railway and road junction.
Residents of Bhim Nagar and Siddharth Nagar in Ghatkopar, and Kamraj Nagar in Vikhroli brought their respective morchas together in Kurla, after walking through traditionally upper-caste neighborhoods to assert their identities and struggle. From here they marched to Ambedkar Garden in Chembur before splitting up again.
Residents of Ramabai Colony braved the heat and settled down on the Eastern Expressway in accordance to the ‘Rasta Roko’ protest. As the hours went by, they turned towards each other to chat through the day.
Men, women and children were all very clear and unequivocal about their feelings towards the current regime – “neem ka patta kadva hai, Narendra Modi bhadwa hai”
Nilesh from Ramabai Nagar (not pictured here) was in Pune when Hindutva goons attacked their procession: “I went there with my wife and children with no fear of any violence. We went there to celebrate our past, but what happened that day was completely unjustified. How does anyone not expect us to react after that?”
“If you misbehave with us, we are not going to take it lying down.” Most interactions with the police went something like this.
Francis Mascarenhas is a photojournalist based in Mumbai.
This was one of the first pictures I shot during the protest. The protestors had blocked the road by sitting in the middle of it. The only people they’d allow to go through were fellow protesters and the Mumbai police. They told me that they didn’t want photographs, but live video coverage of the protest. One of the women accidentally chanted Babasaheb Ambedkar bhadwa hai, instead of Narendra Modi bhadwa hai. That got everyone’s attention of whoever heard it and they went up to her telling her to be careful, as she sat there very embarrassed.
(Gandhinagar) The protestors were doing something to the tyres of this dumpster truck that was parked in the middle of the road. Then one of the protesters climbed on top the dumpster truck and began waving a flag of the RPI party. The waving of the flag from the top of the dumpster truck looked like a significant moment of victory. The highway was blocked and no vehicles were allowed to move.
A lot of the youth would roam in groups of 5-10 or more to threaten the motorists who tired to cross the highway. They were made to turn back and go away. They would just grab the keys of guys on bikes and threaten them. A lot of elderly protesters were telling the youth to maintain calm and do things in a calmer manner. Later a bunch of young protesters began to swarm us asking us who we were and why we were taking pictures. Later on an elder man pacified them and told them that we were doing our jobs and getting the story out.
As we were passing by we were stopped by a few people asking us to see damaged vehicles. There were many damaged vehicles but  this one really got my attention as it had the logo of a political party called Shiv Sena. According to media reports the man killed in the violent attacks at Bhima Koregaon on 1 January 2018 was also wearing a jacket with a picture of Shivaji on it.
We then began to follow a group of policemen to see where they lead us. As we were following them we saw tires that had been set ablaze by the protesters. Just as we were about to photograph it we got news that a vehicle had caught fire near by. We rushed there quickly to find that there were two police motorcycles that had been set ablaze. We shot a few photographs of that and continued to follow the police.
Later on we returned back to click a few images of burning tires when a cyclist rode in between the tires.
We were following the police officials as they were looking to clear the protesters from the streets. Then suddenly a policeman lifted his baton to hit this man, but withdrew it once the man shouted out to him saying he wasn’t a protester.
Anushree Fadnavis is a freelance photojournalist from Mumbai
Protester argues with policewoman when the policewoman took her wooden stick away from the lady on 3rd January 2018 when Maharashtra Bandh was declared by dalit leaders in Maharashtra to protest against the atrocities committed towards the dalits at Bhima-Koregaon .
A girl waves the Buddhist flag at Mitchowki junction in Malad on 3rd January 2018 when Maharashtra Bandh was declared by dalit leaders in Maharashtra to protest against the atrocities committed towards the dalits at Bhima-Koregaon . While waving the flag she was screaming slogans such as ” Amhala Nyay Milalach Pahije ” – ( We must get justice) , Ashya Shstracha Karaycha kay? Kahli Doka warti Pay ( What should we do with such a democracy when we cant express our opinion), ” Ekach Saheb , Balasaheb” (We have only one leader, Balasaheb), ” Bhima-KOregaoncha Vijay Aso”- (Long live people of Bhima-Koregaon).
Few women protesters stay back to protest and are seen arguing with few men when a part of the crowd decided to leave the Mitchowki junction which they had blocked on 3rd January 2018 to protest against the atrocities committed towards the dalits at Bhima-Koregaon .

 

Protesters run to block the Mitchowki junction in Malad,Mumbai on 3rd January 2018 when Maharashtra Bandh was declared by dalit leaders in Maharashtra to protest against the atrocities committed towards the dalits at Bhima-Koregaon .

Suchit Tambe is a freelance documentary photographer from Mumbai, Bandra  
The protests in Bandra east started from Khar, Golibar and marched to the Collector’s office in Bandra East.
The protests were smaller than expected and were nowhere close to what had happened in Chembur or Thane or Powai, and was marred by ego clashes among different leaders vying for attention.
A day earlier, I had started to take photos of the road block at the Eastern Express Highway, when I was chased away and prevented from taking photos by people of my own community. I took this photo of the empty street as I was leaving the area.

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